While Dr Aba Mortley does not use her chemical engineering degrees in her business, she uses the training derived from them to create solutions and improve the lives of those around her.
Her drive and willingness to help others is what prompted the St Lawrence College (SLC) in Kingston, Ontario, Canada to bestow an honorary diploma upon the Trinidad-born spa owner on June 16.
Mortley, 43, is the owner of two Cher-Mère Day Spas in Kingston, Ontario and the daughter of biochemist and founder of the Cher-Mère brand, Cheryl Bowles.
She received a bachelor's degree in engineering chemistry from Queen’s University in Ontario in 2002 and her master's and doctorate in materials and chemical engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada, Ontario in 2005 and 2010 respectively.
“I like to do things that I like to do and I'm interested in, but I also feel that people are not linear and the skills that you get as you go from one thing to another can help build what you are.
“I think it allowed me and it allows me to be somebody who thinks about the bigger picture and how can we find a solution to stuff.”
For example, she said in Kingston the population is made up of students as there are three universities, as well as government officials so there has been an increasing number of people of colour in the area.
However, there are not many places that do textured hair so black people have to leave the area to get it done.
“Within the Kingston Economic Recovery Team, of which I am a part, I chaired a group called Workforce and Systematically Underrepresented Individuals which discussed how to help the working poor, new immigrants and those who are affected because of the systems that are put in place that impede their progress.”
As part of those groups, she instigated the Texture with Confidence project within SLC’s hair dressing programme. The Kingston Economic team, SLC and partners did an application to the Ontario skills grant to get money that would allow for the facilitation of courses to discuss and teach textured hair concepts to existing salon owners so that they could expand their repertoire.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous. We need to train people who are there and then we have to fix the pipeline. We need to figure out how to micro-credential people to do the service.’ Obviously, there's still a lot of work to be done but at least this is step one. There's an acknowledgement that this work needs to continue, and it has to get going.
“But now we have to move to the point of doing styles. Let's get to making it a familiar thing. Let's get to letting the community know people who are doing those styles and what they're doing so that they can gain trust and start to build their repertoire.”
Also, during the height of the covid19 pandemic, spas were closed so she created boxes with materials and tools to do pedicures or facial for sale so people could do it themselves with the help of virtual guides. The boxes also incorporated items from different business in Kingston such as gift cards for restaurants or coffee from coffee shops.
Not only were they great marketing tools but were a way to keep people working and for businesses to passively earn income while they could not perform services.
“I feel like we are not an island. In order to progress you have to support and be supported by community, and you have to do initiatives to help each other. And so I feel like that thinking comes from someone who does engineering or a master's or PhD. To determine how we can come around to a solution that helps to improve and to make us have an end goal of staying in business and supporting each other.”
Mortley has been on various boards and councils and volunteers with NGOs in Kingston. She is presently the co-chair of the Anti-Racism Task Force, a board member of the Homelessness Collective Impact Committee, is a member of the United Way Round Table and volunteers at the Youth Diversion Organization.
Over the years she has also been a board member of Tourism Kingston, University Council on Anti-Racism and Equity, and the Downtown Business Association.
This year, her efforts were recognised by SLC.
She said, “It is nice to be acknowledged for my work. I didn’t intend to be noticed for it, but rather I wanted to make a change. I felt very humbled and honoured to receive the degree from SLC. It was quite unexpected and I have a lot of gratitude that I have received it.”
Speaking to WMN at a team-building retreat in Chaguanas, Mortley said she was born into the Cher-Mère brand and has known some of the workers since she was a child. She said some employees even returned to work at the company after they retired and they were like family.
Currently holding the title of assistant general manager/international marketing at Cher-Mère, Mortley always intended to be part of the brand, even when she left Trinidad and Tobago to study in Canada in 1998.
Focussing on skin care rather than hair, she opened the first Cher-Mère Day Spa in Canada, using Cher-Mere products, in downtown Kingston in 2013 and expanded to a second location in the west end of Kingston in 2018.
“Here and in Canada, we try to create a culture of community, support and inclusivity. We have a give back project here (in TT) and we also have something similar (in Canada). So every month, we give to a local charity. Whether we're doing period poverty with the United Way or donating to a youth or youth shelter, every month we attach to something and give a percentage of sales or donate the sakes from a particular item or service.
“So I think for me, when people leave, I want them to know that this is a product that we make and that we use. I want them to feel like it's a safe space. Like whether you're black, indigenous, a person of colour, or LGBTQ+, that this is a space that you could come. You're not gonna get judged. You can get pampered and you can feel safe and secure. Not like it’s a transaction but like it’s a community.”
In addition to running two spas, being on boards and volunteering, Mortley has been married to Canadian Ted Bailey for 20 years and has four children ages eight, 11, 13 and 15.
“My husband is phenomenal, super supportive. He is an equal partner who also has his own business. It’s about teamwork – having somebody who understands and backs up what you’re doing.”
She describes her life as interesting and exciting because she likes to be busy.
She said, from a young age, she learned small things can make a difference so she and her husband continue to volunteer. She believed people are tools to help one another so they try to remember not everyone has their values and it is important to just be nice to others and expose them to different options in the hopes their choices would result in a more beneficial life.
“I think sometimes people think things are insurmountable and they can't do it so they don't do it. But what I've learned is that one person can start a ripple effect of making a bigger change if we all did just one little thing. It doesn't have to be a grand gesture but if you can do more then do more.”
Cher-Mère includes day spas as well as all-natural, herbal, and eco-friendly skin, hair, and body care products which are available on the Cher-Mère website and on Amazon.
Mortley said she is proud of her mother as well as the brand which has lasted over 35 years in a climate where people prefer new things. She said the longevity speaks volumes for the brand and the staff who believe in the products.
She said the products, which were created for a TT market, translate to anywhere in the world as they were consistently natural for a variety of skin tones and colours. Also, they are able to transcend TT’s tropical climate as some lighter products, like lotions, are perfect for the summer while heavier products, like body butters, can be used during the winter.
She added that she and Bowles continually challenge each other on how they could be more environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and inclusive. And she hopes to keep up with brand recognition and keep building the brand – expanding it and raising awareness in more countries around the world.