Writing by Kaitlyn Hardy

Photography by Justin Negard

For Madi Tiso-D’aquanni, weekdays in high school started and ended in tears. She dreaded going to school, struggled in classes and felt unsure of what her future held. But a checkmark on a little pink slip of paper changed it all. That pink slip, an application to Yorktown BOCES cosmetology school, led her to where she is today: the owner of her own salon, The Hair Wharf, in Katonah. 

“Certain people talked down about it,” she remembers. “They’d say, ‘Cosmetology? You’re not going to want to do that your whole life.’ But I did. I mean, I would not have bought this business from the previous owner if I didn’t want to do it my whole life.”  

Tiso-D’aquanni’s story is not unique. For those struggling through high school, unsure about college or who have found their passion, learning a trade can be a valuable way to build a life and career.  

Erin Lopez, owner of Erin’s Painting & Home Improvement, which is based in Elmsford, for example, began working as a painter and carpenter upon moving to the United States from Guatemala in 1999 at age 21. He was making a home and life out of a craft he truly valued. 

“Carpentry, I really love to do that,” he says. “And when you do something that you really love, you don’t feel like it’s work.” 

Or, if you’re like Bill Hassett – the president and owner of Hassett Plumbing and Heating in Katonah – maybe learning a trade is simply in your genes. 

“I have a long history of plumbing in my family,” he says. “Both my grandfathers – my mother’s father and my father’s father – were plumbers, my father was a plumber, my uncle was a plumber, my brother’s a plumber and so am I; we have a whole family of plumbers.” 

Choosing trade school

Similar to Tiso-D’aquanni, Hassett struggled in high school. Although he toured a few colleges for their football programs, he eventually landed at the United Association of Journeyman Plumbers trade school in Peekskill.

“When I got home from those visits, I reflected on how I’d gotten through high school, and I just decided that going further wasn’t really my path,” Hassett remembers. “For a while there, I did landscaping for my first year out of high school, and then I approached my father about getting me into the plumber’s union.” 

Hassett’s decision to attend trade school was generally accepted by those around him. His father was glad to see him following in the family footsteps, and in high school, which he attended from 1979 to 1983, he remembers that there wasn’t too much pressure to attend college. 

“It wasn’t like you had to go away to college to have a career,” he recalls. 

Tiso-D’aquanni, however, said when she was in high school from 2006 to 2009, attending a college or university was the next assumed step – and it seems to remain so today. 

“A lot [of students] went to college,” she remembers. “So it was like, ‘Where are you going to college? Where are you applying?’ And I was like, ‘I’m not applying anywhere. I don’t know if I want to go to college.’  A lot of people think, ‘Okay, you’re done with high school, now you go to college.’ But that puts a lot on high schoolers – I know it did with me. And it’s unfortunate because a lot of people think you need a college degree to get somewhere in life.” 

Tiso-D’aquanni decided to apply to the two-year BOCES cosmetology school during her junior year of high school, which, she says, prompted criticism from some of her classmates. And it wasn’t subtle. 

They asked pointed questions like, “How are you going to survive? How are you going to make a life just doing hair? Are you really going to be doing that your whole life?”  

But, yes, this really was what she wanted to do with her life. And because her mother was also a hair stylist, Tiso-D’aquanni grew up in that world, so she knew what a career could look like. 

“I used to get off the school bus at the salon where she worked, and I would sweep hair, I would help with the cash register and I just really did fall in love with it,” she remembers. “And I used to play with hair all the time, I used to cut my Barbies’ hair – I mean it was not good, but everyone has to start somewhere.” 

So why not pursue this passion as a career?

Madi Tiso-D’aquanni, owner of the Hair Wharf, Katonah.

A learned experience 

Hassett always liked the idea of working with his hands, creating tangible changes before his eyes and seeing his hard work come to physical fruition. 

“There’s pride in your work and the fact that you built something and it’s functional,” he expresses. “I get a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from building or fixing things.”

And he found that satisfaction at trade school, where students were sent out into the field from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day. Then, they attended night classes from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m.

“So you get the job experience during the day, and then the classroom theory and history at night,” he explains.

Similarly, Tiso-D’aquanni’s trade school experience was a combination of classroom-based text book lessons and hands-on practice. 

“It was like English, science – an hour of each – and then a little bit of book work and then hands-on,” she remembers. “I always got excited about the hands-on part.” 

It was also through BOCES that Tiso-D’aquanni got her job at The Hair Wharf. The previous owner, Carol Gattucci, was looking for an apprentice and sought out the students at BOCES – Tiso-D’aquanni was the only one to apply, and she got the job. 

“I just jumped in, and they took me under their wing,” says Tiso-D’aquanni. 

She includes her time apprenticing as another level of her cosmetology education. 

