Kay Hirai is a multifaceted woman. She is a business woman, a leader, an employer, a mother and a philanthropist. Nothing came easy for her, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Hirai was honored Jan. 6 with the “Business of the Year” award by the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, for her business, Studio 904. Walking into Studio 904, you get a pleasant sense of calm with the minimalist yet tasteful decor and sweet smells. They only do hair at Studio 904, but they are trained to do it well.
“You have to produce something that pleases the client and not just the latest style,” Hirai said.
One of her training mantras clearly states, “We work with our clients, not on them!”
Hirai opened her first salon on Broadway in Capitol Hill, then moved to 8th and Pine downtown. That location, which had the address 904 (thus the salon’s name), didn’t last but three months. They had to move to make way for the Metro bus tunnel and had only three weeks to do so.
“That was really, really tough financially,” she said. “Metro was supposed to reimburse us, but that fell by the wayside. I think if I’d been older, I would have bagged it.”
But she didn’t. She persevered and moved Studio 904 to Pioneer Square, which is now an affiliate salon of the Mercer Island salon. It was at this time when she realized she was already adhering to the business philosophy of Kaizen, a Japanese word that means lifelong learning in small incremental steps. She later sold the Pioneer Square salon to her employees, but they still adhere to the Kaizen philosophy, and Hirai considers them part of the Studio 904 “family.”
Hirai, an only child, grew up in Japan until she turned 11, when her mother — who had dual U.S. and Japanese citizenship — had to make a decision to return with her daughter to the United States or stay in Japan. Hirai’s father, who was a detective in Japan before World War II, was killed in the war when his daughter was only 4 months old.
Mother and daughter moved to Renton, where her grandmother, who was once in one of the internment camps, lived.
“I didn’t know a word of English and I was thrown into the fifth grade,” Hirai said.
She couldn’t understand why American kids scribbled in their text books and left trash on the playgrounds, something that never occurred in Japan.
Hirai has two children of her own, a son who is 45, and a daughter, 48. Her daughter was hit by a car at age 9 and sustained a brain injury that caused “many, many problems.” She said her daughter’s injuries are very different from those in a person born with a brain issue, and life has been a challenge for her.
“I’ve just sort of developed an eye for people who are struggling or suffering,” she said. “I help all kinds of people with disabilities.”
Hirai views her business and her own struggles as a way to give back to the community.
The 1992 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, moved Hirai to donate a percentage of every hair cut to those victims. She also donated free hair cuts to residents of Tent City4 in 2009 and was sending hair to an organization called “Matter of Trust” until recently to aid in the clean-up of last year’s enormous oil spill in the Gulf Coast area. She said they would stuff the hair into old nylon stockings for “booms.”
Hirai is also an animal advocate.
“They have no control over their lives,” she said.
She hosts a couple of animal events each year, and has given generously to Pasado’s Safe Haven, an animal rescue organization in Sultan, Wash. Her beloved dog Yumi, a Jack Russell Terrier, died unexpectedly at age 4, so she wrote a book, “Yumi’s Life Lessons.” For every book sold, 10 percent is given to Pasado’s Safe Haven.
Right now Hirai has 12 employees on Mercer Island; five stylists work in the Pioneer Square location.
The space in the Mercer Island shop that used to be used for spa services is now a community room. She allows various groups to use it, as long as there is a connection to a charity.
The next event is “Women and Money” on Sunday, Feb. 13, from 3 to 5 p.m. Speakers, chocolates, coffee and tea will be served in exchange for a $5 donation to Mercer Island Youth and Family Services.
Another one of Hirai’s innovative ideas are her “Cards for a Better World,” handmade greeting cards she sells with the proceeds going to various charitable agencies.
“It creates a win, win, win,” she said of her philanthropy. “It’s a win for the community, a win for participants and a win for the business.”