I Shine Beauty Academy teaches business skills to teen girls in Pittsburgh through natural hair care

“I want them to be empowered instead of trying to be someone else.”

Whipping up body butter at the I Shine Beauty Academy

Whipping up body butter at the I Shine Beauty Academy

mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

Every time the door opened, Debra Titus greeted the teens walking through the door with a big hug.

“Good afternoon, beautiful ladies! You look beautiful! You look beautiful,” she said.

It was the third week of I Shine Beauty Academy at A Peace of Mind Inc. in Wilkinsburg, which teaches girls about natural hair and skin care.

But there’s more. Titus uses beauty as a starting point and teaches budgeting and entrepreneurship by asking the teens to make shopping lists of the products they use and challenging them to set prices and sell the supplies they make. Plus, making products is a science lesson, too.

On this day, the group made body butter.

Titus gathered the teens around a table, giving them shea butter, olive oil and coconut oil, as well as strawberry shortcake and sugar cookie scented oils.

It’s not like a bakery where the ingredients have to be precise, instead “you can guess-timate,” she told them. With three people around each bowl, the girls figured out ratios and used hand mixers to whip the body butter.

When they were done, Titus posed a challenge — fill containers with the leftover body butter and sell it to see who has the most in sales by the next week.

The finished products

The finished products

courtesy of Debra Titus

The academy is an offshoot of the S.H.I.N.E Society of Excellence, a mentoring organization that started as the outreach program of the Black Student Union at Chatham. Titus is now S.H.I.N.E’s executive director. She’s also hoping to continue the program as an after-school program, possibly at Penn Hills Charter School Of Entrepreneurship where she’ll be a teacher this year.

Titus initially pitched the academy at the Awesome Pitch-burgh Party: Maker Edition! contest in June and won the $1,000 prize that funded food and supplies for the summer version and is fundraising to continue it.

Awesome Pittsburgh is a chapter of the Awesome Foundation and regularly gives $1,000 awards to different projects.

One way to describe what makes something “awesome” comes from the local chapter founder, Mike Capsambelis, said Emily Keebler, the “Dean of Awesome” for the local chapter. He says that “what makes a project awesome is doing something good, putting a twist on it and then putting another twist on it.”

In the case of I Shine, it’s a summer camp for girls, which is a good thing and the twist is making beauty products, Keebler said. The second twist is that it also teaches entrepreneurship.

For Titus, it was a lesson she learned at a young age that led her to create her own products and the academy.

Growing up in Wilkinsburg, Titus said she remembers spending Sundays watching football with her parents as her mom braided her hair. When she was done, her mom would tell her how cute she looked.

“I would say, ‘Thank you,’” Titus said. But her mom would stop her and say, “No, you say, ‘I know I am.’”

Titus was 6 or 7 years old when her mom first told her that, but it stuck.

“She was teaching me confidence,” Titus said, adding she was also learning to embrace her natural beauty.

Later, as a college student at Chatham University, Titus and her longtime friend Shakeena Baldwin started to think about what products they were putting in their hair and researched hair and skin care. Years went by and last year the duo started their own beauty company D&K Whip Appeal, after learning how to make natural products themselves.

Titus, inspired by what she learned and her 7-month-old daughter, started teaching beauty skills to young girls.

“I want them to be empowered instead of trying to be someone else,” she said, adding that she picked the age range of 12 to 18, because those years are filled with major transitions and peer pressure. “Students are cognizant of what others say.”

And that’s why Titus wants to teach them to know who they are and often repeats the motto “don’t let someone else define your why.”


The summer beauty academy ends with a showcase at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug 28 at A Peace of Mind Inc, 620 Wood St. (Wilkinsburg). Academy attendees will show off their products and share what they learned. The event is open to the public.