Lesley "Lady Clipper" Bryant

Rosie the Riveter was a woman doing man’s work, and she was a badass. She’s the perfect poster child for my brand, but I’m the Brown version of her.

Washington, DC

Trinidadian- American, Artist, Barber, Mentor, Trailblazer 

When I was working at the “man cave” shop, I would have men come in and ask the other barbers if I could cut hair while I was standing right there. That makes somebody feel weird. Or there were times when someone would inappropriately flirt with me in the chair, saying things like, “You want to go home with me after this? Why don’t you wear skirts to work? Why don’t you grow your hair out?” These little things that have nothing to do with why you came to get your haircut.

I want to bring visibility to lady barbers, but also Brown ones. I want them to be at the forefront. We are an all-women run barbershop, and all of my barbers happen to be women of color. How great that you can shine with your own? I love diversity. I love showing that although we’re all Black women doing the same thing, you’re going to get a different experience in everybody’s chair. It’s something that people don’t see.

I grew up in a diverse community. I was introduced to a lot of different cultures throughout my life, so I learned to love people for people, not looking at their skin color or their beliefs. Even if I totally disagree with something, I have to be respectful and I think my clients know that and they feel that in my space. We may be all Black women, but the spirit of the shop is inclusive. We are here to support people of all genders, all identities, all sexual backgrounds. We don’t care. You want to come to us, we want you there. That has served us well to be this way. And we want to, in turn, serve our customers that way. It’s a no-judgment zone. I know that’s Planet Fitness’s theme, but really, come as you are.

I was born in Trinidad, West Indies, in August 1980, but was raised in Washington, DC, since the early 90s. My Caribbean family is on my dad’s side; I have an aunt and uncle and a few cousins there. My mom’s originally from DC and so all her family is in the DC area.

I’d say I’m culturally Caribbean. Trinidadian culture has a lot of roots in Indian culture, so a lot of holidays that I remember growing up were really Hindu holidays. I was raised Christian; however, I was raised to respect all cultures and religions, even if it wasn’t my own practice. Since childhood, it just fell into place that I was always in a diverse space. That was where I was most comfortable. I always loved learning about somebody else’s culture or religion and different lifestyles.

There’s a lot of interracial marriage and cultural mixing in my family. I have ancestry in Scotland, India, Africa, and some Native American, so those are pretty much the four things that make me who I am. I think my ethnic background has made me more interesting. People are curious about who I am and try to figure out what my ethnic background is. Some people get offended by that, but I think it’s hilarious. I just go with Black or African American. It’s simpler, and being raised in America, I already know that’s what the world sees when they look at me, so I just go with it.

I was very athletic growing up. I ran track, I swam, I played on my brother’s soccer team as the goalie for a few summers, I did basketball in high school, so a lot of competitive sports. Being an athlete has definitely translated into my adult life. I’m very competitive in general, but also with myself. I’m always trying to make sure I did something better the second time around. I’m very hard on myself at times because I know how far and hard I can push. I think my competitiveness has aided me to prioritize and focus my energies on my goals, which is especially important when you’re playing sports. If you exert yourself too much at practice, you don’t have anything to pull from at game time. 

Growing up, I would sketch and paint with watercolors in my bedroom on Saturday mornings. I did it for the joy of it; It was almost like therapy for me. I would pull up my notepad, my color pencils, and draw to relax myself. My high school art teacher said to me, “The Corcoran College of Art and Design has a portfolio day. Bring some of your sketches; let’s get some feedback on your art. It’s good to get an opinion from people who have seen a lot of different artists to see where you are.” There were schools from all over the US there too. The Corcoran administrator was so excited about what she saw in my art that she gave me an application. They weren’t giving applications to everybody, so I was shocked that she thought my art was worth something.

That’s what sparked me going to art school – somebody really thinking my art was worth something when I was just doing it for the love of it, with no real training. I thought, how great would it be to have a job where not only could you do what you love, but you can create beauty in the world? Art has always had a place in my life.

I graduated with my BFA in Fine Arts from the Corcoran in 2003. I originally thought I was going to major in sculpture because I always loved working with my hands. However, I never even took a sculpture class in college. My mom steered me towards graphic design because it was a new field at the time, “You could learn computers, so you can get a good job and you can also do your art.” It’s the best of both worlds because who wants to be the starving artist? The first year of college, you touch everything – woodworking, basics of drawing, and then graphic design class. I started to fall in love with it; there were so many cool things you could do on the computer. My time at the Corcoran was the best experience of my life. It was a very small, close-knit community of artists from all over the world.

