PARK SLOPE — When Dulce De La Cruz started as a manicurist at Sister's Nail Salon, she was so nervous she would pray for customers who wanted light-colored polish so her mistakes might go unnoticed.
After seven years of practice, her hands are steadier. But it's not just her improved ability that's boosted her confidence — she's now the boss.
De La Cruz and a fellow employee bought the salon from the former owner in February, an auspicious move in an industry whose low-paid workers have started to advocate against poor working conditions.
That wasn't a problem for De La Cruz, who said her old boss was encouraging and supportive. But the leap from worker to small-business owner was no small feat.
De La Cruz, 30, came to the U.S. from Mexico City when she was 17, and learned the beauty trade at a Manhattan school. She credits Sister's former owner Juanita Gomez with taking a chance on hiring her for her first job in 2006 even though she had almost no experience.
Early on, De La Cruz did pedicures (which tend to be less high-stakes than manicures because they're not as closely scrutinized by customers) and made about $200 a week.
With help from her boss and her fellow employees, her skills grew. So did her desire to one day run her own salon. She became friends with another aesthetician at the salon, Maria Turca, a native of Colombia who shared her ambition.
The two dreamed of taking over Sister's, which has been on Eighth Avenue and 11th Street for 12 years. They made plans for how they would improve customer service and redecorate the inside, which was painted a gaudy green and cluttered with house plants. But when they approached their boss about buying the salon in 2008, they realized the steep price was way out of their reach.
Over the following years, De La Cruz and Turca made it a point to save a part of every pay check. When their former boss announced in December that she wanted to sell the business and move back to Ecuador, De La Cruz seized the opportunity.
"I thought I would have to try," De La Cruz said. "If you don't try, you never know what could have happened."
The former owner agreed to give De La Cruz and Turca some time to pool their resources. De La Cruz spent the next couple of months tightening her family's financial belt, spending as little as possible on Christmas presents and at the grocery store. Her two kids were enthusiastic, with her 7-year-old daughter volunteering to forgo bottled water and her 11-year-old son even offering up his piggy bank — a gesture his mom declined.
On Feb. 1, De La Cruz and Turca became the owners. They repainted the inside a light lavender to brighten up the space and ordered new pedicure chairs with built-in massagers. There were some hurdles — the pedicure chairs were the wrong color and they had to return them, which meant there was no place for clients to sit for about a week.
"It was scary," De La Cruz said. "Business was really slow. I said, 'I have to pay rent, but there's not enough customers.'"
Since then business has picked up, and De La Cruz has already set her next goal — doubling the size of her beauty empire by opening another salon.