'I decided I would finish my degree because I had put so much effort into it, but I knew that my future lay with the business'
While studying cardiology full-time at Ulster University, Sarah Gallagher earned cash on the side by doing hair extension styling for friends from her bedroom. Now running a booming beauty business with 18 staff, Sarah (25) tells Stephanie Bell about her spectacular rise
Budding entrepreneur Sarah Gallagher has gone from assisting heart surgery to running one of the most successful hair and beauty businesses in Belfast. Sarah simply wanted to make some money while studying for her cardiology degree and in the process discovered she was a natural businesswoman.
What started out as a service offering hair extensions and basic beauty treatments in her bedroom in her parents' house has now become the state-of-the-art La Bella Vita salon in Dundonald.
And just three years after graduating she has completed a stunning £100,000 makeover of the business, doubling its size and now employing a staff of 18.
The glamour of the upmarket salon is a million miles away from the life and death role of a heart specialist which Sarah had initially planned to pursue.
She says: "From a very young age I wanted to do a job which involved caring for people because my nana was a midwife and I always remember her coming home with a stethoscope round her neck.
"In school in biology I loved studying the heart and I decided that is what I wanted to do at university.
"I also have always been passionate about hair and beauty and looking good.
"When I was about seven I turned my bottom bunk bed into a beauty salon with its own pretend cash register and my mum would have come in to get her nails done.
"I didn't plan for a career in hair and beauty, it just happened.
"I enjoyed my degree and spent four months on placement in a hospital in Essex in heart diagnostic, and assisted surgeons while they were putting in stents and pacemakers. My aim was to become a physiologist.
"I also worked in Craigavon Hospital during my degree but by my final year in 2014 the business had taken off to such an extent that I decided I would finish my degree because I had put so much effort into it, but I knew that my future lay with the business."
Sarah's journey from doing a single beauty treatment in her bedroom to running a top salon is all the more remarkable because she completed beauty courses while studying for her degree.
Initially, she teamed up with her best friend and business partner, Katie Stevenson, who was with her every step of the way until September of this year when she sold her share to Sarah.
Katie was doing film studies at Queen's University while Sarah was studying for her cardiology degree at Ulster University.
Together the girls started to offer hair extensions to friends and then advertised through Facebook. By the time they were ready to graduate they had up to 10 people at any one time sitting in one of their houses waiting for treatments.
Sarah explains: "Katie and I did a course on hair extensions in London and started to do them from my bedroom in the summer and weekends.
"As soon as we returned from London, lots of our friends asked us to do their hair, and before we knew it we had solid bookings for the following weeks - we were astounded.
"We decided to make a Facebook page and see if we could get any bookings outside of our friendship circle.
"Literally, within a few hours, we had private mail after private mail and found ourselves booked solid. We had to fit our appointments in between our lectures and coursework."
The girls worked night and day from their parents' houses whilst studying, with both turning spare bedrooms into mini salons - alternating between houses depending on who wasn't at class.
From hair extensions they started to offer a broader range of beauty treatments, training during their summer break from university.
Says Sarah: "We just kept adding to our range by doing courses in make-up and eyelashes and I used my bed for treatments.
"Mum's dining room chair became our hairdressing chair and I remember I just had this wee squiggly mirror which we set people in front of.
"At the start it was just to get some money to get through university and it was more of a hobby and a bit of light stress relief from studying.
"It just went crazy, and when I was doing my work experience in Essex I would fly home at the weekends for clients and, when I was in Craigavon Hospital, I would work from 9am until 5pm in the hospital and then leave and go to clients' homes doing beauty treatments up until about 11 at night.
"It never felt like work; I realised it is where I was happiest and I always believe you should be happy in your job.
"By the time I was ready to graduate we would have had 10 people sitting in Mum and Dad's house waiting to get their hair done and we realised we needed a salon, so we decided to try and open one."
And that's just what they did. On June 1, 2014, La Bella Vita, Dundonald, was launched with six staff and a treatment list to rival any city centre salon.
Clients came from all over Northern Ireland and a few from the Republic of Ireland. The business boomed, the girls graduated and the clients just kept coming.
Within just 11 months of trading, Katie and Sarah were recognised at a glittering event at the City Hall, picking up the Young Business Person of the Year award at the Belfast Business Awards.
A few months later, the entire team was recognised at the Northern Ireland Hair & Beauty Awards, scooping Hair Extension Team of the Year 2015.
Last year, Katie and Sarah were recognised as the Young Entrepreneurs of the Year at the Lisburn and Castlereagh Business Awards 2016.
Now that Katie has decided to move to Australia, Sarah is running the business on her own.
She has just invested in a major renovation, doubling the size of the salon and giving it a chic new image. And she has taken on four more staff, bringing her team to 18.
She says: "At the start we had no money and everything was very low budget. I always had a vision of how I would like the salon to look and now my dream has come true.
"I was inspired by Jo Malone colours and wanted to give it a clean, very classy, upmarket look and it has been done in cream and black with bold writing.
"We have 16 seats in the hair salon and two beauty rooms, a pedicure station, a nail bar and four make-up stations."
Sarah believes that hard work, quality products and great staff have combined to drive the business to become what it is today.
Her salon has also just been appointed sole Northern Ireland supplier for Gold Class hair extensions, which is the choice of a number of celebrities.
While she is ending 2017 on a high note, she also kicked the year off in a special way when she married fiance Alan on New Year's Eve.
Alan (29), a management associate at the Bank of Ireland, has been a huge support to Sarah during the long hours she worked to get her business off the ground.
The couple celebrated their wedding with a reception at the five-star Lough Erne Resort Hotel and the entire La Bella Vita beauty team were on hand to ensure the bride was glowing.
Sarah's dedication to her business and Alan's support of his new wife were never more apparent than on their honeymoon in Dubai where Sarah took a booking for hair extensions.
She explains: "I had a client who now lives in Dubai and when she heard I was going there on my honeymoon she contacted me and asked if there was any way I would do her hair extensions when I was there.
"Apparently there is only one place out there doing them and they are not as good as ours, so I brought my kit and went over to her house and did her hair when we were on our honeymoon.
"Alan thought it was great. He has been a huge support to me when I was working late nights and seven days a week at one stage to get the business up and running."
Now that she has opened her dream salon at the tender age of 25, what's next for this young entrepreneur?
She says: "I am living the dream now and anything that gets better from here will just be amazing.
"I suppose there is always room for expansion but at the minute I just want to focus on what I have and make sure there is a bum on every seat in the salon.
"I would like to expand some time and make it global, but for the time being I am more than happy."