#93 Storytellers I Admire: Phoebe Tagoe
On beauty and kindness on the journey of entrepreneurship
In many ways Phoebe Tagoe is the future. She is the founder and brain behind Sohlo, a web-based app and directory that helps connect mobile and at-home beauty and barber service providers to customers and the community. Through it, users get to discover and connect with local service providers and get the convenience of access to them that so many folks have wanted for years and didn’t know how to get. She called the directory Sohlo because they “celebrate the independent, those taking a chance and killing it on their own. The ‘H’ in Sohlo is for ‘home,’ ‘hustle,’ and the ‘homie,’ because we want you to think of all these things when you think of us.”
Why is she the future? Because she is a problem solver who is charged by helping people. What she’s doing may seem simple but is truly groundbreaking for people looking to connect with what I think of as care workers—hairdressers, barbers, makeup artists—in their communities. It’s a longstanding problem that she saw the solution for and started to solve. She’s building a business in her own way, at her own pace, and solving a problem for her community while bringing a new perspective to the tech and service space. In the process she’s opening up a lens into what it means to be an independent service provider in this space, starting to share their stories, and bringing light to an age-old story of beauty, connection, and care in communities of colour that have yet to be fully explored and shared.
In our conversation we talk about everything from kindness to Netflix scammers and I learn a lot about the wisdom of youth in this conversation with a storyteller I admire. This is a fun, easy chat that opens up so many new ways of thinking about stories, their role in society. Phoebe shows us how we can be a force for change just by showing up as our authentic, brilliant selves. Pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy.
Would love to hear your thoughts on today’s interviews in the comments.
Chantaie: Let's just dive in. The first question I want to start with is just, what's your story?
Phoebe: What's my story. Oh, that’s a great question. In what sense?
I reached out to you because I see you as a storyteller in the context of building your business, building Sohlo even in the work you do day-to-day at your day job. But really I’m interested in your entrepreneurship journey and how you tell stories in that space. So maybe within that context, what's your story?
P: What’s my story? I guess what's funny is that, in terms of even labeling what I am in relation to the thing that I'm building, I never really put a word to it. I guess I'll go with founder or creator of Sohlo. It didn't start out as a business. It was more that I was trying to solve a problem and the world tells me that's what's called a business. It's essentially a discovery platform for at-home or mobile service providers in the beauty and grooming industry. And right now it’s focused on the Toronto/GTA and Hamilton areas, allowing people to discover and find providers near them. Because it's really difficult to do that right now unless you know someone through word of mouth or you're lucky enough to find someone on Instagram. I had a friend's sister on her prom day have her makeup artist cancel the day of, and we were just trying to scramble to find somebody and we couldn't. But in my head I was like, ‘I know there's people on this block that can do this, they're just not visible to us right now.’ It was just a really frustrating and sad experience truthfully, because that's a really big moment for a lot of girls. So I started working on it back in 2017. I had never heard of tech in my life at that time. I'd just come out of school. I studied human kinetics in school and got a business certificate because I was just like, I don't know what I want to do. But I think one thing for me I've always liked is trying to make other people's lives easier, because life is so hard already. It's, how do we make things easier? So I just started playing around and trying things out and yeah, step by step kind of getting to where I'm at now. I had some setbacks, but it's okay. I kept going and yeah, now, it is, it's been launched and is in its baby phase right now. I'm working on the next phase of everything to add a couple more features and really lean into recruiting people and you know, essentially telling a better story about what it is having some understanding of how the people that I’ll be providing services for tell their story and how I can then be a conduit for that. And really differentiate the platform from other people that might come into the field.
So as you know, I love the idea for your business as someone who is always looking for people to do my hair. So I want to understand though, you recognized the problem—but what made you decide it was a problem you wanted to solve and the problem you wanted to spend time with? A lot of time with.
