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Running a business

Catherine Addai-Boadu of Kaela Kay is bringing her heritage to the fashion industry

Name: Catherine Addai-Boadu

Location: Toronto, Ontario 

Pronouns: She/Her

Business: Kaela Kay. A women’s clothing brand that encourages women to live their boldest fashion moments in colorful pieces that inspire joy and creativity. The brand is named after my daughter, Kaela. 

Describe yourself in three words: Persistent, optimistic, and peopler (I made that one up—I really like connecting with people and learning about their lives and their lived experiences!)

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started?

I started Kaela Kay as a form of fashion self-expression. I merge prints from my native Ghana with my North American style in a modern and eclectic fashion brand for the modern woman. I was having a hard time finding my style in stores—I knew in my mind what I wanted to wear, but I couldn't find the exact look. From discussions with my friends, they were also having similar issues. These experiences heavily influenced how I built my brand. Also, my mother gifted me my very first sewing machine so I’m eternally grateful to her for being my first supporter on this journey. 

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year? 

Ask a lot of questions! You don’t know what you don’t know and you gain so much more when you connect with people in the industry and ask questions. It was also better for my mental and emotional well-being when I made connections with people I could share ideas with and who understood the pains of running a business. Join a community or find people you can learn from and share with.

How does running your own business make you feel? 

Like a boss! Finding success in the fashion industry (especially when it’s a niche market) can be elusive. I’m grateful for my opportunities and experiences and I’m very proud of my accomplishments. To have achieved as much as I have with no formal fashion design training or business training makes me know that I’m doing what I’m meant to do because I’m doing it with passion, love, and free will. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome? 

From the onset, I had to teach myself everything about fashion design and running a business because I don’t have formal training in either area. I had to learn about design techniques, production processes, financial management, communications, and people management. I also didn’t have any financial support. I invested my own money and had an angel donation from my husband, and then I gradually expanded through sales and revenue streams. 

Now that I have those areas under control, the challenge that I continue to work on is learning to turn work off. Learning to put down the laptop, stop responding to emails, set boundaries with clients, and find a balance that will see me work smarter.

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Large corporations and consumers all of a sudden wanted to support Black entrepreneurs, but we need those opportunities on a consistent basis.

What challenges do you feel are unique to Black small business owners? 

Visibility and financial backing. During the height of the BLM movement, a lot of Black small business owners were “put on” by larger companies—which is great. But the timing really pulled to focus the struggle for visibility that Black entrepreneurs experience because they had always been around before this movement. Large corporations and consumers all of a sudden wanted to support Black entrepreneurs, but we need those opportunities on a consistent basis.

What are your proudest moments? 

I have so many! Any opportunity for my children to see me in my element. I had the opportunity to have some of my products included in an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and my husband Nick and I took our children to see the exhibit. They were so excited that my name was on a plaque in this historic place :). Another fun moment—I inspired the LCBO to name a cocktail trend after me. I participated in this great campaign where the LCBO selected Ontario-based movers and shakers in the fashion industry and they thought I was cool enough to be on the list! 

But my proudest moment is when I opened my store The Kaela Kay Boutique and Fashion Studio in Toronto—a feat that seemed as tall as a mountain. I resigned from my corporate career in 2017 and in 2019 I opened my store to bring fresh fashion and cultural experience to my clients. The scariest business decision I’ve ever made and by far the most rewarding.

What are the next big plans you have for your business? 

One of my biggest business goals is to connect as many people as possible across the world to Kaela Kay. I want it to be easy for clients to access my brand and I'm focused on connecting with boutiques and retail outlets to do small run batch pieces in various cities in North America and Europe at the moment with plans to expand to Africa and Australia. 

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going? 

My children. I keep going so they know what it’s like to set goals and crush them; so they know what it’s like to build a life that you want to live; and so they also know that hard work and tenacity always win (sprinkled in with a bit of fun). They are still young enough that they are wowed by the idea of Mommy owning her own business and being her own boss. And their hugs make everything feel better at the end of the day. 

How can Black business owners support each other and their community? 

Shop at each other's businesses or recommend each other’s services. Sharing a Black-owned business keeps the momentum going. Also, providing constructive and thoughtful feedback to each other in a way that allows the other person to improve. As a Black sister or brother, we should be able to let the other know in a supportive manner if there is feedback to help the business improve so that the business can grow. 

What advice would you give to other Black business owners just starting out? 

Plan, plan, plan and then execute. Have a strategy on paper that you refer to in moments of doubt or uncertainty. Let that document outline goals, expectations, and timelines and modify it as needed when your business grows. 

Outsource what you cannot do to contractors who specialize in those areas. Whether it’s making the product, accounting, bookkeeping, customer service, reception, or advertising. This will free up your time to concentrate on doing the tasks that will grow the business. 

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Hard work and tenacity always win.

How do you make time for yourself while running a business? 

I force myself to prioritize it. That includes workout times, nail and hair salon appointment times (i’m the queen of long nails, as you can see on my Instagram; putting on DNT at 10pm every evening; and putting our kids to bed at a good time so Nick and I can relax and get ready for the next day. 

What advice would you give new business owners about balancing work and mental/physical health?  

It is more than OK to stop and unplug. I had a negative relationship with unplugging because I felt that I always had to be working. I thought if I wasn’t working then someone else would be and that person would take the opportunity or the space that I should be in. Not true. Unplugging gives me time to refocus and revitalize. Grinding or constant “hustling” after a while wears the body down; you need to operate with strategic intention for growth. 

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What is the single most important healthy habit you've developed that you feel makes you more successful? Why?

Learning to look at failed opportunities or failures as a chance to do it differently. Instead of wallowing in what could have been, I think: “What can I do with this situation now?” It has taken a lot of mental work to see “failures” like that; but this way , you technically never fail or lose. I also try not to look at business experiences and opportunities as losing or winning - more like a process filled with ebbs and flows that are affected by things I can control and some things that I can't and learning to manage the moments as best as possible.

What’s your “power song” and why? 

Any Afrobeat song really puts me in a positive mood. 

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