Lesley Bryant thought her teenage drawings were a hobby, but when a high school instructor encouraged her to go to art school, her mom told her to go for it. In college, she fell in love with graphic design and landed a position working for a real estate company—a job that paid well but didn’t fulfill her creatively.
After 12 years, she left her 9-5 job and took a short break to figure out her next move. In that pause, her barber suggested barber school. With an experienced eye for precise lines, a unique design aesthetic, and a desire to work with people, she was also aware that female barbers were scarce. This may be daunting for some, but Lesley saw it through an entrepreneurial lens; she could be a brand. She adopted the name “Lady Clipper” and entered the male-centric world of barbering, where her skills and experience were challenged, and some men flatly refused to let her touch their hair.
Regardless of the challenges in the field, Lesley had the vision to open an inclusive shop where she could nurture a team of talented barbers. With the help of her mom and mentors, The Lady Clipper Barbershop opened in 2017 in Washington D.C.’s historic U Street Corridor. With rotating art on the walls supporting local artists and a sisterhood of women barbers, the shop has built a cult following who embrace the women-owned and operated shop.
Lesley talked to NonGirly about the hierarchy and sexism in beauty salons, Rosie the Riveter, and how she reappropriated “being the only female” into a powerful brand.
What kind of kid were you? What were some of your likes and interests?
I was really interested in artwork. I loved to draw and trace cartoons from the local newspaper, arts and crafts, carving—anything like that. My mom is a nurse and she used to sew handmade dolls. I would ask if I could help and she’d let me glue and sew things by hand. I loved being a part of her creative process; I think that had a lot to do with fueling mine.
What were some of your favorite school subjects?
Definitely art class. I’m also an athlete, so I loved physical education and was into basketball, soccer, and a little track and field. Growing up, those were the things that were attractive to me. I wasn’t that into the actual schoolwork, such as math, reading, and science. They were quite difficult for me as a child. I found a lot of peace being good in the art world and confident athletically.
Did being involved in the arts and sports help you connect with people?
It totally impacted who I am as a person today. Not only (learning) team spirit, but to work as a team. Being on the basketball and swim team, we had to motivate each other daily and support each other through our losses and wins. I think being an athlete has helped me be a better boss. And the art world has trained me to have a very steady hand, as well as to see angles, shapes, and proportions that an untrained eye may miss.
Who were some of your early influences?
Coming from a hardworking middle-class background, my parents were very instrumental in setting values to be disciplined. My mom was a huge influence and encouraged me to go after my dream and not worry about what the outside noise would say was appropriate for my life. I was a graphic designer before owning my barbershop. And that’s something I’ve loved for a very long time. I felt I had to earn my degree in fine arts to be on the same level as my siblings—because they have bachelor’s and master’s degrees—before I could do something I may want to do for the rest of my life.
When did you decide to pursue art as a college major?
A lot of my family members went to HBCUs [Historically black colleges and universities] and I was going to follow that fold. But my art teacher took a special interest in me and suggested we go to portfolio day at this art school. I never thought of studying art in college. For me, art was a hobby, something I wanted to continue to play around with. It was a safe and happy place for me, but I never thought I could earn money from it and really thrive.
On the portfolio day, the guy handed me an application after seeing my sketches and artwork and encouraged me to apply. I was blown away that an art professional, a seasoned artist, saw potential in my doodles. I was flattered, took the application home, explained to my mom what happened and she said, “Apply, but make sure you pick something you can get a good job at after you graduate.” Being an entrepreneur right out of school, promoting your work, or getting into galleries would be a lot more work. But my mom thought I should try graphic design because it is computer-related and I fell in love with it. It was the perfect match for me.
So, after you graduated, where did you land?
At a couple mom and pop print shops. Once I learned the ropes, I ran the whole print shop from start to finish, making sure everything was complete and to the owner’s satisfaction. About two years later, I got my first corporate job in the creative department at a commercial real estate firm where I designed sales booklets, a lot of flyers, pamphlets, anything to aid with the sale of office buildings.
At first, I was just excited to be in a corporate role and get dressed up for work—you know, the glitz and glamour of working in an office. I was excited to have my own desk and a nice office and feel important and validated. I stayed at that company for about 12 years. And I would say two years in, I started to feel sort of caged-in, creatively. Every company has its branding guidelines and every once in a while, I would try to push the envelope. It wasn’t always well received. People were like, “Don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s been working. We’ve been winning business this way.” So, at times that was a little bit tough.
What happened when you decided to leave? Did you already have a vision for your new business?
That company merged with another company and it was having major layoffs. I was looking at other jobs to move on to during the 12-year period, but the company paid well, so even if you weren’t happy, you looked at your paycheck on payday and you would stay. It took the layoff for me to make a shift and to do my own thing. It was definitely a blessing for me.
Did you always have an interest in hair?
I always had an interest in my hair, but I had minimal interest in actually doing hair. While I love fashion and I take special pride in my own hair, I can’t say that I had a passion for hair my whole life. It was something that came with time.
What did you do next?
I took a month off to come up with a game plan. I enrolled in a barbering school with my severance pay. The idea of going to barbering school came from my barber. When I got laid off, I went to visit my barber in the middle of the week and he wondered why I was getting my hair cut during the week. I told him I was on vacation for a month and I had to clear my mind to see where I was going to land. He said to me, “Why don’t you go to barbering school? You have a great personality, you’re artistic, and you have the ingredients to become a great barber.”