I was a graphic designer for a commercial real estate firm in Virginia for about 12 years. We were a pretty family-oriented company. I felt cared about, I felt respected. I felt valued at that company for a long time, hence why I was there so long. The company went through a merger and when the new blood came in it, the whole vibe of the place changed. I found myself having to re-interview for a position that I’d held down and excelled in for a long time. I had to prove myself against another designer that I had actually helped to hire. He was Middle Eastern but physically appeared white.

That probably was one of the first times I felt something strange going on. It wasn’t until I was in corporate America that I became more aware of how people perceive me as a Black woman. It became more apparent to me in the way people spoke to me, in the way people spoke around me, the way people responded to me, or expected me to respond.

Despite all of that, I didn’t leave that job. I got laid off during the merger. I took that nice severance check, went to visit my dad in Trinidad for a month, and just relaxed. Before I left for my trip, I got my haircut with my neighborhood barber. I told him I was taking some time off and then I’ll come back and figure out what my life is going to look like. He suggested, “You know, I think you’d be a great barber. You have a great personality. You are already an artist. If you go to school for this, you could kill it out here.” A light bulb went off.

I left for vacation and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. A girl barber. I had only seen one other female barber at the time, so I thought, I can make a name for myself. I can stand out and really excel in an industry where there aren’t a lot of women. It’s still an art form, and I’m a people person. I love talking and I love learning about different people, their cultures and how they live their life.

When I came back after the month, I called the barbering school – Roosevelt S.T.A.Y. It’s a great school for adults who are either coming back to school for a second chance or starting a new career. The receptionist said, “Look, we’re almost full, but show up with proof that you live in DC. Come to me, I’m going to sit down and walk you through everything. Don’t worry about money. Just get here.” The next day, I went down there, and he explained everything and gave me a tour of the school. He was so bubbly and sweet. He enrolled me right there. I was able to go to barbering school for a year for free because I was a DC resident.

While I was working on getting my DC barber’s license, I worked in my neighborhood barbershop – Jay’s Barbershop – with my barber. I was there for a few months and then one of my classmates recruited me to work in his cousin’s shop closer to the school. “They love the fact that you’re a woman. I think you could really grow here.” So I started working at Ordinary People Barbershop in Northwest DC.

After a few years, I started to notice things at the shop that could be improved. I shared with the owner who I felt heard me but wasn’t ready to make those changes. So I started thinking, maybe I should do this on my own. Maybe I should make a place that not only fits my liking but could also reach a broader audience. That shop was very much a man cave – loud in every way. I enjoyed that, but I knew my some of my clients didn’t. I told myself, look, I can sit here and tell somebody else how to improve their job or I can create my own space and make it my utopia. Three years after working at Ordinary People, I began to seek out spaces to open my own shop.

Lady Clipper Barber Shop is located on the historic U Street corridor of Washington, DC. I wanted to be in a diverse space where I could cut more than one type of hair. I want to keep my skills and cut curly, straight, wavy, and super coarse hair. We offer cuts, shaves, and non-surgical hair replacements. We not only cut the hair off your head and your face, but we can also put it on. As long as your hair is jaw length and above, we can take care of you. If you’re in a certain neighborhood, you may only get one type of texture. I knew I wanted to be in a neighborhood that had a little bit of everything.

One day I drove around in my pajamas looking at different buildings that were available for lease. One of my best friends called me in my moment of stress while I’m standing outside of a space that was too expensive but I wanted at 15th and U streets. She said, “See if you see a sign that says Epiphany Salon; that’s where I get my hair done. The owner owns the entire building. Why don’t you go over there, introduce yourself, tell them that you know me. They may have some space available for you.” I didn’t go in that day because I was in my pajamas but later that week my friend told them about me, how ambitious I was, and what I was trying to do. The owner was very intrigued, so I came the next day and told her that I would like to start my own brand, my own shop. I had pictures on my phone of how I would lay it out, what I could afford.

Her husband overheard the conversation and said, “We have a storage space upstairs. It’s a mess, but maybe you could do something there.” I looked around and said, yes, I want it. They gave me the opportunity; they took a chance on me, and they trusted me. My contractor was a friend of mine. I told him, we’re going to do one chair, and one shampoo bowl. We’re going to keep it really basic.

Everybody in this new journey was such an integral part of what made it the right decision for me. From my barber telling me to try this industry, to the receptionist at the school who encouraged me, to the building owners who took a chance on me, to my contractor friend who gave me a deal. Everything just happened and evolved in a way that I couldn’t have even imagined. My mom and dad, and my family as a whole, are very encouraging. They always give me positive feedback and sometimes unsolicited advice.

We celebrated five years this spring, and in the next year, we’ll be expanding into space in the building’s basement that’s just waiting for me. Sometimes when you don’t think that you’re in the right place, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. Baby steps turn into giant steps.

