Third Ward native with celebrity clients brings high-tech hair company to Houston

Britney Winters is ready to welcome visitors to her Upgrade Boutique showroom on Almeda, just a few miles from her childhood home in Third Ward. Its luxe showroom is decked out with plush pink sofas, dramatic lighting and enough space for stylists to set up shop with their own clientele.

It’s a dream come true. It’s also part of his plan to disrupt the hair industry.

Over the past few years, she’s outfitted everyday women, as well as celebrities such as Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her digital platform, which lets customers d buy high quality hair. pieces and have them personalized by its team of stylists across the country without any in-person contact. No salon appointment necessary.

“I always felt that I was spending too much money and time on my hairdressing services and I knew there had to be a more efficient way to get the quality of products and services that I expected”, she said.

Winters is the owner and CEO of a business in the $6 billion global hair market, a market in which black women are huge consumers but rarely reap the financial rewards.

His story should inspire us all.

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In many ways, Winters was born on the wrong side of life. She shuttled between relatives at Cuney Homes, the same public housing complex where George Floyd grew up. She longed for stability, but it was like a unicorn, never real, she said.

Winters felt deeply that her life as a black girl growing up in Houston didn’t need to be defined by stereotypes. She was smart, a little rough around the edges, but she had big dreams.

Becoming a lawyer or an engineer, she thought, might be her path. Winters therefore attended Booker T. Washington High School for Engineering Professions. There, a teacher, Vicki Flanery, who happened to be white, encouraged her to look beyond Houston for college. Winters did, earning a full ride to Stanford University.

Coming from Cuney Homes, Stanford was a culture shock.

“I knew I was different from other people. I was capable, and there were other black students, but they came from a different background,” Winters said. “I was smart, but I was a bit ghetto.”

Even though we are preparing our young children to go beyond their communities to learn and earn a living, there is this cultural component that often gets lost in the desire to compete. But Winters said she found her place with a tribe of friends and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest black sorority.

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Britney Winters, owner of Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hair styling options — on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston. Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston’s Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.


Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer
Stylist Hillary Fabela styles a client's wig she colored at Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hairstyling options - on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston.  Britney Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston's Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with <a class=hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.”/>

Stylist Hillary Fabela styles a client’s wig she colored at Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hairstyling options – on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston. Britney Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston’s Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.


Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer
Stylist Hillary Fabela dries a client's wig she colored at Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hairstyling options - on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston.  Britney Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston's Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.

Stylist Hillary Fabela dries a client’s wig she colored at Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hairstyling options – on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston. Britney Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston’s Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.


Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer
Stylist Hillary Fabela dries a client's wig she colored at Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hairstyling options - on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston.  Britney Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston's Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.

Stylist Hillary Fabela dries a client’s wig she colored at Upgrade Boutique, a high-tech salon with custom hairstyling options – on Almeda, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in Houston. Britney Winters, a Harvard MBA graduate of Houston’s Cuney Homes in the Third Ward, has outfitted celebrities, such as Beyonce, Taraji P. Henson and Simone Biles, with hair extensions and wigs through her online platform.


Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

She also befriended Issa Rae, the creator, producer and actress of HBO’s “Insecure.” The Stanford alumni shared a room in New York, where they were once kicked out of Jay-Z’s nightclub because Winters used a fake ID. Life seemed like an episode straight out of Rae’s hit series.

After earning an engineering degree from Stanford, Winters went to work on Wall Street in real estate and private equity. She remained close to Flanery, who always reminded her of her greatness. Tragically, in 2016 the retired teacher was killed by her husband in a murder-suicide at their Oak Forest home. Winters dedicated a heartfelt social media post to his former teacher.

Winters was just 22 years old and living in New York, when her life quickly changed. She had to return to Houston to take custody of her 8-year-old sister, Farren Fontenette, who was experiencing the same instability Winters had as a child.

“I didn’t want my sister to feel like she didn’t have a home. It was very important to me. I’m a mother figure, but I’m still his sister,” said Winters, who also has 3-year-old daughter Callie.

While working at Shell in Houston, Winters took a study leave to earn an MBA from Harvard University. She took her sister with her. They moved to Massachusetts during a winter storm, and Fontenette, then 14, enrolled in high school and eventually joined the debate team. Now 22, Fontenette works for Winters’ company.

“I tell him I’m grateful every day,” Fontenette said. “She inspires me, pushes me and challenges me to do my best. She believes in integrity and hard work and taught me the same.

At Harvard, Winters’ business idea – to revolutionize the way women buy hair extensions and wigs – took root. She connected with other students and entrepreneurs, including a classmate who invested $50,000 in her idea. She used her connections to develop sources in China and India for the products. But she also understood the challenges; Black women often have a harder time raising capital for their businesses because the investors are usually white men. Since founding the company, Winters has raised nearly $2 million in venture capital funding.

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As it focused on online business during COVID, it plans to open showrooms in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Winters has fulfilled another dream – moving to Riverside Terrace, which is used to being home to some of Houston’s most highly regarded black professionals. She had wanted to live in the neighborhood since she was a child and remembers driving through the area with her late grandmother.

“I told my grandmother that I would buy her a house in Riverside Terrace one day,” Winters said. “I like to think she’s proud of me.”

Coming from a place where there is little chance and building a business in the community that raised you is what dreams are made of. We need more dreamers like that.

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