China Wong is the owner of Salon Spa W in the East Village, which Elle Magazine named one of the top 100 salons in the country. Every year the salon puts on a Zoo’Do Campaign, taking more than 500 underprivileged kids to the Blank Park Zoo. Stylists at Salon Spa W also provided free haircuts and grooming services to 1,000 people at Central Iowa Shelter and Services in 2017.
I am from Des Moines originally, but after falling in love with tennis (and realizing I was pretty good at it!) I attended a training academy/boarding school in my teens that focused on year-round athletic development. I returned to my home state to attend Iowa State University and after graduating, moved to Chicago to pursue a career in finance. It was there I found my true calling in the hair and beauty industry.
Leaving a stable job in finance to go back to beauty school was a bit of a shock for my parents; but I followed my heart, worked really hard, and have never looked back. I had some incredible opportunities to develop my skills at salons in Chicago and Atlanta, but ultimately moved back to Des Moines to open Salon Spa W in 2005, and finally proved to my parents that this wasn’t just a phase.
I married Joel Fortney in 2010. We have two kids: Arden (6), Foster (3); and a bulldog: Cubby Wong Fortney.
What do you consider the biggest challenge of motherhood to be? The biggest joy?
My biggest challenge is being fully present and recognizing the magic moments in each day. I really connect with the old adage, The days are long, but the years are short. Though I might argue that year 3 always feels pretty long! Balancing business and family may never come easy, but I’m not above adding calendar reminders that tell me when to put my laptop down and my phone on mute so I can really focus on family time. Do what you have to do, mamas!
I think my biggest joy is the expansion of love and perspective I’ve experienced as a mother. When I was pregnant with my second [Foster], I wondered how I could possibly love another human being as much as I loved my daughter. Foster was born and boom–my heart just grew! Motherhood can make you feel so strong and brave and empowered in one moment; and completely overwhelmed, terrified, and inept in the next. I think the juxtaposition in our experience as mothers is what makes us so tough. The highs and lows, the confidence and the insecurity, the beauty and the mess–it forces us out of our comfort zone and helps us grow.
How/when did you start Salon W? What was your inspiration?
After college, I moved to Chicago to work in the finance industry. I hadn’t really had a high-end salon experience until I moved there and I was completely taken by it all. Every time I had a hair or nail appointment, I would leave feeling inspired and confident and refreshed. I was mesmerized by the innovative atmosphere, skilled stylists, and impeccable service. It excited me. I knew that I needed to be a part of this industry. I quit my job, attended the Aveda Institute in Chicago, and spent the next few years learning and working as much as I could.
On a visit home to Des Moines, I started to notice all the cool changes that were taking place in our community. It seemed like the perfect time to bring the upscale salon experiences I’d had in Chicago and Atlanta home to Iowa.
I love being behind the chair, but I always knew I wanted to have a greater impact than just building one-on-one relationships with clients. I decided to open Salon Spa W in 2005 because I wanted to create opportunities for stylists to not only have a career that they love but also build a life that they love. I’m really proud to employ so many women (over 35 at this point), offer healthcare, HSA/IRA matching, and other benefits that are uncommon in our industry.
What’s the best part about being your own boss?
Personal accountability. I can create change and have a direct impact on my company which is really exciting and empowering, but can be humbling when things don’t go the way you planned.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Time management because there is ALWAYS something I could be working on. I transitioned to time blocking and the GTD (Getting Things Done) method of time management a few years ago. It has helped me be more productive during work time, and I’ve found more hours in the day for self-care and family time.
What advice do you have for moms who want to start a business?
It takes a village, both at home and work. Surround yourself with positive, committed, passionate people. Have a list of five other people in your village who you know you can text at any time. You HAVE to have a solid backup crew because the reality is–you can’t do it all, and you don’t have to do it alone.
What is something you wish you had known when you started?
I wish I would have known how time intensive it would be to build a business. My father is an entrepreneur, so I was accustomed to having a parent work long hours. But I don’t think I appreciated just how many things entrepreneurs do behind the scenes.
What’s the last show you watched, thing you listened to, or book you read?
I’m obsessed with the podcast On Being. It’s my favorite way to pass the time on a run. I love the idea of exercising my body and mind at the same time.
Des Moines Favorites:
Petit fours from the Bake Shoppe, strawberry shortcake at Latin King, walking down to Bauder’s for Donut King donuts… Obviously, my sweet tooth is a guiding factor.
Favorite spot for a date night: Patio table at Star Bar on Ingersoll. With beer.
Best place to take kids: In a pinch for dinner, we love the kids’ table at Whole Foods. We also do a lot of hiking and picnicking in Greenwood Park. There is a great pond, playground, and splash pad. And the public bathrooms there are never gross. Ha!
Favorite summer activity: Biking to Mullet’s and sitting on the upstairs patio.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be? I genuinely love our life in Des Moines. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Favorite instagram accounts? I follow a ton of industry-related accounts, it’s a way to keep an eye on what salons are doing on the coasts (@edosalonandgallery and @whittemorehouse) and even across the globe. I also love following high-end fashion houses like @louisvuitton and @chanel.beauty, etc.) because their images are just so opulent.
I also keep up with our business neighbors via Instagram. There are so many amazing women (and mothers!) with businesses in the East Village; social media is often the best way to support one another since we’re often confined to our own little corners of the neighborhood! @porchlightdsm @leonaruby_dsm @scenicroutebakery @kitchencollagedsm @dornink @ephemeradesign @shoppreservation @aimeedesmoines @evdayspa @iluvdomestica @honeydot.babyshop @peeptoedm (just to name a few!)
How/where do you relax? There is an adorable cottage in Key West that we try to get away to every year. Key West is known to be a party town, but it also has a great local art scene, amazing restaurants and is an entirely bikeable city. We get into an island groove down there–no tech, no watches, and no schedules!
Connect with Salon Spa W
Check out other Des Moines Moms Movers & Shakers:
See our Des Moines Moms Movers & Shakers series from last summer.
Know a Des Moines mom we should feature? Let us know! Email [email protected] with details and we will be in touch.