Inspire: Soharni Tennekoon
We kick off 2019 with a spotlight on the brilliant & beautiful Soharni Tennekoon, co-Founder & Managing Director of Black Cat (one of Colombo's best cafés). Read on as Soharni chats to us about entrepreneurship, motherhood, mental health & more!
1. Black Cat Is a Barressential fave and a Colombo staple, how did it all come about?
It’s kind of a funny story; Black Cat was sort of our retirement plan. When my husband and I returned from Melbourne 5 years ago, we gradually realized that there was relatively little demand for our respective professions in Lanka (he’s an Industrial Designer, I’m a Pediatric Speech and Language Therapist). But we knew we wanted to stay on this beautiful island so we had to think laterally. Fortunately we’d always be throwing around pie-in-the-sky ideas, and one of them was to someday maybe open a small Cafe, Shop, and Bnb.
So we fast-tracked the dream and set out on making it a reality. This was a year in to adjusting to Colombo living, so it was peak Melbourne-withdrawl time. Concept-wise, we basically set up a place that we wanted to hang out in! Good coffee was an obvious one - Youssef knows his beans, literally, and coming from Melbourne where the standard was super high, we saw a big gap in the market here at the time. A small menu, using seasonal, locally sourced, fresh produce was also important to us, especially given the choice of fresh fruit and veg on this tropical paradise island. And for ethical reasons we try to avoid as much as possible factory farmed meat/dairy/eggs.
We didn’t hire an interior decorator, we knew what our vibe was going to be: up-cycled meets industrial. All the furniture at Black Cat was either sourced by the two of us at antique/second hand furniture stores, or built by Youssef. We found old Singer sewing machine tables and combined them with old restored doors. We were keen to minimize our plastic use from the get-go, so we decided that water was to be served in glass bottles, while shampoos and shower gels up in the Bnb were provided in small ceramic carafs. Our hot water is all solar-powered.
Possibly my secret fave founding values was that our cafe was going to be dog-friendly. As someone who has 3 dogs and likes (loves) to take them places, we realized that there were very very few establishments in Colombo that allowed dogs. I think we were one of the first pet-friendly cafes, and I’m glad it’s caught on!
2. Part & parcel of running a business is the fantastic highs and the not-so great lows, its hard to hold on at times for the whole ride! What advice do you have for other budding entrepreneurs?
It’s not always easy, but a combination of things helps; having a business partner to talk you off a ledge is definitely one!
It also helps to periodically evaluate your status quo, and re-evaluate your long term goals to see if they still align with your values/are feasible.
A good support network is also key - especially if you have friends who are also small business owners. Sharing ideas/ highlighting common issues/ problem shooting etc even if you’re not in the same industry per se, creates a strong, supportive entrepreneurial community that you can draw from.
3. You co-own the business with your husband - what are the benefits of having a loved ones as a co-founder?
Initially, it was a tricky dance because we’d constantly be talking about work, and taking work home with us (literally and figuratively), and the lines between work and marriage would blur. So we had to be careful to maintain a distinction there!
But having a business partner whom you work well with definitely helps split the load, so you’re playing to your strengths. And if it’s someone who knows you well and you trust implicitly, then it becomes a much more fluid process eg. someone to hash out ideas with, brainstorm solutions, give you a fresh perspective, reassure you in times of doubt, and give you a boost to get back on track. We know each other’s rhythms and limits, so there’ll be times when one of us is stuck on an issue, or having a particularly bad day at work, and the other person just throws in a hug and goes, ‘I’ve got this’.
I’m incredibly grateful Youssef is my partner, on so many levels. Especially when a baby came into the picture. The sheer, terrifying amount of work that he took on, given that Sinhala is not his language, and Lanka not being his home - adapting to a new culture and a new work culture with so much grace and tenacity, astounds me.
4. You are mum to a beautiful little baby girl - how (if at all) has your outlook on work & life changed since she came into the picture?
She’s the best marshmallow, and I’m so grateful for her. Having her inadvertently pulled me out of a work rut, and pushed me to start prioritizing and organizing my time more effectively. Now I’m more hands-on mama, and much less hands on at work now - though I’m in every morning to be brought up to speed on the management side of things. Youssef is at the helm and has singlehandedly made what Black Cat is today, so that takes a lot of pressure off me having to be back at work full time. Black Cat has also grown in the 3 years it’s been running so I’m not required for the day to day work I used to do when we first started.
Maya’s also old enough to spend a couple of hours each morning at playgroup or at my mum’s place, which frees up a window to get some work done, and fit some much-needed barre and pilates in! The rest of the day is quality Maya-time. I feel that having been able to strike that work-life balance has made me happier at work AND at home because I appreciate my time more. I’m loving the balance I’m privileged to have.
5. Black Cat has a fabulous balanced menu - the healthy end but also the devilishly delightful items like Bellissima's CBP - what's your personal view on "good" nutrition?
At Black Cat, we make the effort to use locally sourced, daily fresh produce, and avoid factory farmed meat, dairy or caged eggs. And I think those things do tie into nutrition. Knowing where your food comes from is telling of its quality. Balance is the key, I think, for everyday nutrition, and not denying yourself simple pleasures like bread, or chocolate.
