WHEN Dr Aba Mortley opened her first Cher-Mère Day Spa in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, she was continuing her family's beauty business legacy from Trinidad. And last month she continued to make that legacy proud when she won her category in the Rise Up Pitch Competition, an online black Canadian business competition, and secured a covid19 innovation grant.
According to the Rise Up website, the competition "is an opportunity for Black women entrepreneurs, at any stage of business, to shine and pitch for the chance to win thousands of dollars in financial awards and resources."
The site added: "This program has been designed to help Black women entrepreneurs develop key skills, build their networks, and receive the support they need to succeed."
All about community
Mortley, speaking to Newsday in a telephone interview, said she received the information about the competition from multiple sources. She explained she is very active in Kingston as a member of different community agencies including WE-CAN Women Entrepreneurs organisation out of Queen's University (her alma mater) and, more recently, the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA). She is also chair of Tourism Kingston and co-chair of the Queen's University council.
"One of the pillars of Cher-Mère's business in TT and Canada is community. In order to be successful, you need a greater network structure and giving back is important. We do so many community things and people send info to help us. It flows both ways."
She recalled last year following the George Floyd killing in Minnesota she was involved with the community group Let's Talk Kingston and hosted panels with the mayor, police chief, black and indigenous platforms.
"It was a safe space to ask questions and challenge beliefs and thoughts."
She said the city is aware of the activities of the business and is very supportive of small businesses.
Asked why she entered the competition, Mortley said covid has been very difficult on her two spa locations in Kingston.
"We employ more than 15 people and we worked hard to minimise that loss. There were several periods where we just shut down."
She said however, they did a good job in switching gears and promoting the product via online sales through Cher-Mère in a box, and she was able to retain staff.
She described the Rise Up competition as a good opportunity to showcase how they could maximise the grants and support the business.
"(The grant) and winning the competition would continue to keep the momentum up and keep the trajectory upwards."
Mortley explained the competition had several components, starting with a first round where they asked generally about the mission and vision, an overview of what the business did, and what the funds from the grant would be used for.
For the second round, they asked for more details, a succinct business plan, measurable targets, and tangible things the business did to substantiate the claim there was successful recovery from the impact of covid.
Mortley made it to the finals, the live pitch competition on February 26 where she would go up against two other finalists in her category.
"It was a great opportunity. Even if I didn't win it was just a learning opportunity and it would open a few more doors."
She recalled the competition provided her and the other participants with a lot of seminars on marketing and other topics, and she was given a one-on-one pitch coach. She also received help with her pitch from her fellow BBPA members.
The time limit for the pitch was six minutes and it was before about five or six judges and then two minutes for judges' suggestions or questions. Of the three finalists, Mortley was up first. And how was the experience of the pitch?
"It was quite funny. My family has been making Cher-Mère products for a very long time. I grew up in the business. I know it like the back of my hand. I just had to say my family history."
She compared the experience to when she had a project in school and though you thought it was really good there was still a lot of nerves about whether it was the winning project.
"I calmed myself. I thought regardless of what happens the experience is a good one. Win or lose it will not be the end-all or be-all. And I prepared the best I could and gave it my best shot. No matter what I'm still winning."
Mortley's mother Cheryl Bowles was watching the pitch live and said her daughter "nailed it."
"She was fluent, energised, knowledgable, to such an extent that all the judges praised her and her energy. She was asked questions by all the judges."
She recalled Mortley started with the story of Cher-Mère being a four-generation journey from her great grandmother using natural ingredients like cucumber to soothe and tone skin, egg whites and magnesia for facial masks, then to her grandmother an esthetician and hairdresser, to her mother a biochemist (Bowles), who left her job to pursue Cher-Mère on the advice of her own mother.
Mortley also shared how she was part of Cher-Mère in TT and upon reaching Canada saw limited options for skin and hair care products for black people.
"She described Cher-Mère natural products and its sustainability for 35 years in a very multiethnic market, innovation in Canadian online sales with Cher-Mère in a box, the box was environmentally friendly (one judge says she liked the eco-friendly environmental approach); the use of social media to increase her online sales by 1660 per cent with this innovation, tracking return on investment, and Prizm (digital marketing agency) tracking. In the end, she also grew her return customers from 18 per cent to 42 per cent within the one year of covid. Her next step is to take Cher-Mère globally."
Bowles said her daughter was "beyond and above her game."
Mortley said after the pitch the winners would be notified via e-mail. When she did not receive one she thought someone else had won. But she tuned in for the prize-giving ceremony to support the other women there and to see who won.
"When they called my name I was like 'what is happening?' It was a slightly out-of-body experience. I was shocked."
At the time she was speaking with her mother via WhatsApp and when the announcement was made her mother cheered and her husband also came into the room and congratulated her.
"It made me so emotional I almost broke down."
Bowles noted the win opens many doors for her daughter in Canada and globally.
"If she did not know it before, Aba has re-cemented and established her mark as Cher-Mère brand persona, next generation. The baton passing over the years has been a wonderful success culminating in this exciting event."
Mortley said the winners will be receiving compensation and it will be used towards continuing advertising and the programme they have set out. She also said it opened up doors to sell the products on other platforms.
She recalled she always grew up with plans to have Cher-Mère globally.
"The product is really good and people use it. It is how to get from now and to where people start echoing 'I know Cher-Mère.'"
She viewed the business as a relay race and family legacy that she was continuing. She added she was grateful to the business community in Kingston for their support.
"I couldn't be where I am without that whole village."
About Dr Aba Mortley
Aba Mortley moved to Kingston, Ontario from TT to do an undergraduate degree in engineering at Queen’s University, followed by a Masters and PhD in Materials and Chemical Engineering at the Royal Military College. In 2013, Mortley opened the first Cher-Mere day spa, using the family’s name brand Cher-Mere products, in downtown Kingston and expanded to open a second location in 2018. She is currently the chair of the Tourism Kingston board, co-chair of Queens University Council on Anti-Racism and Equity, member of the downtown business association board, member of the Kingston Economic Recovery Team (KERT) and chair of the subcommittee for underrepresented groups in the Workplace for KERT.
For over 20 years Mortley has actively volunteered at Youth Diversion. Along with her partner Ted, they enjoy raising four young children, Wyatt, Ryder, Meredith and Otto. More recently, Mortley has been organising panel discussions through the Kingston Let’s talk platform to share and normalise the dialogue about the lived experiences for racialised members of the Kingston community and how we can all work together to make a more equitable and anti-racist future.
(Courtesy the Rise Up Pitch Competition)