Naval Academy Grad Looks to Break Stereotypes with Grooming Company

The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., seen in 2007. Reports of sexual assaults at the three military academies jumped by more than 50 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Kathleen Lange, File/AP
The U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., seen in 2007. Reports of sexual assaults at the three military academies jumped by more than 50 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Kathleen Lange, File/AP

Growing a beard first started as a coping mechanism for Nicholas Karnaze.

He made the decision when he heard his friend and fellow Marine Justin Hansen was shot and killed during a combat operation in northwest Afghanistan.

Hansen had a full beard when he died, so Karnaze would have a full beard at his funeral.

Four years later, Karnaze, a Naval Academy graduate, founded Stubble & 'Stache, a company that creates grooming products for bearded men. He started the business to remember his friend, as well as raise money for veterans. About 10 percent of the company's proceeds are donated to the MARSOC Foundation, which helps families of active service members, medically retired and soldiers killed during duty.

"Going to war is not a natural thing, so no one is coming home unscathed," Karnaze said. "This extends beyond the military, (mental health) is nothing to be ashamed of."

November is commonly known as "No Shave November," where men grow facial hair to honor those have been diagnosed with illnesses, like cancer.

Right now, the Arlington-based company sells products like a beard care starter kit, face moisturizer and beard conditioner, beard balm and a face and beard wash.

Karnaze graduated from the academy in 2004 and was eventually deployed to Afghanistan as a special operations officer in the Marines Corps.

He stayed in the military until 2011, where he earned the rank of captain. While he never expected to start his own company when at the academy, Karnaze said his time in Annapolis did teach him that there's "always something greater than yourself."

"It gave me a clear idea of what it meant to be a citizen, the weight that it carries and how powerful it is to pursue something bigger than yourself," he said.

By growing the beard for his friend's funeral, Karnaze said he forgot how itchy and dry facial hair can be. He didn't like any of the products on the market, so he decided to make his own.

He shared his homemade moisturizer with some of his Navy SEAL friends. When they kept asking for more, Karnaze decided to go into business.

His products are available on Amazon, in Washington, D.C., area barbershops and soon with Birchbox, monthly subscription service that sends its customers a box of samples.

From the company's inception, Karnaze said he knew he wanted Stubble & 'Stache to help veterans. In October 2015, he testified in front of Committee of Veterans Affairs in Congress about combat veterans receiving mental health care when returning back to the United States.

"After coming home, I lost a number of friends to suicide," he said. "I have suffered myself."

Alex Martin, who attended the academy with Karnaze, uses the products because of the larger message. Karnaze and Stubble & 'Stache are helping break the stereotypes that can plague veterans, Martin said.

"I can look like I can be a tough veteran, but I can talk about mental health issues and my past with confidence," Martin said. "It casts it all forward."

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