Alesha Bowman had plans March 15 to celebrate the two-year anniversary of her plus-size thrift store, UnLESHed+, by opening a new storefront on the historic Troost Avenue.
But on March 14, a nationwide pandemic forced Bowman’s plans to be entirely reworked.
“You just have to pivot,” Bowman said, noting that she used Facebook and Instagram Live stories as an opportunity to host online sales and interact with customers throughout COVID’s run so far.
Already having a strong follower base and online presence, UnLESHed+ was able to score sales — but Bowman still had to dig into her savings to make rent, she said.
Click here to check out UnLESHed+’s Instagram.
A couple months later, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. As a Black woman and Kansas City native, Bowman needed to help her community in any way she could, she said.
“At that point, it was less about, ‘How am I going to keep my business open?’ And more about, ‘How am I going to connect with my people and make sure that they are alright?’” she shared. “We raised over $1,000 to make care packages for the protesters.”
With money left to spare from donations, Bowman donated the surplus to Transformations KC — a local transgender, gender non-conforming (TGNC) and gender expansive youth group for teens 12-18 led by entrepreneur Hailee Bland Walsh — as well as giving to Black teachers.
In just a few months, she’d receive her own surprise: appearing as a guest on a daytime talk show hosted by comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
Soft spot for education
Before even becoming a small business owner, Bowman worked in higher education as the director of Multicultural Student Services at DePauw University in Indiana. Even in that position, Bowman constantly incorporated fashion into her work, she said.
“Ever since I was a little girl shopping with my grandma, I’ve loved fashion,” Bowman recalled. “When I decided to go into higher education, I would host multicultural hair and fashion shows — anything to still do my thing! Fashion has always been a part of me.”
Bowman shared memories of first thrift shopping with her grandmother when Bowman was 8 years old.
“I noticed my body shape as a young person, and the vintage clothes just fit perfectly,” she said. “Also getting 10 items for $10? That was a steal! So as I grew older, I kept thrifting.”
Even with her passion, Bowman never envisioned herself owning her own plus-size thrift store.
“I’ve never wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Bowman said, laughing. “But I feel like even when you run away from what your true purpose is, it is always going to come back to you. Even when I was working in high education, I was starting something new — opening up two multicultural centers. So I’ve always had that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Bowman’s hustle to promote body positivity throughout COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter didn’t go unnoticed. A college student at the University of Missouri–Kansas City reached out to Bowman, asking if she could write a story on her for the college newspaper.
“Before Ellen and all this, I didn’t really do interviews … but I am a sucker for students,” Bowman said.
Bowman’s story didn’t just inspire one student. Producers from the nationally syndicated “The Ellen Degeneres Show” were impressed, leading to Bowman’s appearance on an episode that aired in early October. Bowman shared her story with millions of in the audience, as well as receiving a check to cover UnLESHed+’s rent for a full year.
Watch Alesha Bowman’s interview on the Ellen show below. Then, keep reading!
I promise you, this woman’s joy is going to brighten your Monday. pic.twitter.com/8WEknDf4M0
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) October 5, 2020
Opening UnLESHed+’s first storefront on Troost Avenue was intentional, Bowman noted.
“I love history, and I love Kansas City,” Bowman said. “While I was away in Indiana, I would hear about the gentrification of Troost. Seeing it was kind of discouraging, but I knew I still wanted to be here and show young folks what’s possible.
“This was an area that was once completely filled by powerful Black entrepreneurs,” she continued. “I knew I wanted to be a part of that legacy.”
Growing up in a low-income household, Bowman said that she’s had to face restrictions. But, UnLESHed+ is about removing societal and personal restraints in order for one to run free.
“Restrictions will be a part of life, regardless — especially as a young Black girl,” Bowman said. “But you have to know the power within you, and that none of those restrictions can hold you back from what it is you want to do.”