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jola deLegge: asheville's international entrepreneur
by pat beebe

Knowing a little of her story, you are surprised by the slender, vivacious blond with the stylish haircut, expressive blue eyes, and dimpled smile who greets you at DeLegge European Salon in Asheville. She is, you think, too young to have experienced so much, to have come so far—from cloistered childhood in Communist Poland to award-winning hair stylist and international entrepreneur. But you sense great strength in this single mother, a certain resolve, an energy that embraces all of life and what it brings. And you believe it.

The axis of her world shifted for the first time when Jolanta Dominiak was nine years old. That was the year her mother got on a bus near their home in Wroclaw, Poland, with a tour group traveling to the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia, and when the bus came back, she wasn’t on it.

Then when Jola was 15, her father explained about living in a communist country and that everything she read in the history books was wrong. And at 17, she was on a plane slicing a three-thousand mile rip through her life, hurtling toward an abstract place called America and the stranger who was her mother. When she landed in Los Angeles, the pattern of ordinariness dissolved for Jola, suspended, it seemed, in a constant state of impending disaster: “L.A. was such a scary place. I couldn’t drive a car and my mother told me it wasn’t safe to hitchhike like I used to do in Poland, or even ride the bus or walk the streets by myself. I felt imprisoned and I wanted to go back to my familiar life.”

Her anxiety persisted and she saw signs and portents everywhere: “I was afraid of black cats, broken mirrors, stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, walking under ladders.” And when an earthquake hit on New Year’s Day 1979, and she felt the ground literally shift beneath her, it was one sign too many: “I told my mother we had to get out of there.”

It had never been Anna Dominiak’s intention to be separated from her daughter for so many years. When she walked away from the tour group in Yugoslavia she simply wanted to escape the oppression of a bad government and a bad marriage, and ensure a better life for her child. She would, she thought, find that better life in America. But, isolated as she had been from the rest of the world, she had no idea how long the process would be. There was the year spent in the immigration camp in Italy waiting for passage, and the five years in Los Angeles before she could become a U.S. citizen, and the two years it took to get a passport for Jola. In fact, it took the intervention of then Senator Bob Dole, to untie the red tape. A friend of Anna’s who was “big in L.A.’s Polish community” commandeered the senator’s ear at a breakfast one morning and suddenly the waiting was over.

During the years they were separated, Jola had received hundreds of letters from her mother promising their reunion and new life in America, but when the dream became reality it brought with it an overwhelming sense of finality. It was her first attack of nostalgia, or tesknota – a Polish word that also connotes sadness and longing. There is a touch of it even now as she narrates her story and speaks of her semiannual trips to see her father and check in on the salon she owns in Opole, Poland.

After the earthquake, Anna and Jola loaded up a U-Haul and headed for Seattle and the familiar loyalty and affection of another Polish community. Although she already had completed high school and one year of college in Poland, Jola needed a U.S. high school diploma to get a job and she enrolled as a senior. Following graduation she worked for a short time as a bank teller, which helped perfect her English, but she found it confining and “not creative.”

More to her liking was the opportunity to see the world that the airlines offered a flight attendant. She flew first for Continental and then for Northwest. But when the opportunity she was waiting for came – to fly Northwest’s international flights – it involved a move to Minneapolis, and her new American husband refused to make the change.

There followed many dark years with an abusive spouse who couldn’t hold a job. To make ends meet, Jola resurrected an idea of becoming a hairdresser she had toyed with in Poland. There, she hadn’t been able to find the necessary apprenticeship, but here in America such a career might be possible. She got a student loan for $5,000 – the cost of the best school she could find – completed the course, and went to work for one of Seattle’s most prestigious salons. But as the babies began to arrive – first Dominick and then Louis – the cost of childcare became prohibitive and Jola left the salon to set up shop in her home. “There were many times when there wasn’t enough money for food or gas, but my friends would come to my house so I could do their hair – and we survived,” she reflects.

But slowly she began to realize that she was losing herself. Stripped of self-confidence by her husband’s constant barrage of verbal abuse, she was increasingly unable to make decisions. One day, standing in front of a grocery store dairy counter “unable to decide between butter and margarine” she knew that once again it was time to get out. Anna and her second husband, who were living in Tampa, drove to Seattle, helped Jola and her sons escape in the middle of the night, and returned with them to Florida. And there the axis of her world shifted yet again.

