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Erika Sorbello, owner of Gallery Salon, tackles mental health

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Erika Sorbello is the owner of Gallery Salon in Rochester, NY. Erika has worked to ensure that her space is a safe space and is proud of her work with NAMI Rochester. Erika originally reached out to NAMI looking to support her clients, but quickly found that her employees needed the support just as much and shifted her focus to include that. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness and can be found at

Erika discusses many topics in her episode of Getting Real with BOSSY, including her own path to securing her mental health and taking control of her business. Listen to the whole episode at

I have struggled with mental illness my entire life. I am a proud sertraline taker and keep my mental health prescription up to date.

You take the appropriate amounts.

Yes, yes, I take the appropriate amount, that is doctor prescribed and regulated, to stabilize my mental health. I think that it is not talked about as much as it should be. It's not recognized as something that is just as serious as having heart failure or cancer, or I mean, maybe not in some cases, but that it can affect every single bit of your life as much as any sort of physical illness. I think that specifically in this industry, there's a lot of mental illness, and I think it's it goes along with being creative people. So yeah, when I found out what NAMI was, I met with some of the staff and immediately became enamored with what they were doing and getting the word out that we need to normalize mental health. That it's OK to talk about with people and to share your stories. To know that other people are going through some major shit, and that there can be a place that you can be supported. I thought holy shit, what an amazing place to have extra support than a salon where we're already, I mean most people say it, we're already therapists.

You know all my shit.

I’m very, very, lucky that I have a solid clientele of 20 plus years that have become like family. You know, we're the first ones to hear that somebody is pregnant. That their husband cheated on them, or that they have cancer, or their parent died, or whatever it is. And that we have this ability as stylists to hold these people and give these people a safe space to talk about these things. A lot of us are exhausted at the end of the day. Emotionally. Stylists, or nail techs, anybody in the cosmetology field because it’s a lot.

I was going to say that's got to be a lot of heaviness to leave work with.

NAMI and I put together this one time workshop, which we are going to hopefully expand on, and we're going to have a meeting this week about a support group for stylists and anybody in the cosmetology industry. Where we could go and sit and commiserate together- I mean talk about it.

Like a BOSSY for cosmetology.

It's important for us as providers to understand with this goes into every single industry. It's important for us to be able to understand how to separate that energy between us and them. And that's understanding how to separate. That's an important thing, because if we don't know how to do separate, then we do take on other people's trauma. Trauma shows up in our bodies in the future, whether that be physical, emotional, down the road- trauma always shows back up. If we are dealing with other people's trauma, they are transferring that to us right?

Ironically, the whole NAMI grouping and the group that we put together was supposed to be us as providers being able to recognize if one of our clients was having some sort of mental illness, either an episode or something was going on, like suicidal thoughts- for us to be able to see the warning signs of it. And everybody came in with that kind of knowledge. That was what this was going to be about. You know someone comes in, can we define whether it's just someone having a bad day, or like, they're not showering anymore. They are not brushing their hair. They look completely different physically. You know, knowing the warning signs. For us as providers, we came in there thinking that they were going to share with us all these warning signs and like how to deal with it and all the places that we could send them to and have a resource guide. We do have all that. It ended up being every single one of these providers, by the end of the two hour session everyone was like “so how do I, as a provider, unload at the end of the day when I have seven clients that just threw all of their heavy shit on me?”

How do I separate that and how do I take care of myself? How do I learn how to say no and set boundaries? We talked a lot about turning off your phone at night. If a client contacts you, don't respond. You don't have to be at their beck and call, you do not need to be available 24/7. You set boundaries and you say “I am only working from this time to this time on these days and if you contact me outside of those hours, I will only be responding to you within these hours.” Making sure that people know that if they are not having the right kind of attitude in your chair to be able to say to them “I cannot provide this service for you.” Let me tell you, as a salon owner and as a provider, I have had people sit in my chair that I am like “holy shit, I feel so bad for you. You are the most miserable human being I've ever met my entire life and you are sucking my soul out of me.” And it's interesting because the older I get, the more I'm able to easily easier to say no. I will not allow this in my space. I think it's partially being a mom too. I'm not sure, but seeing negative energy around my kid, I'm like, “no, no, we're pushing that away. We're not going to do that.” I just don't want that negativity around me.

We’ve had clients that we've asked to leave. I know that that's something that a lot of people would go “oh no, you can’t do that.” But we have a door or a sign on our door that says, “hate has no home here.” We are a very inclusive salon and if someone comes in and says something that is not nice, they are asked to leave. It's a an individually owned private business. I can make my own rules and my rules are not that harsh. We have such a huge LBGTQ plus community within our space, both staff and clientele. There's a lot of mental health stuff that goes along with that, and it is a safe space. So, if someone comes in there and they start running their mouth about anything that may be a little off color, they're shut down really quickly. Which is unlike a lot of businesses. And I think that is why our salon has grown. Gallery has grown because of us defining our space to be so inclusive, and to celebrate your weirdness and celebrate your uniqueness and your individualism and your wow.

And just speak to that, though I think over the last three years we've really seen a lot of hands being forced right? And as business owners that identify as we may, it is our job to let the world know where we stand, how we stand, what we accept. And what we won't. And it's the time of like “keep your lips shut and just let it all figure itself out” is over. If we as business owners don't stand up for what we see as right, then the other world out there will overshadow us the hate will continue.