Right away, a light bulb went off and I thought it would be pretty cool because, at that time, I didn’t know any female barbers. This is brandable, let me see if I like this. After the first day of class, the teacher asked me, “What drives you? Are you already a stylist? I feel something from you.” I don’t really know what that meant, but that comment took me to the next level. Someone saw something [in me] I couldn’t see. Every day I went to class, I was more interested in the craft and the history of barbering and shared it with my mom. I asked her if she knew barbers were the first surgeons, which she did. Sharing my knowledge with her was a lot of fun.
What was your next move after graduating from barber school?
I went back to my barber to tell him I was ready and needed a chair. Slowly, one cut at a time, I got better and more confident. Two months later, an old classmate who owned a shop asked me to come over. When I visited, I felt such a welcoming vibe from the team. And I was able to point out which chair I wanted to cut in. I don’t know if you know anything about the hierarchy in a barbershop, but the chair closest to the door is usually the boss, manager, or owner’s chair. The person furthest away is the newest barber. The other shop was in my neighborhood and I wasn’t always comfortable working there because I knew a lot of my neighbors. Sometimes you want to separate home and work.
How many female barbers were there? Did you receive any reactions from people having their hair cut by a female barber?
I was the only female barber in both shops; I definitely got a lot of heat, especially the first year. People asked me, “So, are you learning? Do you know how to cut?” I know they wouldn’t have questioned anybody else in the shop about their experience. I had an older gentleman come into the shop who I greeted and asked if he had an appointment with somebody. My chair was open and I was willing to serve him, but he said, “Oh no, I will never let a woman cut my hair.” I told him that’s fine but he kept going. I said, “Sir, it’s okay. I’m not begging you. I was just trying to help.” So yeah, I got a lot of that or clients coming in asking the barbers to my left and my right, “Can she cut?”—without caring if that was an insult to me.
Were there other young male barbers in the shop?
Yes. There were two other new barbers in the shop that never got the heat.
So, you knew it wasn’t ageism. It was sexism.
When was the first seed planted for your own business?
I just started making comfortable money, and every time the owner saw me doing really well, he raised the rent so I could never get past a certain amount of income. I thought I might need to figure out another stream of income or become a traveling barber. Likewise, I thought of all sorts of ways of making extra money. I approached him to see if he needed support because there were some things at his shop that I felt needed improvement, but he wasn’t that interested.
Eventually, I thought, maybe I can do this on my own, maybe I can get one of those salon suites and not only have control but also have a very private, intimate space for my clients. After doing research, I realized I was thinking small. Let me open a shop with the potential of having other people working with me. I don’t only have my income, but I get some of the commission from them. Basically, do what he’s doing. If I’m unhappy with what I’m taking home, I could play the game too.
Did you reach out to small business development centers or mentors to help you build your business?
Yes and no. My mom’s old hairstylist has her own successful shop. She had me over for lunch and explained the pros and cons of having your own space, the responsibilities, and gave me some creative ideas. From there, I researched the costs to buy or lease a property. I also connected with the chamber of commerce that had a mentorship program—where you work with a mentor that previously had a business or is still working to help you get started. I met this wonderful lady there who helped me, from picking out colors on the walls to planning and budgeting.
The Lady Clipper is a barbershop owned and run by women. How did you find other women barbers?
All of my staff came from the barbering school I attended. I have a special connection with one of the owners and asked him to send me barbers with a great attitude who were ready to work, listen and blossom under my instruction. He sent me my first barber, Joe. She was a recent graduate and we had a great first interview. At first, I did not plan for the staff to be all women but after I hired Joe, clients were saying, “I go to an all-female barbershop.” I saw it in Instagram comments; they would say things like “girl power” in the captions. But I had already been going by the name Lady Clipper.
Joe worked for me for a year before I hired anyone else; she was my test barber. Then, [my instructor] sent Gabby and I thought, “Why does he keep sending me women?” I think it was a combination of women being attracted to the brand, thinking Lady Clipper meant it’s only female barbers. So, I went with it. It works for me for brand reasons and we’ve built a great sisterhood. It’s a beautiful thing. Sometimes going with the flow pays off.
Being a designer, did you create your own branding?
Yes, I made my own logo. My mom came up with the name “Lady Clipper”, which made me think of Rosie the Riveter. And I’m like, “I’m going to be Lesley the Riveter.” I’m going to recreate the theme and put my own stamp on it.
How did you connect with local artists? Why is it important for you to feature their work at your shop?
Exposure is important for artists. I was blessed to be successful in my space and I wanted to give other fine artists a chance to have their work seen. Where else do you get that level of traffic on a regular basis outside of an art gallery than in a barbershop or salon? People are always coming in and out. And I sell a lot of art.
It was also an economical thing when I first moved into my space. I had these blank gray walls and I thought, “I need some art and I need it to rotate,” because I get very bored with the same things all the time. How can we keep the space alive and support other entrepreneurs? Helping them sell their work was the best way for me to help myself and someone else.
What would you say to girls to feel like they don’t fit in, or adults who are afraid to pursue their passion?
Dig deep and try it. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but to never give it a try, you’ll never know. And that, to me, is a huge mistake and regret. If you don’t feel like you fit in, sometimes that’s where your strength is. Your strength lies in what makes you different and unique. Just tap into it and ask for help and support.
How can parents help their kids pursue their passion?
Really listen to the things your children say they enjoy. Sometimes, as a child, you need someone to put the pieces together for you. As a parent, I think you have to pay attention to the strength of your children. It is so important to help them find a career that aligns career and passion. Help them do some research. Exposure is key.
What’s next for you?
We’re continually growing. I recently added a fifth barber and am searching for a second location. I’m hoping to expand and elevate the brand so we can support other female barbers and entrepreneurs as a whole. I’m open to seeing what the next phase will be. It may be similar to what I’m doing now, or it might be on another level. I’ve learned if you have an open mind and open heart you’ll be guided.