P: That's a great question. (Laughs) that's a really great question. I think because it was just such an apparent problem, it was a very, very clear problem and it affected a lot of people around me, in my environment, in my culture and I just didn't see anyone else solving it. It was kind of like if I see something that needs to be fixed or done and I can, and I'm capable or I think I can, or I'm capable, I want to do it or try to do it. And I think at the time I started, I was in this lull of trying to figure out what I like or what I wanted to do. One of the things that I always admired about people was anyone that created anything from scratch. Growing up, I was very much into arts and crafts and DIY and all that stuff. And there was a time, I think in 2017 or 2016, where there was a lot more stories about especially female entrepreneurs, but I didn't see them as entrepreneurs. It was just people that were creating and starting things that were cool. So yeah, it was literally nobody else is doing it and I think it can be done better. There’s a little bit of ego there (laughs), but yah.
Not ego, confidence. I love that. Okay. Thanks for sharing that. I'd love for you to tell me a little bit about work that you do that brings you joy. So it can be in the context of your business, or it can be in the context of your larger life.
P: Definitely. I realized that anything associated with helping someone else achieve a goal brings me joy—I don't understand it because it's a thing that's very dependent on someone else, which has always been a weird thing for me to grapple with. But when I'm at work, if somebody wants to get into a different field or a different space or a different lane and I could help them get that step forward, it brings me so much joy to help. I love being a sounding board, love making sure people can see their assets and what they're really good at because a lot of the times we're very critical of ourselves. Even with Sohlo, the reason I love it so much is in helping people find someone and do what they need to do. Just helping clear the way, helping people live easier lives. I think when other people have joy, I have joy. I'm an empathetic person. Sometimes it's great sometimes it's not.
P: You know? Which is why I didn't go into medicine like I planned. I think those things really bring me joy in terms of helping or being a part of people achieving or reaching a goal. I really enjoy it. I don't get it, but I do enjoy it. I always forget that I enjoy it until it happens. And I'm like, oh my God, I'm really charged right now. I'm really excited right now.
That was great. Thank you for sharing it. So I want to dive into stories a little bit and storytelling. In your world, and you define your world however you want, what makes a good story?
P: Hmm. I think what makes a good story in my world is anything that really puts me in the story. Where I feel like I'm a part of it—I can see myself in it in some way, I feel included in it. Someone telling a story with me or for me versus at me. Also anything that has to do with making it visual in some way, making it feel like I'm experiencing the story, then I connect with it and I connect more with the person telling the story as well. I think a great story in my world as well is anything that has a very clear point or message. Anything that's super longwinded or opaque is difficult for me to understand why I spent time listening to that story or reading that story.
Can we dive into that a little bit? It sounds like you don't like abstract stories. So what do you think it is about you or just your experience of stories that make those ones, ones that you can't or don't enjoy? What do you need?
P: I think I need that clarity. I think it’s also a sense of it being reflective of me a little bit where I want to see the purpose. I want to leave with something. I would love to take from whatever has been given to me because I feel like otherwise what's the purpose of storytelling? It's a community tool. Storytelling is not just for the individual. When I think of storytelling, I always think of ancestry and passing things down and sharing knowledge. So, you know, we've worked, I've worked with people--I'm not gonna speak for you--but I've worked with people who like to talk just to talk
P: Who have an energy I'm not here for where it doesn't feel purposeful. It doesn't feel like it's adding to the earth and the common knowledge of people. So yeah, I think that's what it is for me.
Awesome. Thank you. I appreciate that. And you provided a clear example, at least to me about what it can look like when people are telling stories that don't have as much of a purpose. So I always ask this question and I think it's an important one just to ground us. Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
P: Truthfully, if I'm gonna be honest--
Please be honest. (Laughs)
P: Just because I think storytellers are, I don't know, storytellers are always people I have been in such awe of, because I believe you need such a bird's eye view of what you are wanting to say and how you are seeing it and how you're delivering it and even just the intonation of your voice; when you get louder, when you get soft, what’s you're vibe. I don't feel like I’m there yet. I would love to be on my way. I try to absorb as much of that content as possible. But maybe I'm a baby storyteller, a storyteller in training. (Laughs)
How do, how do you define a storyteller? Who is, or what is a storyteller for you?