I remember having a conversation with Kelly Bush and Kelly Metras in 2019, maybe 2018 and we started talking about doing the gender pricing and like how we wanted to move forward with gallery and that I was starting to redefine our space and become more Gay friendly, just queer friendly in general, and I remember you, Kelly M, saying to me like you can do that because you're a salon right? I can't do that because I'm a restaurant and now everything has changed everywhere.

But honestly, I wouldn't change that. Like what Asa was saying, what I saw for my business personally was before COVID, I didn't really have to say anything. Our general rule was don't be a dick. And if you were a dick on any side of any spectrum, you had to leave. Once and it wasn't just COVID, I would say it was probably around that time, because there was a lot of political stuff going on and politics doesn't necessarily play a role in my business. But “don't be a dick” does. A lot of people felt the worthiness to say whatever the hell they wanted. And I was like, oh, hell no. It started getting so outlandish. And then, it really just like pushed it in and I was like “what the hell happened?” I'm just trying to be open and then I was like you know what? If I can only have 50% of people in here, I'm going to pick the 50%.

It became this whole new level which really allowed businesses that were in a position like mine that previously felt like I didn't have to say anything because nobody was being overtly racist, they weren't being overtly transphobic, they just kind of kept their mouth shut and did their own thing.

Yeah, not anymore.

If they didn't, then we asked them to leave, but then it just seemed like it became that people could say whatever they wanted, yeah?

Even just last week, in my neighborhood, all right? There's a new restaurant there that's owned by a lesbian couple, and they just got this horrendous handwritten letter in the mail.

With the Bible, right?

Basically “please keep this Bible I paid a lot of money for, but you're gay and you're awful and you're going to hell. So, you need to fix yourselves.”

That could be a whole other podcast.

It's so empowering when you finally get there and take that power back.

Having the staff now watching me, my staff, my crew, my people watching me do all of this, and they're looking at me. I remember calling Jordan and she said, “Erika, you’ve got to walk the walk. You know you’ve got to talk the talk. You're going to walk the walk like you need to. You need to show them that you're serious. If you're preaching this, you need to practice it.”

I had a gentleman that I had been cutting his hair for 20 years. He and his wife and he came into the Salon one day- I have a Black Lives Matter sign hanging at the front of my salon- he said “I’ve got to tell you something, Erika. I think my life matters, too.” I said sure it does-we'll call him John- I said sure it does, John.” And he said “well, shouldn't you have a sign up that says that? Because isn't that discriminating?” I said “I'm not doing this today, John,” because he had made comments to me prior to this about the wall being built. And that anybody that speaks a different language should not be in this country. And we had words about that as well. So, I finally told him he was no longer welcome. And that was when I called Jordan and I asked for advice because I was like I don't know what to do. This is serious. He would not have said that to a Black employee. He wouldn't have. Because he thought that as a white woman, he could push me around and bully me into saying something really disgusting within my business. I'm here to offer him a service, and I was like you're no longer welcome back here, and it was the one of the hardest things I ever did. But my team came up behind me, a lot of them cried because they were so proud of that, and we became stronger. As a team. We became stronger defining what we wanted to do and who we wanted to provide for and what we will and won't stand for.

And that goes right back to like the “it must be nice,” right? That's one of the benefits of owning your own business- we get to provide the services that we are so good at to the people that we just think are deserving of them. I'm not out there making commercials for mobile and gas companies because I drive electric cars, right? But when green spark calls me and says, hey, we're celebrating 20 years of being in the in the green energy field we we'd like you to come and you know, record our event.

Absolutely hell, yeah, I'm behind you 100 percent, and being able to get to that point is tough. Being at the point where you can say no, or say get out, is important.

It's also been really difficult through COVID, too, because we've because we are a safe zone. We actually take that to multiple different areas- we're not just LBGTQ safe zone, but we are ADA compliant. We make sure that we are solidly equipped for anybody, anybody, to come into our salon.

Except Haters.

Except for haters. And we had some. I remember specifically one day a client came in. She saw the masking protocol and was like “are you fucking kidding me? You're still masking?” She started freaking out on her stylist, and the stylist turned around and said “you can go somewhere else. I'm sure that there's other places that don't mask.” Then my employee, the stylist, came to me in the back room and told me this story. Most bosses would say “you did what?” and I was like “get it girl, get it. I'm so proud of you. Thank you for continuing to like stand your ground and support Gallery and what we're doing.”

It was so important. I'm giving my staff this sense of empowerment. It's so awesome, you know, and we make decisions as a team. We have monthly meetings; we make sure that everybody's on the same page. And everybody feels comfortable, and some people might call that being a sheep, but we are doing it.

Let's face it, the best leaders follow from the middle of the flock, right? They're not in the front where they don't see what's going on behind them. They're right in with it, and if you can make your team feel empowered, you're just going to succeed yourself.

Do you know how penguins all move as a group? There is one that goes out to the front and then they go back to the middle and bring another one out front, so everybody stays warm.

You know what I mean? Yeah, we're penguins at Gallery.

I love that, oh my gosh you need a penguin sign for the front door.

Check out the full episode at

and learn more about Erika’s journey as a business owner.

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