Second Chance Employer Profile

R&R Head Labs

R&R Head Labs

R&R Head Labs in Denver is at the cutting edge of second chance hiring, redefining the barbershop experience with every client it serves.

James Repenning, the company’s CEO, got his barbershop business experience as president of Floyd’s 99 Barbershop, a national chain of barbershops. The inspiration to hire employees in reentry, however, came long before that – in 1997 when he worked as the manager of a recycling business and wanted to hire an equipment manager.

“One of the guys who came in showed up early. I liked him. My wife liked him. My dog liked him. But then he said, ‘I think you should know something about me. I murdered my best friend in a drug deal.’” 

Nevertheless, Repenning hired him and said that he was a great employee. He never missed a day of work. And they’re still friends today.

Fast forward nearly 25 years, and Repenning began to put together a business designed to give those leaving prison a second chance. He named the company R&R Head Labs, and its first barbershop opened in February 2024 in Denver. It now has seven employees, but he plans to expand the shop to 15 or 20 employees over the next two years. He also has his sights on Chicago, Boston and possibly New York for future R&R Head Labs barbershops.

Second chance hiring practices 

Great haircuts and second chances define R&R Head Labs. The people Repenning seeks to hire are those recently released, since they need jobs the most. And the recruitment starts while potential candidates are still incarcerated.

“We’ve been visiting prisons because there’s hair in every prison. Whether or not they have a barber program doesn’t matter, because they always have barbers,” he says. “We interview people who are still inside. We have a technical interview, which is cutting a model’s hair.”

R&R Head Labs requires that the person have a community reentry partner, an organization that will help them as they readjust to life outside. It also requires documentation for the hours they worked in prison. If they have 300 or more documented hours of hair cutting experience, they can cut hair for money as soon as they start barber school.

Repenning sets these people up with an apprenticeship, in which they work four days per week and attend classes one day per week. In Colorado, a barber apprenticeship requires 2,300 total hours – 2,000 working in the barbershop plus 300 attending classes. It typically takes 12 to 14 months to complete.

The classes take place at the Academy of Cosmetology Arts, whose director gets funding to pay for half of their tuition. The money comes from local county workforce development agencies but is never guaranteed, because she can’t predict whether the agencies will have money remaining in their budget for the fiscal year at the time of application.

Additional support has come from the Colorado parole department, which paid for the tools for four recently released barbers, something that Repenning says was totally unexpected.

The fact that R&R Head Labs is a second chance employer is an important part of its branding. That is clear from its website, where the “home” page declares that “Everybody deserves a second chance” in big bold letters. And the “about” page tells the stories of some of its employees, highlighting their experiences, the challenges they have successfully overcome and what being a barber means to them.

According to Reppening, R&R Head Labs goes beyond just helping people get back on their feet as a barber. It’s operating a business that helps people discover their untapped potential and develop skills and self-esteem and, at the same time, alters the way the public views those who have been incarcerated.

“The men and women we hire make it a unique prospect that would be very difficult to match,” he says. He emphasizes that he doesn’t want to exploit the situation. “But if people don’t know that our team is formerly incarcerated, we’re not changing perceptions.” And changing perceptions is part of his goal.

Although the nonprofit partners take care of many of the employees non-work-related concerns, R&R Head Labs has hired a woman to lead a weekly group mindfulness meditation session, and employees receive resources to do it on their own as well.

Reppening is also creating an informal mentoring program, where each employee has a more experienced mentor and, once they get experience, will become a mentor to a newly hired employee.

The mentors and Reppening have had to deal with a variety of challenges, but the biggest of these is that a lot of people fresh out of prison struggle with what he calls emotional regulation.

“They get some negative feedback. And they ruminate on it and say, ‘I think I’m going to quit,’” he says. “They start out saying that this is amazing – the best thing ever. And somewhere in the first couple of weeks, they say ‘I can’t be here anymore. I can’t follow all of these rules.’”

Reppening strives to keep them from over-reacting by mentoring them early on and preparing them to deal with the situation. “They’re all adjusting to getting constructive feedback and not letting it ruin their job, because it’s how you get better,” he adds.

In spite of the challenges, the rewards are many, especially a chance for him and his leadership to get to know the team, what great people they are and how they appreciate the opportunity to work at R&R Head Labs.

“Customers are coming in and having contact with formerly incarcerated people. The comments and reviews show us that a lot of people want to see them exceed,” Repenning says. “I tell them, look at all these people you’ve never met who want to see you do well. There’s more support out there than you’d ever guess.”

He also has some advice for others who are thinking about instituting fair chance hiring.

“When I talk about fair chance hiring, people often want to talk about the risks. What if you hire someone who does something bad?” Repenning says. “But really the conversation should be about the opportunities. How can I work with this population to improve my business? And how can I help my community through second chance hiring? It’s switching from focusing on the risks to the opportunities.”

To learn more about R&R Head Labs