P: I think anyone that is able to communicate in a way that brings people with them and brings people with them in a way that they are engaged or excited. When it's like, I want to continue listening, I want to continue hearing from you. I want to see and hear you at the same time.
I almost said amen. And then I was like, let her talk <laughs> I love that. Thank you. Okay. So then who is your audience or who do you create for? Let's focus on Sohlo for this one.
P: So I create for mainly people that live in cities or suburbs in Ontario right now. Mostly people of color I find are my audience predominantly because of the nature of who the service providers are, people that work out of their homes or are mobile tend to be people of color, mostly due to systemic issues in terms of not having access to as many opportunities to obtain bank loans, or any types of loans to have physical property out of retail. But also cultural lines too where doing hair from home or with the family or in the neighborhood is very common in a lot of cultures. That's also what drives me a little bit more. Because being able to discover these people in general is difficult. I'm like, people are struggling unnecessarily. I would say I guess also gen Z millennial age, people that are comfortable, and they're used to the gig economy and being in each other's spaces and comfortable with that.
So what do you hope will be the impact of the work you're doing with that audience and with that group? Both the people using it and the people providing the services.
P: I think for the people using it, I really hope that it just alleviates that time spent looking. I think it's also that these are personal care things. It is how you represent yourself in the world and it can bring a lot of anxiety if you're not able to do what you feel you need to do to feel like your best self. Especially if it's hair and especially with black women or even makeup for anyone for a special event. So just making a little piece of life a bit easier. I know it's probably not the biggest thing, but it's still for a lot of people, a lot of their life. So hopefully being able to do that, being able to also just expose local people to these potential clients that are looking. There is someone literally down the street versus you having to take a bus to another city, which is super common just because of visibility.
On the service providers side, I really love to help them grow their businesses however they wish to. Give them that independence. Because once you have more visibility, you're able to have more clients and then hopefully then take that power into your own hands to be like, okay, I want to grow because I now have the opportunity and then can make their own decision about how they want to grow. Is it like, ‘I want to maintain this and still work out of my home? Do I want to keep earning this money and have enough to buy a salon? Do I want to keep just doing this on the side?’ It’s giving some level of empowerment through just exposure for their services which are often amazing. Their talent is there it's just being able to find and discover them.
And I’m really interested in is telling a little bit more of the story of who these people actually are, why they started. I was talking to one girl who braids and she's like, ‘yeah, I didn't go to school for this, but in high school I was the one braiding hair on the bleachers. And everybody came to me and it was just a way that I got to make people feel really good. So I just kept doing it and it ended up creating financial stability for me. I get to do what I love every day.’ And I feel like with these kinds of services, we don't really hear the stories behind why people started, why they keep going. I'm not a service provider so hearing it is interesting for me. For me I'm like, I do my own hair and I cannot wait to be done with it. But other people there's so much care taken into the idea that this client is coming to me, this is their head, I want them to look and feel so beautiful after this. It's amazing when you hear these people talk about things that you yourself might not think about in that way. So I thought it would be cool just to hear a little bit more. Many are entrepreneurs, some of them are larger entrepreneurs, but you don't hear about them that much. So I was like, it could be interesting to lean into that a little bit more moving forward.
Yeah. I love that. And that sort of segues beautifully into my next question, which is just, why do you think stories matter at all?
P: I think it's just being able to see another person's perspective, you know? Understand other people a little bit more because we all are gonna have our assumptions. Society has put that on us through media predominantly. That's what a lot of documentaries do pretty well, stories gives you a lens into someone or a situation where you might not have had direct exposure to, but you hear the story and you can connect with it. And maybe that causes you to take action in some way. I think that's what gives us more of an understanding of each other in general, because otherwise we're just all in our heads and we have our own assumptions. We're clearly not meant to be on this earth alone, there's however many of us. Right? How do we communicate? Or share who we are, what our experiences are without storytelling?
