Hurricane evacuees lined up at the airport in Puerto Rico, some destined for New Jersey.
Hurricane evacuees lined up at the airport in Puerto Rico, some destined for New Jersey.

“Just a nail salon.” Those are words I have heard occasionally since I started Grit + Polish 20 months ago, and they are words I hear in my own head more often that I like to admit. These doubts happen despite my ambition to create a salon that dramatically departs from an industry with a shady reputation, creating a sanctuary for clients and employees.

On Friday, something important happened that reminds me that the founding idea behind Grit + Polish is meaningful, and that a small business can make a big difference.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that—believe it or not!—had its origin at Grit + Polish. Assembly Bill A-1531 was designed to make it easier for hurricane evacuees from Puerto Rico to come to New Jersey and have their professional licenses recognized here. It does this by easing New Jersey’s recognition of professional licenses from American territories and districts, like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. It also gives special consideration to licensed professionals coming to New Jersey in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

The new law is widely promoted for the help it provides to newly arrived doctors, nurses and teachers seeking productive, new lives in New Jersey. But, in fact, the idea started with licenses for cosmetology.

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with devastating impact 11 months ago, I was horrified by the misery experienced by island residents, and by the inadequacy of the American disaster response. My concern may have been increased by the fact that my family came to the US from the nearby island nation of Cuba. I feel a connection to the people of Puerto Rico.

At the same time, I felt terribly frustrated by the dysfunctional cosmetology licensing system in New Jersey, and the resulting challenge of finding high-quality, licensed technicians to work in the salon.

The combination of these two problems led my husband Brad, and me, to a revelation: Aren’t there thousands of talented professionals in Puerto Rico eager to relocate to New Jersey, one of the most popular destinations for people of Puerto Rican heritage? About 30% of jobs today require licenses, so there’s reason to think this change in the law would help many Puerto Ricans, including cosmetologists, transition to New Jersey, contribute to our economy, and provide better lives for their families.

JAssemblyman Andrew Zwicker introduced the bill in Trenton
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker introduced the bill in Trenton.

We shared this idea with local NJ Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick), who embraced the concept and partnered with fellow Assembly members Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) to get the bill through the state Assembly. Senators Nellie Pou (D-Patterson) and Tom Keane (R-Westfield) were instrumental in the Senate, and the bill passed unanimously in both houses. The final step occurred on Friday when Governor Murphy signed it bill into law on August 10, 2018.

I very much hope that this law will help Grit + Polish recruit one or more Puerto Rican cosmetologists to work in the salon, and I will be working to make that happen.

Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez was quick to join the bill.
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez was quick to join the bill.

But the law means something more, too. The United States of America, and the state of New Jersey, should welcome people who come to our shores to escape hardships in other lands, just as my family came here in 1971 to escape the oppressive regime in Cuba.

Sadly, we live in an era in which asylum seekers are being mistreated at our nation’s border, with children separated from parents, in violation of national and international laws. Happily, this month a clear message is being sent by the State of New Jersey, and by Grit + Polish: You are welcome here.