Six weeks after the move, Jola and her mother were on the beach one day with her sons, when Jola’s ex-husband suddenly appeared with his new girlfriend in the car. He sprayed mace in Anna’s face, grabbed the two boys, and headed back to Seattle. When the police detective told Jola he had 95 cases just like hers: “I just said, ‘no, you’ve never had a case like mine. I’ll get you anything you need to get my sons back.’ And I did. I called my friends in Seattle and they helped me collect all kinds of information about my ex-husband – even his girlfriend’s social security number.” Five days later, the ex-husband was in jail and Dominick and Louis were on their way back to their mother.

It was a definitive turning point for Jola: “ I learned more about myself in that one week than I had in all of my life up to then – that I was strong and self-sufficient, and cool under pressure – and, most important, I got my identity back.”

Over the next few months Jola’s hairdressing career shifted into high gear. The opportunity to work on photo shoots with a Vogue photographer led to her selection as Toni and Guy Hairdresser of the Year for the east coast. When the owner of the salon where she worked refused to let her publicize the award or even post any photos of her shoots, she began to look around for new opportunities.

With a new-found confidence, Jola began practicing visualization, picturing a new reality for herself and her children. She sent letters to seven prestigious names in the salon business and then visualized them opening the letters and calling her. Six of them did just that and she chose the best offer – from Matrix, a division of Bristol-Meyers.

Matrix was preparing to launch its beauty products in Eastern Europe and hired Jola to handle the market analysis (her first) and product introduction to the salons there. She sold all her belongs in the U.S., moved her sons to Poland, hired a nanny, and completed the venture so successfully that Matrix offered her a permanent job. But Jola had developed her own idea of what a salon should be and wanted to give it a try.

That was six years ago. Today there are twelve employees in her Opole salon and five in the Asheville salon she opened in 2001. She had come to Western North Carolina to see Anna who had moved here following the death of her second husband. Although she was looking for work, she had no intention of opening another salon. And then she saw a “for rent” sign on a Hendersonville Rd. shop she had visited and “it seemed like destiny.”

Jola still lives a bicultural life, traveling between the salons she owns on two continents, but Western North Carolina is home now. She lives with Anna and Dominick and Louis, all of whom help in the salon from time to time, and they have put down roots here. Jola was recently nominated from among salon owners in 20 countries for a global award as Beauty Entrepreneur of the Year in a contest being run by the Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management.

It’s been a long, bumpy journey -- from frightened child abandoned by her mother, to confident young businesswoman and international entrepreneur. But Jolanta DeLegge no longer lives coiled against the next dislocation in the center of her world. Rather, you sense an energy and desire that draws her toward the world and the future – whatever it brings. And you know she can handle it.

Her U.S.salon is at 1089 Hendersonville Rd., Asheville 28803, telephone 828-277-2008. Her website is www.deleggesalon.com

Pat Beebe moved to Asheville from Westchester County, New York, in late 2000. In 1989 she had left a 15-year IBM corporate communications career to venture into the world of freelance, handling writing and other corporate assignments in the U.S., the Far East, Europe, and South America. In March 2003 she and a partner established Carolina Image Builders, a public relations agency based in Asheville. [ 828-687-0077 ]

Jola DeLegge hasn’t forgotten where she came from, and she wants to make sure her sons don’t either. What began in Poland five years ago as a way to put Dominick and Louis in touch with less fortunate children, became an international event this past holiday season. On the day after Thanksgiving, Jola and her staff in the salons she owns in Opole, Poland, and Asheville, donated all proceeds from services and a percentage of retail sales to children’s homes in both locations. As a result, the young residents of Asheville’s Eliada Home for Children and Poland’s Turawa Orphanage had a merrier Christmas.

For the past five years, DeLegge has staged similar holiday events in her native country, contributing thousands of dollars to help support the Turawa home. This holiday season, the two salons contributed a combined total of more than $4,000 to the Turawa Orphanage and the Eliada Home. Activities in both salons were broadcast through DeLegge’s recently-established direct satellite link that allows real-time viewing of either salon by the other.

It all began with a Christmas party she staged in 1998. That year, she, her children, her father, and a family friend collected gifts and food, and delivered them to the Turawa home on Christmas Eve. Jola believes the experience changed her sons’ lives. When 13-year-old Dominick was offered the chance to earn some money the weekend of the 2003 event by helping a family friend clean up a flooded basement, he agreed to be paid only on condition that his earnings go to the children.

 

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