Allison Diabo has a some advice for those opening a business if they want it to succeed: do what you love and keep your overhead low. She’s been doing what she loves for 30 years. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)
Debbie Delisle sat down Wednesday at the Kahkotsi:io Beauty Salon on Mayo Road in the village area to get her nails done by technician Lindsay Diabo.
Thursday, it was time for the hair.
Delisle is a loyal customer at the beauty salon that just past three decades in operation in the community and is run by Allison Diabo.
Seeing a woman succeed for decades in the community providing jobs for three young women is an example Delisle hopes is emulated.
“It’s what we need more of,” said Delisle. “We need more women to step up to the plate and get their voices heard and start being a part of the community. It’s what she represents to me.”
Allison remembers clearly what was going through her head when she left her previous job at Eaton’s in the Cavendish Mall to build on her client base in Kahnawake.
“I hope people take me seriously and I just wanted to do my job,” she said. “I used to travel to the city and it took me two hours… I was 17, and I didn’t have a car, and I used to take public transit.”
After two years at Eaton’s, Diabo decided to launch Kahkotsi:io, which means beautiful hair, a name her late fluent Kanien’kéha father, John Sawatis Diabo, came up with.
It was her father and mother, Sandra Peterson Diabo, who encouraged Allison to set up shop in town.
“My parents were saying, you have some client base. You might as well just try it instead of doing all that travelling,” said Allison. “I tried it and I stuck with it.”
At first, Allison’s salon was in a small space at her previous home next door to the current salon. Though not fancy, the decision to start small and simple was a keen business decision she recommends young entrepreneurs consider.
“Probably the best advice I could give you is: less overhead is better,” she said.
She eventually moved next door, expanded in the early 90s, and then moved downstairs to the current location around 2007. The renovations were stressful, but Allison, who’s been married to Kevin Cross for 25 years, packed up her scissors and visited clients at their homes.
“The worst part was that I renovated the house, that’s how I ended up moving down here; they had to move the house up,” said Allison. “They knocked down the old foundation.”
Delisle is one such customer that had been a loyal customer of a hair dresser in Chateauguay (who has since moved to Delson), and she began going to Kahkotsi:io when her daughter Victoria started working there.
“I ended up coming here, and was thinking, ‘why didn’t I come here all along?’” said Delisle.
Nail technician Lindsay Diabo was servicing Delisle and spoke about what it’s like working at the salon.
“I love it,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’m coming to work every day. I’m just coming to hang out with all my friends, basically. Clients become friends, and it’s just a really relaxed environment.”
The connection between a hairdresser and his or her clients is a very important one for many, and Delisle spoke about the connection she has with Diabo and her staff.
“When we talk, I think it’s not only that human part, but we also have a connection spiritually too,” she said. “We connect that way, so we have some nice conversations that way. It’s like a friend.”
In addition to Lindsay, Brittany LeBorgne and Allison’s daughter Kiana Cross work at the salon as assistants.
For Kiana, her mother’s example is an empowering one.
“It’s really inspirational; my mom has always been someone I look up to,” said Kiana. “I learned from her that you can’t let your age, gender or people who doubt you get in the way of your dreams. Always be professional, kind and strong. I’m beyond grateful to call her my employer, my mom and my role model.”
It took about 20 years, but Allison said for the past decade she has finally become comfortable at work and doesn’t stress about keeping the doors open due to lack of customers.
“I think it’s just that I’ve been here long enough that mostly everybody knows I’m here and this town works best by reputations, so somebody tells somebody else and things like that,” she said. “People will try a business once if it’s new, but it takes time to build up that trust with people and for people to like you or like what you’re doing. That’s the best way to get clients.”
In addition to the practical advice, the secret to her success is simple.
“I think the magic component of the whole thing is I love what I do, and that’s the whole thing,” said Allison. “People come up with an idea because they’re randomly grasping at ideas, ‘what should I open?’ It’s almost like, take what you do and do something with it.
“Do something you really love because sometimes it becomes so hard that it’s not worth it, almost, if you don’t love it.”
What does she love about the job?
“Everything and sometimes none of it,” said Allison with a big laugh