I chat with Dr. Aba Bowles-Mortley, owner of Cher Mère spa. Aba is a Queen’s alumna (undergrad, masters and Phd) who — like many — made Kingston her home with her husband (and eventually four children). She grew up in Trinidad where her family owns five spas and make their own products.
Aba is truly integrated in our community, volunteering for Youth Diversion as well as Hundred Women Who Care. When I sit down with her at Coffeeco she seems to know every other passerby and greets them with a wide grin and a “How are you?!”.
Learn about her Kingston experience and a few realities of raising mixed race children in a town with little diversity.
Why did you choose Kingston?
I came to Kingston to go to Queen’s for an undergrad from Engineering and then along the way I decided to do a masters and then along the way I started to do a PhD and then along that way I was in a relationship and got pregnant and had four kids and we became Kingstonians officially (laughs). My husband always says “I wanted to go to a big city” and we kind of just ended up here. But we really like it here.
And then you started your business here…
Then we started the business, it’s a family business that we’ve been doing for 25 years [four years in Kingston]. We use our own products and then we do the services of the spa using them and it’s been really good. It’s been kind of a testing ground to see what people like and don’t like and then how can we use that feedback and expand them to different areas in Ontario and Canada. It’s been good that way and challenging because trying to balance that between promoting the products and promoting the spa and having kids is a crazy balance. We also do a lot of volunteering so when you throw that into the mix it is just a gong show. But I think it works.
You mentioned volunteering, tell me about that…
I work with Youth Diversion, I do a youth justice court committee. I’ve been volunteering there for about fifteen years now or so. I like doing that. Growing up I learned it’s an important part of giving back if you’re in a community and I feel like we should all on a human level be able to help other people. In Trinidad we always had a give back project where the company would pay a part and the staff would pay a part and we would give back specific items to different areas in Trinidad in need. So with that concept we do something similar in the spa here in Kingston. We are part of a Hundred Women Who Care. We also try to do things, for example, if we have a client who has a niece who has an issue we will give a fundraiser or we’ve done events for Veterans or people with PTSD because I just think you never know. You need to see yourself in somebody else. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing anything you do. Because you’re one step away from being somebody else so I feel like you don’t do it to get anything else back in return but to balance life out. It could be your friends or kids. I just feel very strongly about charity work.
What is it like having a small business in this small community?
I think it’s very interesting because I think it’s very word-of-mouth and maybe that’s what it’s like everywhere else but I think Kingston is such a tight knit community that it just takes one person to make or break you. It’s important to be out in the community doing stuff and not just saying,
‘Here I am!’ and expect people to come to you. It’s very much about the interactions that you have with people and making sure that those people can understand you. It’s important to be true to what you want. If we just had a spa and said, “come here and use these products” I don’t think it would work well but I think that people get that we make the products and I believe in the products and there’s something behind it and they can see that when they come in. Kingston is good for developing the skills of how to market yourself or how to get through to other people so that they can also help to market you and create a ripple effect to keep the small business going because it is all about community and it’s also about working with people. We’ve done things where you can have a girls night and have dinner next door at Atomica. It’s important to work with other businesses and reach different demographics.
Kingston has a surprising amount of spas. Is there a spa community amongst business owners?
That’s interesting because I am kind of a person that I get something in my head and I think “I am going to do it!” So when I decided to open the spa I never really thought until we were open, “Whoa! There are a lot of spas in Kington.” I think they just cater to different people. As you would get your hair done with different people. You have to have a connection with someone and I think you either like coming to our place because it’s very cozy and it’s a different environment or you don’t. I think you just kind of find your niche and if it resonates with you, you will come back and then you’ll tell people who have similar interest as you and that’s how it goes. Different spas provide different services and it balances out.
You are balancing being a mom to four children, being a wife and having a business. What is your advice for other women who have families and are balancing their businesses?
I think you have to be able to know your limitations and be able to drop things when they need to be dropped. So if your kid needs to go to soccer, figure out how to get your kid to soccer and show up. Your kid is going to remember that you were at the game versus if you weren’t. Also, be present if you’re doing stuff because my kids know if I am doing work they need to play with Dad or play downstairs but if I am doing something with them to be totally present with them is a key component.
Did you have anything you would like to add in terms of living here or owning a business here?
I think it’s been interesting because I am black, my husband is white and we come from different cultural backgrounds. He’s a farmer from Carp and I am from the Caribbean and for me it was interesting initially coming back to Kingston because things are just different. In Trinidad culturally we do the same things, whether you’re Hindu, Muslim or whatever we celebrate everything. And so for me it’s about introducing tolerance because I want my kids to be respectful and tolerant and learn about different people and be also aware when things are right or wrong and how people say things. But I don’t want to be overprotective my kids. I am trying to find that balance of yes you are different because it’s interesting now that they are getting older that they will say, “How come in Trinidad they have so many more black people and in Kingston there aren’t that many?” I think just trying to say that in different places there are different people but that doesn’t mean we are that different. Because they are mixed, they have hair that people like to touch and it drives them crazy. So just explaining sometimes when people don’t have something it’s not an excuse to just touch your hair but it’s why they do it. Just trying to teach tolerance in that way. Growing up in Trinidad that was never an issue but here when you’re kid comes home and says “I want to shave my head because I am tired of people touching it.” then you’re like, “okay, let’s talk about this.” Just because of the dynamics of our cultures and race it’s been kind of interesting.
One thing I’ve noticed since being back in town is how Kingston has grown out of the old “Florida of the North” stereotype. Sure, there are a lot of retired people who choose Kingston but there are also a ton of young people making their dreams come true – from business owners to writers and photographers. And perhaps I am a tad bias being a woman, but I am proud to see many of them are women! So I’ve decided to interview these successful ladies and find out exactly why they chose Kingston to flourish and the benefits of living in such a close knit community. Click here to meet other Boss ladies featured in this series: