Women in business share their spark

Women in business share their spark

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Contributors:

Emily Bednarz

March 8 is International Women’s Day. What better time to shine a spotlight on the incredible female entrepreneurs in Halifax?

Tanisha Ashpall-Brown owns Blush Décor, a decorating service that can outfit any occasion. Suzana Toulany owns Geo’s Pizzeria, a Dartmouth restaurant that can satisfy your weekly pizza cravings. Connie McInnes owns R Studios, a group of fitness centres that fits every body at every level.

These businesses represent different sectors, and yet the entrepreneurs behind them share similar motivations. They are driven by witnessing the joy and success of others — by creating positive experiences for the people they work with and serve. Read their stories below to learn how they discovered their passions and are working to make Halifax a stronger, bigger, and more interesting place to live.

Blush Décor
Owner: Tanisha Ashpall-Brown
blushdecor.ca

Growing up in Jamaica, Tanisha Ashpall-Brown was the person to call for all things décor. If someone was celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, a wedding, they would hear: “go get Nisha, she can make things pretty,” says Ashpall-Brown. “I was always involved in somebody’s celebration back home.”

Ashpall-Brown is now the owner of Blush Décor in Halifax, a decorating and delivery service to help you celebrate your milestones in style. Looking back, Ashpall-Brown recognizes that entrepreneurship runs in the family. “My mom was a cosmetologist,” she says. “I grew up around her doing that work, even before I knew that was entrepreneurship. And my dad was a mechanic. I grew up seeing them leave the house to go do their work and come back. Later on, I realized, hey, my parents are actually entrepreneurs.”

Ashpall-Brown fell in love with décor at a young age, and working in a bridal store in Jamaica inspired her love of sharing in celebration. “It was the most amazing thing to walk somebody through picking the right dress,” she says. “We had a little bell in the studio, and once they picked the dress, we would ask, ‘Are you ready to ring the bell?’ When we rang the bell, everybody would know — even our neighbors — that somebody found their wedding dress. Those experiences really triggered my love for this.”

Here in Halifax, Ashpall-Brown continues to be inspired by witnessing the joy of others. “What keeps me motivated is pretty easy,” she says. “I love to share in people's successes. I love to celebrate life with people. I love to celebrate their achievements with them. I love to see people happy — to see the smiles when I turn up on your doorstep, and you realize that what I brought is something for you and it's something really beautiful. I get to witness that.”

The arrangements at Blush Décor display Ashpall-Brown’s modern style, but they are always catered to the individual. (And they’re always Instagram-worthy.) “I'm inspired by other industry experts, but my personal touch comes from me talking to you,” she says. “It comes from a consultation, it comes from your smile. It comes from how I see you light up when you describe what you want to be sent to a loved one.”

Ashpall-Brown receives a lot of calls from out-of-province, which surprised her at first. “But the pandemic had created so many barriers — people couldn't connect,” she says. “We realized that even though we were in a pandemic, milestones were just not canceled. Blush Décor is all about keeping families connected through celebration.” Ashpall-Brown describes a call with a customer in Los Angeles, whose mother was living in Halifax. “She was like, ‘My mom turns 70, and I cannot be there.’ For me, it was just raw emotion,” says Ashpall-Brown. “That's where I get my inspiration from. I create from the message in your heart, and I put that message in my bookcase.”

Although she finds incredible joy in her work, Ashpall-Brown has also faced challenges. From funding, to networking, to marketing, to supply chain issues — the grind of being a new small business owner can be a “lonely street sometimes,” she says. A fierce sense of determination and self-compassion has helped Ashpall-Brown overcome these issues. “I can do this – that was my mantra,” she says. “I also learned that ‘no’ does not mean no. It just means you have to do your own research, and that you have to take your time to grow and scale your business. My biggest takeaway is that you have to put the work in.”

Blush Décor currently offers balloon arrangements, flowers, party décor, and they are now looking to expand their gift box products. Gift boxes contain a customized assortment of products to be delivered to a friend, family member, or colleague. Ashpall-Brown describes her vision for how her gift boxes could be used: “If there's a company that has employees working from home, and some of them are feeling demotivated, we can connect those employers to their employees by sending a box with your branding that says, ‘Hey, I appreciate you. I appreciate all that you've done through this.’”

Ashpall-Brown is also working on a project with a local charity to deliver gift boxes to those undergoing cancer treatment. The boxes would contain products to deliver smiles, but also to help relieve symptoms like nausea. The initiative is dear to Ashpall-Brown, who has lost close relatives to cancer. “I noticed that some people go into that fight alone, and some people come out of it alone,” she says. “We want to bridge that gap. Whether you're going into that fight, or you're in the middle of that fight, or you're leaving that fight, we can hand you a box to say, ‘Hey, we're here. We want to be a part of your journey. We want to stand with you.’”

Geo’s Pizzeria
Owner: Suzana Toulany
geospizzeria.com

Since immigrating to Canada from Lebanon in 2005, Suzana Toulany has owned and operated multiple pizza franchise businesses in Halifax. In April 2021, Toulany opened Geo’s Pizzeria in Dartmouth. Geo’s isn’t just a family-owned business — family is at the core of Toulany’s approach and passion for food. “At home, we grew up mingling around family kitchen tables,” she says. “Having family and friends around our dinner table was almost a daily occurrence, and we have many happy memories of harvest seasons, especially the olive harvest.”

