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Laws should protect lives and livelihoods, not squelch them. But that’s not what was happening in Iowa in 2017.
Waterloo resident William Burt had saved tens of thousands of dollars and written a business plan for a mobile barbershop to serve residents of underserved communities. He wanted to help people who could not get to a brick and mortar shop for one reason or another.
But Under Iowa law, he couldn’t. It was illegal to operate a mobile barbershop in the state.
From a young age, Burt was on the streets, into drugs and trouble. He was in juvenile detention several times and was arrested as an adult.
While in prison, Burt discovered he had an aptitude for cutting hair — and connecting with his patrons. He discovered a calling that, he thought, was legal.
Burt says barbering is about more than cutting hair; it is about how the person felt after they rise from the barber’s chair. People leave refreshed. Hopeful, even.
This sense of purpose, combined with a plea from his son to turn his life around, got Burt thinking about what he could do once he was out of prison.
While the struggle to stay away from the lucrative drug trade was difficult, when Burt was released in 2008, he applied for barber school. He received his license in 2012 and began cutting hair in a Waterloo barbershop while pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
“Meeting the needs of people is probably my greatest strength in the barbershop,” Burt said in the 2020 documentary.
In 2017, Burt decided to strike out on his own — by building a mobile shop that would travel the community to give cuts to residents who either could not afford to come to the shop or had mobility issues. He invested $30,000 of his own money and wrote a business plan.
That’s when he discovered mobile barbering was illegal.
A few friends and advisers told Burt to stop pouring his money into the idea because it could put him in the pathway of law enforcement again.
But Burt had other ideas.
In the 2020 documentary, he said, “I thought, I’m going to be the one to change this.”
Every state has occupational licensing laws. The Institute of Justice estimates Iowa’s cost the state more than 48,000 jobs and up to $4.6 billion in economic value every year.
Aspiring Iowa barbers must pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend school, pass an exam, and pay for license application and renewal fees.
Burt did all of that, but it still was not enough to realize his dream to help his community. Even though all six states that border Iowa allow mobile barber units, Iowa said they were a threat to public health and safety.
“This was just an outdated law,” said AFP Regional Vice President Drew Klein in the documentary. “There is no victim in an economy that allows mobile barbering.”
Burt started an online petition to change the law and created a 1-minute video for social media that generated more than 40,000 views on YouTube.
That’s when AFP heard about his story.
AFP-Iowa State Director Tyler Raygor called Burt to see how the organization could help.
Burt had never even been to Iowa’s capitol building, but AFP-Iowa walked with him every step of his advocacy journey, amplifying his voice and introducing him to state lawmakers and to other citizen lobbyists, including other entrepreneurs, who could help develop momentum.
Finally, in 2019, lawmakers introduced a one-sentence bill to allow Burt and other mobile barbers to operate in the state.
State Senator Dan Zumbach was an early supporter. “Here was a guy that wanted to offer a service,” Zumbach said. “I thought, let’s let William do what he does and does well.”
In her January 2020 state of the state address, Gov. Kim Reynolds voiced support for licensing reform. Burt was present in the gallery that day.
The statehouse and senate responded to the governor’s call, unanimously approving Burt and AFP’s legislation. Reynolds signed the bill in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing people to rely more on mobile service providers who could work outside.
“Finally, I can get to work helping underserved people in my community,” Burt said when the bill was signed.
Burt also talked to the Des Moines Register about his plans. “Nursing homes, veteran centers, homeless shelters — there’s a multitude of underserved populations out there,” he said. “My mission is to bridge the gap to those communities.”
Burt now also operates a brick-and-mortar store, Kut Kings Barbershop & Salon.
“AFP helped me create real change that betters my community, keeps my business open, and ensures a better life for my kids,” Burt said in the new ad.
His story is an inspiration to other citizen advocates who want to change state law to unleash economic opportunity for all.
Watch The Right Cut: A Barber Builds a Movement to see William Burt’s full My AFP Story.
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