When This Couple Opened a MassageLuxe in an Underserved Black Community, They Realized Their Business Was About Self-Care in More Ways Than One
Michelle and Karim Kameka discovered their mission was as much about the people they hired as the people they served.
Michelle Kameka was two years old when she was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, an inherited red blood cell disorder that left her with persistent chronic pain. When she was in her 30s, Michelle and her husband, Karim, began searching for holistic pain remedies. That's when they discovered massage therapy. "It literally changed my life," Michelle says.
She was a professor of health services administration at the time, and Karim was a software engineer, but the couple felt a new sense of mission: They wanted to bring this service to others. "It was important to open something like this in a community of color, because growing up, it felt very much out of reach," Michelle says. After a thorough exploration, they landed on MassageLuXe — a St. Louis-based brand that now has more than 70 locations in 16 states — and opened a spa in Pembroke Pines, Florida, just north of Miami. Five years in, the Kamekas share what it's meant to be business owners in an underserved area, and the challenges of figuring out what kinds of leaders they wanted to be.
How did you land on MassageLuXe as a franchise?
Michelle: I was a member at a neighborhood spa for many years, and I liked the model where you can go monthly and not break the bank. We loved MassageLuXe's "affordable luxury" concept where you walk in and you feel like you're at an upscale spa. It makes you feel special, which we felt was part of the therapeutic process.
Karim: We also liked that MassageLuXe wasn't as big as some of the competitors at the time. We didn't want to have a huge corporation over our heads. With MassageLuXe, we had flexibility and were able to get to know the folks who were running the show.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of running this business?
Michelle: I'm extremely passionate about it. The health benefits that come with massage therapy are just limitless. It helps with fatigue, inflammation, blood flow — a lot of chronic pain comes from lack of blood flow and oxygen. So we really empower our therapists to educate customers. I think if people knew how important it is to your overall well-being, it would be more of a must-have than a nice treat.
Karim: When I ran our first payroll, it hit me that the service we're providing is more than self-care or a profitable business. It was helping my people live a better, more stable life by putting money in their pockets. I don't take that responsibility lightly. We make sure we pay people a fair wage — you know, above what the other massage places pay. During the pandemic, we did everything we could not to miss a payroll. Part of this is making sure people have what they need to buy groceries, pay their bills, and take care of their families.
What are some lessons you've learned in the past five years?
Karim: One, you have to be patient with people. Our first big challenge was figuring out what types of leaders we wanted to be. It took a couple of years, but we realized we wanted to be the supportive and strong type of leaders — not the boss who dresses you down.
Second, find a community of other business owners you can vent to. We were lucky there were other MassageLuXe owners in the area to help us work through the kinks. And third, you have to be flexible and dynamic. One of the early challenges we had was turnover with our front desk staff. We were paying an hourly wage plus commission for the sales they made. But we ended up losing a couple good people because they didn't understand that their hourly rate plus commission was more than they thought it was. So we changed the way we paid and went to a flat structure, and since then we've retained our front desk much more.
Michelle: Employee morale and empathy are the top things that any entrepreneur or leader needs to be in tune with. Interacting with so many people really has been very humbling for me. The first two years were definitely challenging, but this journey has made me a wiser, stronger person. Every time I'm at the spa, someone says, "Thank you so much for bringing this to our community." As an owner, that makes me very proud.
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