Thank you for that. And I think what you, what you just said made me think of what the past two years of the pandemic have been like. Us being sort of trapped in our own houses, trapped in our own heads. I think in a lot of ways, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, we spent a lot of time seeking out stories because I think it was that opportunity to connect in some way. I don't know how true that is anymore, but…(laughs)
Okay. So who's a storyteller that you admire.
P: Hmm. That's a good question. I think I'll go with the person who first came to my mind. Elaine Welteroth, I think does a really good job. And I say that because I've seen her do it across a few mediums. I've read her book, which of course she had editors and people working with her, but it's still the story that she's telling. And the way that she's told it I thought was really great in a way that I haven't read before. But then you also see the way that she story tells even on her Instagram stories, how she decides to present her videos, how she takes you through maybe a journey of the week in her life and makes you connect to certain people in her life. She doesn't have to show her friend and then tag her and write a little caption related to what she's doing. I do find that I feel connected to her because of the way that she communicates her story, because it feels I'm included in it.
I love that you chose her because I read her book whenever it came out and I think her book is essential reading for young Black women.
P: Absolutely. Oh my goodness.
There's just so much in it. I went into it being pretty skeptical and ended up seeing myself in so much of it. Which is wild. And I think she has an uncanny ability to show yourself, to show her reader themselves…
…or show her audience themselves. in the things that she shares. I agree her Instagram does a lot of that as well.
P: Yeah, so good.
Okay, so what's a story you've created or shared that you're especially proud of.
P: I feel I haven't gotten to do as much lately, but if I'm thinking of one that I was proud of… I think probably back in February 2020 we did black history month at Shopify [where I work] and I was lucky enough to be able to bring together a group of Black entrepreneurs to speak to the company. When I did it, I didn't think of it as storytelling. But the people that I selected were for a very specific reason and were going to bring very specific viewpoints to the conversation. And I was really proud of that because I think I did a pretty good job of having those different viewpoints, having a way to have them tell their stories that were different enough, but connected enough that the audience could see or relate to it in some way.
P: And especially with the company being predominantly white, this might have also been one of the first times they were really hearing stories in this way. So being able to have almost most bases covered where someone could relate to something they were saying and just being able for them to have that conversation between themselves, setting up the questions that we asked, and understanding what the flow of that conversation's going to be, and what I wanted people to get from that. I do feel really proud of it. It was something that I put a lot of work into and seemed to have a good outcome for everyone involved. I just never realized that was storytelling until now.
As somebody who was in the audience for that, I remember that conversation and I remember the response to it as well. I think what it speaks to is sort of the art of curation in storytelling and really thinking through the impact you're trying to have and the experience you're trying to create you definitely did that.
P: Oh, Thank you.
So is there a story that you're looking forward to telling or elaborating on that you haven't started or haven't been able to share yet?
P: Definitely the stories I would love to tell through Sohlo. Just diving into what that might look like, sound like, how that might connect. I think it feels a bit more daunting because it's more unfamiliar in terms of style. But I'm gonna try and see how we do. I'm excited to see if there is a response to it, what that looks like, and if people will take anything from it. That's definitely one that I'm really looking forward to telling. I think in the future down the line, I really would love to tell more stories about marginalized youth. I grew up in the Boys and Girls Club and working for the Boys and Girls Club for eight years afterwards and they work in quote unquote ‘at-risk neighborhoods,’ mostly government housing. And working with those kids there’s so much; there’s so much talent, so much life, so much joy, just how to kind of lean into that would be really interesting to do in my lifetime.
I love that. Those are the types of stories I want to read or engage with or see, so I cannot wait. Okay. So what's a story you've seen recently that you've loved? Or what are some of the important stories being told right now? Whether or not you love them.
P: (Laughs) I have, these first answers that keep popping up, but--
Go with your gut. Oh, I should add that to the intro. Always choose the first thing that pops into your head because that's what your brain wants to spend time with.
