Owner of King Milan’s Barbershop made the most of his second chance and continues to give back; and it all started with a set of clippers.
Milan Dennie, 33, first set up shop in his hometown Gary, Indiana when he was 22 before relocating to St. Paul, Minnesota December 2014. His shop’s motto “God is the best! Let’s invest!” rings true to him. Growing up poor and seen as a statistic he turned his life around and continues to give back. For instance, he runs free haircut promotional events for grade school students and looks after the kids who come as regulars.
Growing up in Gary, Dennie lost his father at a young age and grew up with an ill mother. During the time the city thrived off working in the steel mill, he experienced the opposite given his circumstances. He remembers going back to school without a fresh cut or new clothes like his friends.
“We got our school clothes after school started,” he said.
While his older brother worked at Little Cesar’s he brought Dennie his first set of clippers at age 11.
A barber asked Dennie to show him what he could do on his older brother’s hair. After his successful audition he made $5 per haircut. The barber provided Dennie equipment that he allowed Dennie to chip away at as he made $5 per haircut. Eventually, he was debt free and at 19 enrolled in a barber school.
However, before enrolling in school he suffered a setback. From ages 14 to 18 Dennie served 2-and-a-half years in and out of the juvenile center and department of corrections. After serving his time he thought to himself “I’m not going to spend my adult life trapped into the system.”
Determined to get back on the right track he walked 30 blocks to barbershop school every day, he says. The journey paid off when he received his license.
“It taught me to work hard,” he said. I’m thankful that I made it.”
As a young barber serving the community he was raised in, he was able to connect with his clients. Changes in the area were evident with abandoned steel mills and the rise of unemployment and crime rates. Dennie did his part by making sure the kids he trimmed up stayed on the right path. He first made sure those kids were staying on top of their grades.
He remembers when one grade school student told him he was getting C’s. “Don’t settle for less, especially when it comes to you,” Dennie told him. From there on he saw changes. Through the years he graduated high school, went off to college at a nearby university and after graduating he worked in the school’s athletic department and as a professor, according to Dennie.
“If I never told him that where would he be?” Dennie asked.
With no children, Dennie treats each child as if they are his own.
“They need to be taught from the leaders in our community,” he said. “A leader that teaches them there’s another way. They need to see that you don’t have to resort to illegal activities to make a living or be impressive in your community.”
Beyond giving the kids a little guidance, he applied what he calls “ethical marketing,” to give back to the community. Since 2005 he’s been running an annual tradition.
Inspired by his past, he kicked off an event where he gave free haircuts on Labor Day before kids went back to school. With a line so long it extended out of the shop, he made sure the event was catered and paid all of his barbers for the work. At the start he wasn’t acknowledged for his efforts, however, he continued the tradition because he knew it was the right thing to do.
“The most I got was a pat on the back,” Dennie said.
Years after continuing the tradition it started to catch on and get in the local newspapers.
King Milan’s Barbershop LLC expanded to the North Star state, December 2014. He didn’t want his co-workers in Gary to be out of a job so he took financial responsibility for both shops until he was able to sell it to a fellow barber.
Operating in St. Paul Dennie still applies his ethical marketing motto and provides guidance to the children that come in his shop. While running the 10th annual free cuts day in 2015, first in St. Paul, he was accompanied by television cameras and media coverage. The media attention helped him bring in donations.
Dennie recalls a person running into his shop in tears and giving a donation because they admired what he was doing. Labor Day 2016 King Milan’s gave away well over 300 backpacks stuffed with school supplies and tallied a total of 313 free haircuts in St. Paul alone. His shop in Gary also kept the tradition going as well.
“Mr. Barbershop Man” is what the kids call him, who frequently comeback to give him hugs.
Coming from poor beginnings many thought he would end up in jail or the cemetery, says Dennie. However, he was determined to change and his life story shows why it’s important to invest in children.
“Anybody can change,” Dennie said. “I take it as my responsibility. I treat these kids as mine.”
When it comes to children Dennie has applied his shop’s motto to his lifestyle.
“God’s the best. Let’s invest.”
By Gino Terrell