I try to eat a whole foods plant-based diet during the day (to try to reduce my impact on animal suffering and the environment), but dinner is more flexible. I get cackled at a lot when I say Whole Foods Plant Based, because it’s basically Veganism 2.0, and everybody hates on vegans. But I guess you could say it’s more balanced because if you understand the science behind it, you can ensure you get all the necessary minerals and vitamins and proteins in to be strong and healthy. Being vegan doesn’t automatically make you eat a balanced diet - and that’s where the danger lies. You could just eat carbs and junk food like crisps and coke, and still technically be vegan. But WFPB focuses on a healthy ratio and balance of legumes, pulses, nuts, vegetables, fruits and grains.
I figure that whatever makes your digestive system respond well, and boosts your energy and immunity levels, qualifies as good day to day nutrition. It can be hard though, so I’m not sure I’m ready to be all in just yet, hence the day/night dietary dichotomy. But I figure everything in moderation right? Do what you can. Just because you cant do everything (ie. go full plant based), doesn’t mean you should do nothing. I don’t believe in an all or nothing situation, because it hampers progress.
6. We love that your actively address mental health topics on social media -from depression to anxiety - mental health is a topic that remains largely unaddressed in Sri Lanka - what motivated you to open up about your own journey and what words of encouragement would you give to anyone who is currently going through depression?
Those are some really important questions, thank you for asking them! Mental health is still very much a taboo topic amongst the general public. But things are slowly changing, and as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, I find solace in the words and ideas of others who do too. So if I can contribute to this culture of openness and breaking down of taboos and barriers, then I’m all for it.
I find writing my thoughts down to be hugely cathartic. Writing is my favorite medium for organizing my thoughts. And when I get messages from friends going through their own silent mental health struggles, saying they found comfort in something I said, it makes me happy to know I’ve affected someone’s life positively. A lot of people suffer in silence. Some die in silence. So I think the more people talk about it, like they would a physical health issue, the less stigma there is, and the more likely people who are suffering will seek help.
And I don’t mean everyone needs to start sharing on social media; if talking to a close friend or partner is a first step, then that’s a great one - and a big one! There is absolutely no shame in seeking help. And it’s out there, in so many different forms. For me personally, it’s a combination of regular: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, medication, journaling, self care, practicing my strategies and of course my amazing support system (my husband, my family and my close friends). I’m aware that I’m very privileged to have access to all these things. And not everybody needs all of it, it’s different for each person. Consistency is key. But if you’re struggling, start by journaling and/or talking to someone close to you. There IS help available, and the first step of reaching out is always the hardest, but it’ll be one of the best things you could do for yourself and your loved ones.
7. Equally important, what advice would you give to the loved ones of those that go through anxiety/depression?
In my experience, your loved ones deserve as much support as you do. It’s not easy being the rock when the person you love is hitting their lowest lows. It’s so so important that your partner/family/friend takes time out for self care. To replenish and replace all the things they give us. It’s that whole airplane oxygen mask analogy - you can’t take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself first. And that’s not selfishness, it’s self-preservation. Constant open communication between yourself and your loved ones helps keep everyone on the same page about what you’re going through. It also helps to point out how each person could help specifically. eg. ‘Can you go to Keells with me because I get anxiety in big crowds and multi-sensory overstimulation at the supermarket’. That way, you’re getting the type of help you need, and your loved ones know they’re helping in the right way.
8. You came to Barressential as a new mum, how did Barressential help your healing journey in the postpartum period?
I am forever grateful for everything Barressential did for my recovery after I had my baby. My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner! Nare has been so supportive and attentive from the start, and she really put my healing at the focal point of my exercise. There was no pressure to ‘lose that babyweight’ or ‘get your body back’. If anything, my postpartum pilates classes with Nare made me become more kind to my body. They had me constantly marveling at this amazing thing my body had just done, and appreciate how strong and adaptable it really is. It’s made me see my post-baby body in a whole new light. She walked me through each exercise, highlighting the science behind why they were important and relevant to my recovery - which really resonated with me.
8. Now you are a core fixture of our Barressential family, what keeps you coming back week after week?
To be honest I think this is the first time I’ve ever consistently looked forward to exercise in my life. After an hour of barre or pilates, I feel like a million bucks, and it’s kind of addictive. Nare has created something really special here, in that it’s so professionally run (which is a breath of fresh air in itself), but it’s also a lighthearted & supportive environment, where you will find yourself laughing at your own pain. There’s a sense of community, a really cool girl gang that I’m proud to be a part of; that’s so welcoming of new members, while maintaining an old familiarity with the regulars. Nare and Naamini also get to know each person well enough to provide individual attention in a group class. And you know you’re part of the fam when the jokes roll in. There’s honestly nothing I respond better to in a learning environment than a solid sense of humour!
Wanna try Soharni's workout? Book online for a class here
Drop by at Black Cat for a coffee, a taco or a stay at 11, Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo 07