Toulany was also particularly inspired by the women in her life. “Our mom, aunts, and grandmother were amazing cooks — especially my aunt, Mouzaya,” she says. “Cooking is her absolute passion, and she instilled a love of cooking and sharing good food in me at a young age.” Recognizing her talent and passion for food, Toulany’s family was sure she would work in the restaurant business. “The idea of opening a restaurant was really a given,” she says.

Toulany’s family has since enthusiastically supported Geo’s Pizzeria — a blessing during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Taking on this adventure during a pandemic was not an easy decision,” says Toulany. “However, our excitement and passion dominated any fear. We happily took on this challenge as a family. We work together and support each other.” That support also comes from the Geo’s family that extends beyond direct relatives. “Our dear staff quickly became part of our family,” says Toulany. “And we are so grateful to the community for embracing and supporting us.”

If family is the inspiration for Geo’s Pizzeria, community-building is the purpose. “Geo’s Pizzeria was born and grown here,” says Toulany. “Giving back to the community is one of our main goals.” For Toulany, this starts with connecting with her customers. “As the saying goes, nothing brings people closer like good food,” she says. “The friendships we’ve built with everyone that comes to Geo’s for their daily favourite meals really keep us going.”

Geo’s Pizzeria also gives back to the community in other ways. They are currently working on collaborating with a local charity (stay tuned for details in their flyer), as well as taking part in Dine Around Halifax to support local businesses and Feed Nova Scotia. They also recently treated healthcare workers with a surprise delivery. The replies from healthcare staff were heartwarming and moving, says Toulany. One reply said: “You created an amazing buzz amongst staff, who were moved with your kindness. I can’t believe you wrote handwritten notes on all the boxes. The timing of your boost could not have been better!”

While there are many pizza shops in Halifax, Toulany views this variety as a strength. “Diversity is a beautiful thing. It’s what makes Halifax so special,” she says. “Geo’s is about different generations working together, good memories, traditions, new and exciting ideas, love for hospitality, and sharing with others.”

What makes Geo’s Pizzeria stand out is in the details, says Toulany. Alongside offering halal, vegan, and gluten and lactose free options, Geo’s also serves up original tomato sauce. “Geo’s kitchen is not a typical list of ingredients or cooking skills,” says Toulany. “It’s a combination of passions to deliver the finest, tasty, homemade-quality meals.”

Toulany is looking forward to a busy spring and summer season at Geo’s, with new additions to their menu to include more variety and health-conscious options. “We hope, alongside everyone, that we can see the light at the end of this tunnel of pandemic,” she says. “I have learned not to be distracted by the temporary obstacles along the way, to never give up, to embrace the challenges, and to enjoy the journey!”

R Studios
Owner: Connie McInnes
rstudios.co

In 2014, entrepreneur Connie McInnes opened Rio, a yoga and pilates studio. This location would eventually grow into an innovative chain of health and fitness centres in Halifax. In addition to Rio, R Studios now also includes Rebel (for cardio boxing and strength training), Rogue (for kickboxing and circuit training), and during the pandemic, Connie opened Rinse (for hot yoga and pilates), and Rival (for getting your spin cardio fix).

What was it that lit the studio spark for McInnes? “A lifetime in fitness and competitive sports fused with a desire to create a unique community,” she says. “I created the concept when I was 21, and the original idea was to have one unique space that disrupted what the industry was currently doing.” That disruption placed greater focus on community-building, fun, and engagement. “The expansions were never part of the vision,” says McInnes. “But since I got started, it’s been hard to stop!”

R Studios also emerged from McInnes’ passion for marketing and branding. The “R” theme began with the second studio, Rogue. The marketing tease for the new space was “RIO goes rogue,” a play on how the studio would contrast the tranquil vibes of Rio. “It just grew from there,” says McInnes. “Now, I regularly have people sending me different ‘R’ brand ideas, so we have a long list to go!”

Regardless of the studio or challenge, McInnes is anchored by her sense of purpose. “COVID certainly was a bit of a wrench, but I’ve always had a very strong sense of our ‘why,’ and I have never strayed from our foundation,” she says. “My passion for what we do has allowed us to overcome anything — and there’s been a lot of things — that comes our way.” With the onset of the pandemic, R Studios launched a diverse set of virtual classes to keep members connected and engaged.

It's easy for McInnes to be inspired by the R Studios community. “I believe we make a big difference in what we do,” she says. “The last two years demonstrated that really clearly. We have witnessed some major life changes within people, and I feel like we have created amazing opportunities for people to uncover their potential. That’s enough motivation in itself to make people smile every day.”

McInnes also appreciates that her clientele recognizes R Studios’ unique approach and its impact. “People don’t feel like they need to ‘fit in,’ or focus on what they look like, or how much weight we’re challenging them to lose,” she says. The approach has even found success overseas. “We had a cool opportunity to open a studio in France a few years back,” says McInnes. “It was pretty incredible to see that, despite our imperfect attempt at teaching in another language and offering what we offer here in a completely different country, our message still translated. Our brand still translated. Our impact was still profound.”

McInnes is currently working on adding another “R” to R Studios. “We are about to introduce REST: The Recovery Room inside one of our spaces,” she says. REST is set to include an infrared sauna and cold plunge therapy. The future for R Studios also includes a heightened focus on diversity and inclusion. “I am excited to see what impact we can make,” says McInnes. “The business is starting to spread outside of our walls and of what we can do inside. Our focus is shifting to how can we create real change.”

She is committed to the success of others, but what has McInnes learned about herself since becoming a business owner? “Turns out I’m not as much of a free spirit as I thought,” she says. “This ‘passion’ project of mine has become a bit of a force to be reckoned with, and I am here to see that through.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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