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DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK, HE'S BEEN HERE FOR YEARS: A men's barbershop focusing on second chances

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

James Repenning CEO focused on second chance hiring and reimagining the men's barbershop experience.
James Repenning, Founder/ CEO of R&R Head Labs

Throughout the journey of opening our first barbershop location on historic Colfax Avenue in Denver, our founding team members are always asked, "How did this concept get started?". We thought we'd "pass the mic" to our Founder and CEO, Jamie (James) Repenning, to share his vision for R &R Head Labs.

Jamie, when did your interest in the justice-impacted community begin?

In 1997, when I was in the recycling business, I interviewed an equipment operator named Angelo. I knew he was coming from a halfway house, but I barely knew what that meant. We had a great interview (my dog liked him, too), and I offered him a job the next day. Before accepting, Angelo wanted us to know more about him; he shared that he had murdered his best friend when he was 18 in a drug-related incident and subsequently spent many years in prison. I can't say whether I would have given him a chance if I had known his story before the interview, but I had zero reservations after hearing his story. Here was a great guy, incredibly polite, anxious to restart his life and give the job everything he had- which he did.

He was one of the best hires I had ever made and was eventually lured away to another company that offered him a position at a much higher wage. It took a lot of convincing on my part to get him to take the job because he was so loyal to us since we gave him his first chance. Eventually, I moved away from recycling into the barbershop business, and we've remained in close contact ever since.

You have a funny story about how the concept of R&R came to you. Can you share it?

My Hollywood stalker story! One day, I scrolled through all the spam in Facebook Messenger and came across a 6-month-old message: "Hey James. We don't know each other, but my name's Scott Budnick and I'm a film producer (Hangover films) and work in criminal justice reform. I'm interested in starting something in juvenile facilities around barbering, and I need advice from an operator who knows this s*#t. Hope you see this message."

We were on the phone that afternoon, and the concept was born.

What do R&R and Head Labs stand for?

R&R derives from the ancient folklore phrase "Rabbit Rabbit," which many people say for luck and good fortune first thing on the first day of the month (you can imagine what our group text looks like early morning on the 1st of any month). It was essential for us to incorporate a positive element into our branding while acknowledging that every success story has some luck in it.

Speaking with our branding experts, they noticed that we discussed much more than the haircut. We wanted to care for the whole head through art, inspiration, fashion, etc. We loved the idea of "Head Labs" because it implies that we're treating the entire head and are constantly experimenting to find the best way to create great experiences. We offer far more than a haircut.

Much attention has been paid to the design and function of the space; why is this important to you?

Early on, we had a team meeting regarding a video of a current inmate with lots of tattoos on his neck and face and whether we'd be comfortable meeting him. We had a frank discussion, and the answer came down to context. We took that perspective to heart and ensured our shop design was welcoming and inclusive, encouraging conversation and community building. Instead of the reception desk being just a desk, we built it like a bar for people to sit around. Where do people talk to strangers? A bar! We have completely reimagined the typical layout of a barbershop and can't wait to have our clients experience it.

Another design decision- the breakroom should feel like something other than a broom closet. We want our barbers to recharge and show up well for their next client. What does it say about how much you value your team when the breakroom is stifling?

Finally, we checked with our Advisory Council periodically to ensure we avoided design cues that might trigger past experiences: jingling keys (reminiscent of guards), having a back towards the door, and polished concrete (prisons have a lot of polished concrete). These points were also a critical check for many of our processes and procedures.

Charles Smith, Advisory Council Member with Bill Mallory, National Service Mentor

What have you learned about yourself while opening the first shop?

This is an easy one: I keep unearthing more of my own biases. I've found that when I meet someone who has served many years for a violent crime, part of me expects that I'll see telltale hints of their past. More often than not, I'm wrong. The actions that landed them in the system are the worst thing they've done (would you like the whole world to know about the worst thing you've ever done?), but it doesn't define who they are.

How do you see R&R Head Labs growing? What impact do you hope to have through building this business?

I love the idea of significantly impacting our barbers and clients' lives. For our barbers, we want to provide a reliable and creative job with growth potential that will help them take care of their families and lead extraordinary lives. For our clients, I want them to come away with the same epiphany as me- these are amazing people trying to do good things. We are already planning the next locations, keeping in mind that the limit to our growth will revolve around how quickly we can transfer our culture to a new shop. We will never sacrifice our culture for growth. We'll know we're doing a great job when we inspire other organizations to copy us and our team is happy and healthy.

We can't wait to welcome our outstanding team and clients looking for a unique, uplifting experience while getting the best service possible. Join us when we open at our first location in Denver at Colfax and York in January 2024!

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