The mastermind behind one of the beauty industry's most innovative hair tools and stylist to the stars opens up about her journey from a small-town Midwestern girl to a big-time entrepreneur

By Kaitlyn Frey
July 10, 2019 05:12 PM
Products in this story are independently selected and featured editorially. If you make a purchase using these links we may earn commission.

Sarah Potempa always knew she was destined to be a hairstylist. But she ended up innovating the beauty industry with her entrepreneurial skills, too.

Potempa realized her passion for styling as a young girl when she became the go-to hair braider for girls on the bus who were heading to sports practice. “I was always fascinated by the art of styling hair,” she tells PEOPLE.

After pursuing a career in hair styling as a student at New York University, Potempa gained a massive celeb clientele, working with an impressive roster of clients including Lea Michele, Busy Philipps, Camila Cabello and Emily Blunt, thanks to her expertly crafted beachy waves and braided hairstyles.

But as a natural-born educator, Potempa quickly realized a tool was missing in the hair market as stars and magazine editors began asking her how they could recreate the effortless, windswept waves and texture she became known for with her styling.

“I guess it’s sort of the Midwesterner in me, but beauty is so fun, so I always wanted to show people how to beach wave their own hair. It’s not that hard. I got really into the idea of educating real women at home,” Potempa says.

She sketched out the idea, and just like that, The Beachwaver, a self-rotating curling iron, was born in 2010. The innovation became an immediate success, and nine years later, Potempa’s expanding her empire further. Along with the help of her sisters Erin, the brand’s co-founder, and Emily, the brand’s creative director, The Beachwaver Co. launched a 8-item range of hair care styling products in 2019.

“Now we’re in 13 countries, have over 5,000 locations around the world, and are women-owned and female-founded,” Potempa says. “We’re so proud.”

Read on to learn more about Potempa’s journey from aspiring hairdresser to one of the most in-demand celebrity stylists and beauty industry leaders.

When did you first realize that you wanted to become a hairstylist?

In high school I really wanted to go shopping at the mall and my parents said, “You need to get a job.” I knew I loved to braid hair so I went through the yellow pages and called every hair salon. One lady named Patty answered. She said she needed a shampoo girl, so I started working at her salon. I had the craziest first two days at work with her. I was probably 14 or 15 and she told me to look through W and Italian Vogue at all the fashion advertisements. I started looking at these beautiful shoots and from then I had a moment of, “Oh my god. That’s what I want to do.” Patty really inspired me to dream big and look outside the bubble of a small town in the Midwest.

Have you kept in touch with her?

I hadn’t, but about 20 years later I was doing an event in Chicago at a professional hair education show called Behind the Chair. Patty bought a ticket and came. I went around to take selfies with the hairdressers, and then I saw her and she was like, “It’s Patty.” I literally broke down in tears. It was a wild moment in life for me.

The Beachwaver self-rotating curling iron

Did you always want to be a celebrity hair stylist?

I never thought I would. My initial inspiration was so focused on editorial and fashion. In college, I worked under Laurent DuFourg who owned Prive Salon. Then I started assisting other hair stylists like Bob Recine and Danilo. With Bob specifically I did Italian Vogue, French Vogue and 30 to 40 runway shows a season. It was such great education and training for when I did transition over to working with celebrities.

Who was your first celebrity client?

My first female was Cyndi Lauper. It was wild! I did her hair all on my own. She had short hair and the shoot was for the cover of a magazine where they wanted her to be a Greek goddess. I turned her short hair into the most phenomenal, super long, beachy waves and braids.

What do you love most about being a stylist to the stars?

It’s amazing to work with people that really want to be a part of the creative process. I really got into the idea of creating super unique red carpet stuff. I realized you can make art out of celebrity hair as well. I’ve met people that really inspire me, like Lea Michele (who I’ve now known for 15 or 16 years!), Reese Witherspoon, Jewel and Alicia Keys.

For me to be the person booked to do hair for a big moment — like Camila Cabello’s first cover shoot — was really amazing. I’ve gotten to go on this journey with her, doing her hair for her music videos and tour with Taylor Swift. Something like that is a big highlight.

How did you get your idea for the Beachwaver off the ground?

I was on the phone with my older sister Erin, who was a corporate lawyer living in Chicago. I said, “Oh my god. I have this great idea for a curling iron.” Two days later she called me and told me she was quitting her job. She said, “Let’s do this business together. Let’s make that curling iron you want to make.” For two years Erin and I worked on it and applied for all the patents. We figured out how to make a prototype and we pitched it to QVC. Then my younger sister, Emily, came on as the creative director, and she creates all our content. So we just went for it.

From left: Emily Potempa, Sarah Potempa and Erin Potempa
The Beachwaver Co.

Now The Beachwaver Co. offers hair care and styling products too. How did you approach development to ensure they’re just as innovative as your curling iron?

For me, it’s more about women being able to style their own hair at home and less about what product would sell on the shelf. For instance, my Braid Balm applies to how I’ve been doing hair for the last 20 years. It preps hair to give it grip, detangles, it gives defined waves and even strengthens hair with our hydrogen and ionic alpha bond multiplier technology. Plus, it’s the easiest thing to use.

Were your celeb clients involved as you were created the products?

I think Lea Michele was one of the first people to test them. I gave her some shampoo and conditioner and she used them and screamed, “Oh my god, it smells like the beach!” The aromatic experience was a huge thing for me. When you’re working with celebrities, if they don’t like how something smells when you spray it, that’s a problem.

What’s it like working with your sisters?

The three of us have very different skill sets and I think that makes us a great team. Erin quit her job and didn’t get paid for two years when we started. They never gave up and still haven’t given up on it. I think it’s very different having sisters has business partners because a lot of people I believe would bail on you.

What’s the best business advice someone’s ever given you?

My grandma once told me, “Leap and the net will appear,” and I’ve lived my life by it. There’s something about the idea that you have to just take that first step to get to a certain place. Once you take that step, something’s going to grab you and help you get there.