P: I’m being a thousand percent honest, okay? And this… it's funny. I'm gonna see what you take from this. (Laughs) The stories that I think are kind of important, because this is what I've been taking from them, have actually been these series of stories being told through either movie or TV series around scam artists that aren't really presented as scam artists. So things like “Inventing Anna,” The Dropout is the one about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the “Tinder Swindler,” the Fyre festival, that whole series. The reason I say it's important is because I watched these almost in sequence. It kicked off with “Inventing Anna” and then Netflix suggests things. I was just so in awe of how much you can get done off of confidence alone. Understanding myself and a lot of my friends where we think we have to be a hundred percent before we can take that next step forward or that next step forward or the next step forward. But watching these shows and seeing the representation of these people who believe in themselves enough that they create literally create their reality for themselves and their stuff is crazy or not true at all. But even for us where, we do actually have those skills, we do have those capabilities, we do have those resources. Like if you can take a small percentage of the confidence that those people had you can change the world.
Oh for sure, you‘d changed the world.
P: Yeah. Do you know what I mean? They literally believed enough about something that they made it true. Whether or not it was the right thing, they believed in themselves enough. If I can apply that to my good stuff, whoa, what can’t I do?
I love that. So my brain is almost always set to cynical. So when you started, I thought you were gonna go into sort of the privilege of whiteness and how scam artists are framed when they are white, because they're not positioned as these full on scam artists. These are scam artists.
P: Yeah. Scam artists is not used. That's the other thing, it is just not. I think ,in terms of the privilege of whiteness, I think for some reason that story has been told but not absorbed as much. I'm not sure why it hasn’t been absorbed by white people either.
I know. But you got a lot more out of them than me.
P: Yeah. It was more of a shock for me where I was like, dang. Like, damn. They're really just a billionaire now. Wow. I mean, what can I do with the truth?
What can I do with the truth? That's a great question. I just think even just the two ways that our brains went at that speaks to the power stories and the power of your own context. I was born cynical. I will die cynical. It's an unfortunate fact.
P: The first thing I thought of in my mind was like, there's no way a black person gets away with this.
Exactly. No, not at all
P: No, there’s not gonna be a movie. There's not enough content.
No. Oh man. Okay. final question. And I want you to listen to your heart and your gut with this one. So take your time with it. There's no rush in answering. What is your governing principle or wisdom in life, or you can think of it as, what is your life philosophy?
P: Honestly, leading with kindness. But kindness to yourself first.
Tell me about that.
P: So I think a lot of times when people think of kindness, it's being kind to others, but I think a lot of times—and I have been guilty of this—is that you sacrifice yourself to be able to do that. But when you lead with kindness and if you've already been kind to yourself, you know how to truly be kind to others. And I think that again, life is already so hard that I find moving with kindness has always been easier for me and has always been more impactful and a positive way to impact those around me. You never know what someone's story is. And you never know where someone is coming from and all you can do is what feels the best for you. And for me, that is just trying to lead with kindness. And authentic kindness. Because nobody has time to be fake. That's energy. I think people don't realize that. That's energy, you know?
Oh my gosh, you are so much wiser than me when I was your age. Like, legit. I probably learned kindness five years ago. (Laughs) Not to say I was mean, but understanding the power of kindness.
P: There's a lot of power, but it's usually long term. It's not a short-term thing. Because short term it's like, no, no, no, that girl was a bitch. I'm gonna be a bitch back. You're not gonna take me for a fool. You're not gonna embarrass me and da, da, da, da, da But long term, it's just always better. It's just always better.
And it's not nice. It's not about being nice. It's actually kindness. Kindness is a whole other word, a whole other thing. It’s more of a verb.
Well thank you for sharing that
P: It's hard.
Yeah. (Laughs) I agree. You’re testing me. As someone only a few years into it. I agree. Thank you so, so much for doing this. Was there anything that you wanted to share with folks? I will include links to all of your things. So don't worry about that. But anything else that you thought we'd talk about or you wanted to express that perhaps, we didn’t get to?
P: No, I think the questions covered everything
Okay. Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this.
P: It was so great.
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