University of Pittsburgh

commons room

The Buzz

Written by Holden Slattery

The buzz of an electric clipper, the melodies of jazz radio, and the murmur of men’s voices pepper the air of a South Oakland basement. Stephen Sengstacke, a barber who uses his own close-cropped hair as an advertisement, brushes the clipper in delicate, downward strokes along his customer’s forehead to shear a perfect hairline. The barber’s precision is a clue that he’s also an engineer.

Five years ago, Sengstacke never imagined he’d be cutting hair. But that was before he grew an unruly Afro because he couldn’t afford a haircut when he was a Pitt sophomore living in Tower C. Unable to maintain the clean-cut image that won him “best hair” in high school, he asked his mom for an electric clipper so he could cut his own hair. His first buzz wasn’t quite perfect, but he felt better about the way he looked. Then, in between his engineering classes, he began giving free haircuts to other guys in the residence halls. As they, too, walked away with rejuvenated confidence, Sengstacke realized he had a gift—and a way to make a little cash.

He began charging $4 per customer and, after cutting hair in Tower C for two years, he moved into a South Oakland house on Gorman Way, which his grandparents own. In the basement, he set up his business—Klean Kut Consulting—on one side and his bedroom on the other.

Sengstacke wasn’t the only student experimenting with entrepreneurship. Braxton Henderson, a biology major, had started his own barbershop, called The Chop Shop, in Lothrop Hall. When Sengstacke checked Henderson’s profile on the social networking site Facebook, Sengstacke realized they shared customers. Rather than compete, he contacted Henderson and asked him to join the Klean Kut brand. Soon, Henderson opened a branch of Klean Kut Consulting in an apartment on Joe Hammer Square. The partners began wearing identical barber jackets and using identical supplies to create brand uniformity. They also created a Web site and began soliciting clients from around the city.

After Sengstacke graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 2007, he continued cutting hair for about 30 customers a week while looking for engineering jobs. This summer, he accepted a position as an industrial engineer at Corning, a New York company that manufactures glass windows for space shuttles, optical fibers for cell phones, and other products. He evaluates the company’s laboratories to ensure the spaces are being used efficiently—a fitting job for a man who once converted a small basement into a bedroom and barbershop.