My mom came up with the name Lady Clipper. The minute she said it, I knew that was it. After saying the name to myself over and over again, I started to think of Rosie the Riveter; she was a woman doing man’s work, and she was a badass. She’s the perfect poster child for my brand, but I’m the Brown version of her.

I hired my first barber after opening by myself for a year. I wanted to make sure that I understood how to properly run this shop. I learned what I could afford as far as equipment and what type of payment structure I would set up for my barbers. I came up with my operating procedures. I wanted to organize all of that before involving somebody else under me. That second year, it was just two of us. Then I added two more barbers, who happened to be local female barbers as well. My original thought was not necessarily to hire all women, but more so who would fit my brand the best. The lady barber thing just happened, so I ran with it.

My formal education and background in corporate America have given me an edge, especially in this field. I’ve obtained a level of project management and organizational skills from my time in the corporate space. A lot of traditional barbershops are still cash only and walk in. From day one, I’ve never had a walk-in shop; we’re appointment only. We have an online booking system where clients can control things on their own. We also have specific working hours. We’re not staying open till 2:00am. My point-of-sale system helps me track where my spending is going, where I need to invest more time or advertising. My education taught me that structure could be your friend and organization will make your life easier. A lot of barbershops don’t have that kind of structure.

My natural intuition has also given me that edge in this business. I pay attention to how people perceive their environment, and how they perceive me. An inviting space is the key. My clients feel safe in my space since I’m very intentional about how I run my shop and keep up our appearance. The initial COVID-19 outbreak forced us to close for a few months, but we were able to rebuild very quickly because some of the traditional shops didn’t have someone there to make sure that the place was clean. They didn’t have social media set up like I did, so I could easily show what I was doing to combat COVID just by posting something. Pictures with me and the clients wearing masks…that makes a big deal. We stopped beard service. Barbers are known for beards. People knew that I was taking these precautions seriously, so they continued to come and recommend us to their friends.

Not only is my environment clean and comfortable for my clients, but I also make sure that my barbers are respectful, that we are inclusive of all people. We host community events. We had one with Planned Parenthood this spring, where we educate the community on things to protect themselves, on new ideas that are out there. We also have a mini concert series every other month with a local singer or musician. We want to be a hub in the community. We’re always inviting our clientele back into our shop for one reason or another to either meet other people, make love connections, or to just have something to do on a Sunday evening. I’d love to be a matchmaker! I’m excited about the impact that I have on the community, and the deeper involvement that they want from me.

I sacrificed a lot of vacations because I had to save every penny towards the opening and the survival of my business. In the beginning, funding was a huge issue because when you’re a new business, you have to come with this business plan, explain everything, and then you can still get denied from funders. All these grants are out there, but who’s going to write that grant for me? That person needs to be paid. If I’m going to write it, I need time to write it, which means time away from shop…meaning missing money on one end to get money on the other. When you’re physically exhausted, finding time to sit down and write a grant is hard because you have to clear your mind.

I still don’t have a business plan written. I know what it is because I’m living the business plan, but if you’re under two years, you have to have a business plan to get a loan, and the loan that you may get may be $20,000. When you’re putting together a shop that costs you $50,000, $20k just isn’t enough. So I didn’t borrow from the bank at all. I opened my shop by myself. That’s why I had to go really slow and steady. My shop has a sign on the door because I couldn’t afford to pay for a permit to have one on the front of the building. A sign and a permit could cost me $6,000, which was already over the cost of my shop. I used $5,000 that I had saved and gave $3,000 of that to my contractor for materials. He allowed me to pay him over time for his labor every month. Someone had mercy on me.

I would say money readily available has been an issue. Even with this expansion, I have to find the money. Yes, I know the SBA has funds, but when you call, they say you’re not guaranteed the amount of money that you’re asking for. Then you’re left with the option to do a personal loan. To me, a personal loan is the same thing as a business loan, you just get a longer time to pay back when you have a business. I have faith that I will find the money though.

I have terrible stage fright, but no one ever believes that. It’s gotten in the way of my growth as an entrepreneur because I’d like to sit on more panels and make more TV appearances. But I freak out. I would love to be a more confident spokesperson for my brand in a more formal setting. I would like to compete in some of these barber competitions, but my stage fright keeps me from that.

Another barrier is time to continue to grow in the industry, being able to take classes at leisure, to expand my craft or services. I know I offer a lot; however, there’s always more to learn and new things coming out. I don’t always have the time to go chase that education the way I would like to.

I think my personal success is through my happiness. At the end of the day, even on my most exhausted day, do I feel happy? Do I feel proud? Do I feel accomplished? And what level of comfort can I provide for myself?

I’m proud of my shop. I’m proud of being in a position to expand after five years. I also know with my stage fright, I’m going to have to expand in that way too, and I want to. I am excited about the growth that’s going to happen not only physically with the business, but emotionally for myself.