Philly native Tara Sulimay Acosta was just 16 years old when she lost her mother to cancer. She understands the uncertainties and struggles for children growing up with a parent battling cancer. She remembers what it's like to go without, especially at Christmas time. When she heard about Operation Santa at Legacy of Hope, without hesitation, she jumped right in to help out.
Despite the hardships of her teenage years, Acosta persevered and has become successful on multiple fronts. She has put her 20+ years “behind the chair” to good use. Acosta is a master hair stylist, colorist and barber who runs bustling salons (Sulimay’s Salon and Barber Studio on Fairmount Avenue, and Sulimay’s Studio on Main in Manayunk). Of note, Acosta is the fourth generation of barbers in her family; her daughter, Cianna, now a senior stylist at Sulimay’s, marks the fifth. While the salons are her principal focus, Acosta has many roles beyond those in the beauty and service industry and is acutely aware that they don’t exist in a vacuum. “It’s a constant juggling act between being a mother, business-owner, stylist, author, podcast host, [and imminently, a real estate agent].”
Acosta has managed to cultivate the overlap between those roles as a vehicle for growth—not just hers, but that of others—which is testament to her work ethic and resourcefulness. At the core of Acosta’s desire for growth is her love of people. She spends time getting to know her clients when they’re in her chair and she’s working her magic on their hair. The chair is a vehicle for her broad spectrum of clients to share their stories and lessons. 20 years worth of conversations gave Acosta the opportunity to learn about success and failure in myriad careers and businesses—”the kinds of things that business school doesn’t teach.”
What started as a passion project took on a life of its own, when a conversation with an editor resulted in Business Press Expert publishing her book, The Street Smart Side of Business in 2021. “It’s basically a guidebook to share insight from people in all different industries.” Publishing the book was gratifying, but Acosta had the urge to dig deeper. Enter The Street-Smart Side of Business podcast, which continues in the same vein as its printed counterpart.
Acosta’s Philly roots run deep. She was born in Philly; her parents eventually built a house in South Jersey, where they lived for a little bit. “My dad always had the barber shop in Philly. We would come to work with him on Saturdays.” Her parents divorced, and her dad moved
into the apartment on top of the barbershop, her mom stayed in Jersey. Acosta and her three siblings spent weekends in Fairmount. At the age of 42, their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was a stay-at-home mom raising four kids on child support from a barber's salary. This combination of circumstances presented lots of struggles—financially, emotionally and physically battling her illness. Acosta and her siblings had to move back with their father, and then again back to New Jersey.
“We did a lot of moving. There was no consistency. We did this whole back and forth thing for a while, I never knew what high school I was going to, which wasn’t great for college prep.” She took her father up on his offer when he asked ”Why don't you just go to hair school and come to work with me?” She didn't necessarily want to, but eventually agreed to go work with her father in 1996, and together they converted his one-chair ‘old boys’ barbershop into a hair boutique for both men and women. A couple years later, when she was about 20, she considered going back to college. But she had a child by that point, which made the balancing act too much to handle; so she continued at the salon. “I grew to love what I do, which is ironic because initially I didn't have a strong interest in the salon.”
Eventually her father retired due to medical reasons and, on her own in 2015, she opened Sulimay’s Studio on Main, in Manayunk. This location recently celebrated its eighth anniversary! In 2019, she moved the original Sulimay’s from 24th and Brown and reopened as Sulimay’s Salon & Barbering Studio, located near 24th and Fairmount.
Despite the demands of dividing her time between her Manayunk and Fairmount salons, guiding her team of 25 stylists and assistants as they keep their clients looking sharp, raising a family, and producing a podcast, Acosta prioritizes giving back to the community. She learned about Legacy of Hope when Gina Mancuso came into Sulimay’s Fairmount salon for a haircut. “When Gina told me about Legacy of Hope’s mission it immediately resonated with me. I remember my mother struggling to pay the bills at the same time she was fighting her cancer.”
“As a small business I feel a duty to help the communities that we’re in evolve, right? Bring people together on things.” She backs up those words with Sulimay’s regular support and involvement in community ventures, like little league, school functions or showcasing local artists on our gallery wall. “I'm always happy to give back. When Gina told me about Operation Santa we hopped right aboard to sponsor a family. People don't realize how many folks out there are struggling—living paycheck to paycheck because an illness is dictating their life. They might not be able to pay their electric bill, or be able to make their rent, basic things that so many people take for granted, especially during the holidays.”
Acosta’s lived experience gives her a deeper understanding of the hardships families experience because of a cancer diagnosis. She shares “when my mother got cancer it dominated our lives. Watching her try to navigate through her illness as a single parent and eventually lose the battle was very sad. Mom lost her battle at 49, passing away on my 16th birthday. My siblings and I moved in with my dad. Five of us shared a one bedroom apartment above his barber shop. It was utter chaos. I don't know how to explain, but when we lived with dad, we never felt poor. When we were living with mom, we felt poor, maybe because of the constant struggle.”
Both Sulimay’s locations will be involved with Operation Santa, using social media to generate support for the family they’re sponsoring. You can donate to Sulimay’s Operation Santa at https://secure.legacydonations.life/Sulimays
* Acosta’s book is available on Amazon; you can subscribe to her podcast from the usual streaming venues.