espite unseasonably balmy weather for December, Sycamore Street is barren compared to the shuffling activity near bars and restaurants on Vine. Nonetheless, there’s no shortage of activity going on inside the vibrant, saffron colored storefront called Sweet Sistah Splash Boutique (S3), owned and operated by Nzingha Byrd and Daphney Thomas since June 2012.
These inventive women merged their individual businesses — Sheba Mama and CoaCoa Goddess, respectively — after a year of cohosting a pop-up film and dialogue series called Frinight Femme Flicks.
Thomas’ CoaCoa Goddess offers event consultation and networking workshops, while Byrd’s Sheba Mama specializes in holistic programming and homemade aromatherapy products intended to nourish the mind, body and spirit, such as hand-dipped incenses and ambrosial, refreshing scrubs and shea-butter whips. There’s also one-of-a-kind, handcrafted CoaCoa Goddess jewelry as well as exclusive pieces from all over the world.
The multicultural boutique doubles as a community program space where, on any given day, there may be a yoga fitness or belly dancing session, a couple’s date night, a real estate investment workshop or a children’s reading circle. Initially, S3’s mission was geared toward providing programs that uplifted women, but Byrd says they changed their mission statement to include all populations interested in connecting to multicultural experiences.
Community members, vendors and entrepreneurs also collaborate with S3, which opens the space up to divergent experiences not commonly found at a boutique. “My favorite programming has been our Vino Noir Wine Tasting All Black Affair,” Thomas says. “It’s always a beautiful event, great turnout; people come really dressed up in their all-black, ‘grown-and-sexy’ attire eager to support not only Sweet Sistah Splash, but whatever vendor, artist or chef we have that night.”
Though many of S3’s programs are edifying, Byrd says they figured out that calling them “classes” or “workshops” doesn’t sound fun to people. “We may call something a ‘party’ or a ‘happy hour,’ ” she says, such as when S3 hosted a “Stoner Party” exploring gemstones and their medicinal properties.
“We just learned to communicate a little differently, not seeming so esoteric or like this is only for people that are part of a cultural community,” Byrd continues.
Prior to opening S3, Byrd and Thomas were deeply active in community engagement through roles in the arts and education, which connected them to a large network of resources. As youths, they were visionaries and entrepreneurs guided by practical grandmothers with Southern roots.
Byrd’s grandmother taught her how to sew and she designed and sold doll’s clothes. Her other enterprises included selling homemade freeze pops and lemonade in her neighborhood.After college, Byrd says she purposely sought a position at Kilimanjaro African Heritage in Clifton and treated it as a learning ground for when she owned a cultural shop.
“It was important for me to work there,” Byrd says. Her No. 1 piece of advice: “If you’re serious about entrepreneurship, study your craft; study your field and attain those mentors, those people that have been there, done that. Titus (Nzioki, owner of Kilimanjaro) was the one who had been that mentor to me years ago.”
When she was small, Thomas’ maternal grandmother regaled her in “magical” but eccentric stories that thrilled her imagination, and her paternal grandmother fueled her passion to serve. Combining storytelling and service as a means of healing, Thomas used S3’s space for her documentary series, Voices in the Mirror, where panelists addressed past pain.“I was able to tap into and deal with some deep-rooted issues that I’ve suppressed over the years,” says Christopher Huffman, a longtime S3 patron who participated in the male-only panel discussion. “Verbally and emotionally bonding with other men was refreshing and gave me a feeling of relief.”
Today, Thomas sees herself and her grandmothers as “urban ancient women.”
“It’s a woman who has a spirit that has been here forever, but it’s also manifesting here in the current, present time,” Thomas says. “(She’s) hip, progressive and into culture. It’s a woman who holds the space for the wisdom of our ancestors with the savvy and innovativeness of today.”
When Byrd chose Over-the-Rhine for S3’s location, she and Thomas returned to where their grandparents first planted roots in Cincinnati. In the beginning, they were able to establish true connections with their neighbors, many of whom dropped by to say, “Just checkin’ on y’all,” or stopped by during a program if they noticed something happening.
“It was full of residents at the time that could utilize and benefit from the types of programs that we wanted to bring into the community,” Byrd says, referring to the annual health fairs and book-bag drives sponsored by S3.
“Those people have now been moved to other places,” Thomas says. “The school that was across the street and down the street is no longer there.”
While recent redevelopment in the area put a barrier between them and their original neighbors and stalled foot traffic, S3 continues to find ways to build capacity citywide.
In fact, Byrd created a four-part blended arts exhibition, Out of Africa, that explores 600 years of the African Diaspora. The first installment was in November and appeared at Joseph Clark Art Gallery in Northside and the second part of the series is expected to run in early 2016.
Thomas expects 2016 to be a year of evolution for Sweet Sistah Splash. “We are in the process of refocusing and figuring out things we can do that’s different from the last three years,” she says, “from getting fresh new consignors in to maybe attracting more women to come on as partners and to get new and fresh products into the store.”
For more information about SWEET SISTAH SPLASH BOUTIQUE, visit shopsweetsistahsplash.com.