Tenant Talks with Route 8 Barbers

We sat down with Route 8 Barbers owner Sylvester Okoli. The visionary behind three successful barber shops in the southwest, Sylvester humbly downplays any success and is more excited to talk about his journey and community work.

When you arrive at Route 8 Willow Brook you are immediately met with a “hello, how are you doing” and an accompanying smile. The vibe is sharp and relaxed with artistic nods to the barbering industry, retro arcade machines, artwork of Muhammad Ali and subtle beats in the background creating a classic barber shop ambience.

What is different about Route 8 is the people.

Sylvester began by telling us about his journey into barbering. His was one of struggle, adversity and ultimately led him to finding his purpose.

“I always say to people that I never expected to be a barber.” Sylvester says. Sylvester came to the UK at the age of fifteen from Nigeria as a young man with no parents, both of whom passed before he left Africa. After some poor decisions, by his own admission, he went to prison. These experiences have shaped Sylvester’s life and the path he walks today.

Barbering came into his life by chance, or perhaps fate? Sylvester has turned to his spiritual beliefs at times of need and equally at times of enlightenment. A devout man who was lost and searching for answers found clarity when a friend of his asked if he could cut his hair, without hesitation he did and when finished, pleased with the result, said….” huh, I’m a barber.”

Sylvester with Centre Manager Simon Whiting

Sylvester uses his life experiences along with his entrepreneurial drive and visits prisons up and down the UK in efforts to educate inmates and to spread the word that despite any obstacles put in front of you, you can start fresh when you get out, but that your mindset must change, “if I can do it, anyone can do it” Sylvester says with a tinge of pride.

“The perception is that if you spend time in prison, you cannot get a job when released. Its more difficult granted but if you really want to change, you can change, there are no excuses, everyone has a tough life, you set your own journey and are responsible for your own path.”

“My late dad always said, “life is not a place for excuses, there is no I can’t, only I won’t.”

“To change, you have to deny yourself a lot of material things and start from the bottom.”

Sylvester talked passionately about inmates he knows that have left prison and have not returned because of his teachings, and other likeminded people who want to encourage inmates into a life of reform.

At no point in our discussion did Sylvester mention his 2022 Winner of the ‘BBC make a difference award’, again demonstrating that notoriety and status is not driving Sylvester. We talked about the success of Route 8 and brand expansion. Sylvester has three shops, one in Swindon Orbital, one in Emersons Green and (the best one) at Willow Brook, “we are looking for the right location, I can put a barber shop anywhere, but I want it to be the right location for us and that community.”

Route 8 is more than a Barbershop. It is a safe place for some of Bradley Stokes youth who see the shop as a community hub. This is steered by Sylvester and his team at Route 8. Dylan, Sylvester’s right-hand man, said “we offer so much more than haircuts, this is a space with no judgement.

Customers, and kids that come in to use our “mini arcade,” can speak freely and voice concerns, we in turn try to help where we can. A barber is a barber, but he or she can also be an understanding ear.”

Sylvester’s attitude towards giving and taking is clearly being absorbed by all at Route 8 and while helping the community, they have also built their own community.

Written by Simon Whiting – Centre Manager