“You learn more when you get into the salon.” 

The job experience of working in the field is a valuable way for any student to learn about their prospective field and understand it before completely jumping in upon graduation. And it’s something trade schools are known for.

The firsthand experience of working on site, like Hassett, or working in the salon, like Tiso-D’aquanni, helped ensure that what they were studying was what they actually wanted to do upon graduation.

According to a 2016 study conducted by Pew Research, “Just 16 percent of Americans think a four-year degree prepares students very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy,” while, “26 percent feel that certification programs in a professional, technical or vocational field prepare students very well.”

For Lopez, however, things were the other way around. His work experience started before he even stepped foot into a trade school. 

Upon moving to the U.S., he worked at various painting and carpentry companies while attending Westchester Community College for English language courses. 

“The first company I worked for, that’s where I learned,” he remembers. “The way I learned was just by seeing other people work because I was doing mostly painting for those companies. And then when I went to school, that was a totally different story, I had a teacher, and that’s what really changed everything for me.” 

Lopez took three adult education courses at BOCES (carpentry, reading construction plans and OSHA certification) in 2013 to gain the expertise/certifications needed to open his own carpentry business in 2015. 

By day, he continued working, and two nights a week, he attended classes at BOCES; each class was three months long. 

“There were some things that I already knew when I went to school, but it wasn’t the correct way to do it, so there was always something that I was missing,” explains Lopez. “One of the most important things I learned was safety and how to use all the equipment. Going there, it really helped me a lot.” 

Erin Lopez, owner of Erin’s Painting & Home Improvement, Elmsford.

Being in business

Hassett says he always had a strong work ethic. Back in the 1970s, he was your typical preteen, mowing laws for a slight, but at that age, meaningful, buck. More than that, though, he was a budding entrepreneur. 

“In 1977, there was a gas shortage,” he remembers. “We [Hassett and a friend]  got up really early during our summer break – as early as 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. – and we made five gallons of coffee. We went down to the gas line in town. They’d have these big long lines, and we sold coffee and doughnuts on the gas line. I’ve always had a drive to earn my way and be my own boss.”

Nearly two decades later, with the help of a few business classes, that goal became a reality. Hassett earned his master plumber license and started his own business over 20 years ago. 

In 2017, Tiso-D’aquanni became a business owner as well. Coming up on The Hair Wharf’s 40th birthday, former owners the Gattuccis and their daughter sold their salon to Tiso-D’aquanni. She had received only a taste of business education from BOCES in the form of mock-interviews and imagined salon budgets, so she decided to take some business classes to prepare herself while also absorbing any valuable advice passed along from Mrs. Gattucci herself.

Six years later, Tiso-D’aquanni thinks of The Hair Wharf as her second home and her stylists and clients as family. 

“I’ll never forget this one client I did a full head of extensions on,” she says. “Her hair doesn’t grow, it’s very thin, fragile. When I was done with the extensions, she literally cried – happy tears. It just feels so good, how the clients react when you’re done with their service. Now they feel good, so we feel good.” 

Lopez feels the same joy when sees his clients’ reactions to his finished work. 

“I see how happy they are when their houses or projects are done,” he says. “I see how they appreciate what we do.”  

It was this happiness that compelled him to work in the field in the first place, and it was this happiness that helped his business grow. 

“Through the years, as I was working with companies, I met a builder, and he was the person who helped me get a lot of customers because he was going to retire,” he explains. “He recommended me to some of his customers and from there everything started going well. With the work that I was doing, everyone was really happy, so they started recommending me from place to place.”

Lopez and his wife, Gladys Mendez, – who he calls “the brains” of the operation – have now owned Erin’s Painting & Home Improvement for 10 years. 

A valuable vocation

Tradespeople provide services that are essential to our homes, lives and communities – services that can’t be outsourced or ordered and shipped from an online store. 

When you discover a pipe burst in your basement and you’re ankle-deep in water, where would you be without the help of a local plumber? When a bad hair week (or month, or year) has plagued your mood, you turn to your trusted hairdresser. When you need a new look or addition to your home, you call your local carpenter.  

“Go with your gut,” says Tiso-D’aquanni. “If you don’t want to go to college, that’s fine. It’s fine to go to trade school, and I really hope people don’t look down on anyone that says, ‘I’m not going to college, I’m going to trade school instead.’ I hope no one has to hear what I was told.”

Bill Hassett, president and owner of Hassett Plumbing and Heating, Katonah. Photo by Ab Hassett.

This article was published in the September/October 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.

Kaitlyn Hardy
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Kaitlyn Hardy is studying journalism and film at Emerson College. In addition to being a writer, Kaitlyn is also an avid reader, tea drinker, and movie watcher.