‘I Always Have Something to Prove’
Aba Kwawu was going to have a life in medicine.
Her family immigrated to the United States from Ghana when she was a child. Aba had dreams of working in the style industry, but coming from a traditional culture, her father—a scientist—wanted one of his two children to follow suit.
‘I went that route. I thought it was what I was going to do to make the family proud.’
After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997, Aba moved to Georgetown and began a career in genetic studies at the Lombardi Cancer Center. She worked part-time at Benetton to satiate her real passion, but soon felt overwhelmed by her career.
‘It was great work, but it just wasn’t for me. I was very depressed dealing with such heavy, heavy content. And I remember reading a Vogue Magazine article about Laurence Steele, a young man from Chicago who moved to Milan and was a ghost designer for Prada, and I was like, I can do this. I literally applied to grad school, packed my bags and moved to London when I got accepted.’
Aba’s decision didn’t sit well with her family.
‘Coming from a household with multiple graduate degrees under one roof, this was certainly the road less traveled. You’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to teach. Something that will sustain you and your family. I was raised in a very Ghanaian home. My parents were really worried we would lose ourselves in America. They preserved everything for us at home; our language, our culture, our way of life.’
Despite their apprehension, Aba’s parents paid for her to study in London—the only U.S. student accepted to the program. She excelled, and they came around.
After graduating with an MA in Fashion Marketing and Business, Aba returned to DC for what she thought would be a short few months of rest before moving on to ESSEC Business School in Paris.
It was just enough time to meet her husband on M Street, in front of BCBG.
‘As they say, we make plans and God laughs. Nearly seventeen years and two kids later, I’ve never left. That’s how it happened. Our families were here, he was here, and we got married pretty quickly, so I wasn’t going anywhere. So Georgetown has complete significance for me.’
In grad school, everyone knew Aba was going corporate; her sights set on global brand strategy in the City of Lights. After settling in DC, she returned to Benetton—this time in the Georgetown corporate office. After a stint at Saks Fifth Avenue, she began working for a small company that dressed, styled and media trained professional athletes.
‘I’d never considered being an entrepreneur, but that job opened up a different world to me—a celebrity world. I got to witness entrepreneurship first-hand. I was doing a lot of production and launch work in Miami and New York, wherever the fashion world took me. Then DC became a little more cosmopolitan, and a lot more cutting-edge fashion brands started coming here. There I was with this skill set that not many people had, and all these relationships.’
One of Aba’s interns was a student at Howard University, where Aba began giving marketing lectures. When the company closed shop, Howard recruited her to a full-time teaching position.
‘The magazines created a whole new element where people wanted to get dressed and be photographed. They started creating local celebrities, and people were throwing parties just to see it in the magazines. And there I was again. When Intermix, and Rag & Bone, and all these brands landed in Georgetown, they came looking for me because I had the background, and they knew me from Miami and New York. I feel like I was part of that movement as DC was really becoming this chic town.’
For the next seven years, Aba taught. In her spare time, she built TAA PR—a lifestyle public relations, marketing and special events firm that would specialize in fashion, hospitality, entertainment, and design. Her students were given first-hand experience, backstage at big shows that Aba was working. Her daytime salary provided the safety net needed to grow TAA; Aba working out of her kitchen and recruiting childhood friends to put on a uniform at major events.
A few years into TAA—with a website up and running—Aba got a call that would mark a turning point for her career. Cirque du Soleil was on the line.
‘They asked for me and I was like, ‘What could they possibly want with me?’ Their intern found our website, and they liked what they saw and wanted to meet. That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this is a thing.’ I started to staff up.’
Eleven years later, Cirque du Soleil is still a client, along with other big names including Shake Shack and Ladurée. Aba has steadily grown her team to match the work, hiring women she describes as gracious ladies who work really, really hard.
‘There are no huge egos here. No one is vying for their name in lights. I could care less about that. We just love doing really interesting projects. Nice girls do win! I always say that to them. Let your work and reputation proceed you.’
Aba’s all-female staff isn’t necessarily by design, but she says everyone has become very comfortable that way; one big, supportive family. Still, it took years for Aba to learn how to delegate. When her father unexpectedly died four years ago, TAA was tested.
‘I’m a really strong person—I’m not easily floored by many things—but that knocked the wind out of me in a way that I left the office and I couldn’t come back for a while. After the burial I went to Europe for three weeks with my family. It helped me heal to just go. And the world did not stop turning, the clients did not freak out. It allowed my team to rise to the occasion, and do what I hired them to do.’
Aba has also given up the self-described ‘mommy guilt’ that used to plague her.
‘I was backstage running a fashion show with a two-month-old kid strapped to my chest. I don’t have a work-life balance, whatever that thing is. There was a time when it was a real struggle and I chased it, but I’ve learned there is no such thing. I have one life. I immerse my kids in everything. They’re in the kitchen during a restaurant pre-opening, they’re having tea parties with their friends at Ladurée, they’re backstage at the Kennedy Center, meeting Misty Copeland and challenging acrobats to sit-up battles at Cirque du Soleil. They’re endless hours—going to the PTA meeting, then working into the night after the kids are asleep—but those experiences are what make it worthwhile.’
Aba still travels to Miami and New York, but Georgetown has remained the backdrop of her career—graduating from a neighborhood P.O. Box, to a co-working space, to an office on M Street and a seat on the Georgetown BID Board Executive Committee. It’s part of TAA’s brand story, and a badge of honor Aba says she’ll fight to keep.
‘It’s not a lack of confidence or relationships—because I can turn on a dime and make whatever a client is asking for happen—but I still find myself sometimes going, ‘Me? You want to talk to me? Are you sure you have the right person?’ I don’t care how accomplished I get. It keeps me grounded, and it keeps me working as hard as I did when we didn’t have big clients. I feel I always have something to prove, even just to myself.’