Lee Padgett—a disabled Navy veteran—found her calling in entrepreneurship. She started Busted Bra Shop, a lingerie boutique in Detroit, and has since expanded to Chicago and other locations in Michigan.
Her journey was challenging. Obstacles included a lack of capital to start her company, setbacks due to a construction project that blocked access to her store, the pandemic, and the recent United Auto Workers strike. Despite these hurdles, Padgett persevered.
She has expanded to serve the U.S. and Canada through e-commerce and virtual fittings. Her story inspires other women entrepreneurs, proving that with resilience and adaptability, success is achievable even amid adversity.
Female Veterans Make Ideal Entrepreneurs But Still Struggle To Raise Capital
Veterans possess a unique set of qualities that make them well-equipped for the challenges and demands of entrepreneurship. Military service teaches discipline, adaptability, resilience and perseverance, leadership and teamwork, and problem-solving skills. Veterans learn to assess risks effectively and make calculated decisions to mitigate them. Military values emphasize integrity, honesty, and a strong work effort.
The U.S. has 1.8 million female veterans, according to the Institute of Veterans and Military Families. They represent nearly double the proportion of veteran entrepreneurs compared to the U.S. veteran population: 15.2% versus 8.5%, according to Bunker Labs. Yet, they are less likely to receive SBA loans than their male counterparts.
Near half—48%—of female veteran entrepreneurs were turned down by lenders or creditors when applying for financing, according to the National Survey of Military-Affiliated Entrepreneurs. A majority—59%—of female veteran entrepreneurs feel that the military prepared them for business challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Padgett is one of them.
Life Lessons Teach Adaptability, Resilience, and Adaptability
Padgett was studying to be an actress. “I ended up getting sick in a way that I had to take time off [to recuperate],” she sighed. “[During that time,] I was able to look at who I was and take an accounting [of who I was becoming].” She was 19.
By 21, Padgett decided she needed to be a more productive part of society and decided to join the Navy. It was during the first Gulf War in 1990.
While stationed in Maine, Padgett was in an accident that crushed her neck. She ended up in rehab for about a year before she was able to walk normally. As a disabled veteran, the Navy offered to send her to college.
She went to the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, where she bonded with one of her professors, who was a Vietnam vet. “One day, he looked at me and said, ‘You’re gonna marry my son,’” said Padgett. “Two years later, he was crying at my wedding to his son.”
In 2003, Padgett‘s husband’s job brought them to Detroit. She opened a coffee shop in downtown Detroit. Every day, women would complain that they couldn’t buy bras because there wasn’t a store in Detroit that sold them. The suburbs are a 45-minute drive to a mall if you have a car. Many women do not.
Padgett’s husband’s job relocated them to Europe, then back to the U.S. “One night, I woke up and told my husband we have to move back to Detroit,” she exclaimed. “Detroit’s women need me.” Her husband was able to transfer to Detroit.
Entrepreneurship Is A Roller Coaster With Thrilling Highs And Scary Lows
That was in 2011. Padgett entered several business entrepreneurial competitions, including Hatch Detroit. She didn’t win the competition, but some audience members offered to lend her money. She raised $12,000. “[In August of 2013,] I rented a little bitty office—less than 200 square feet—with no windows in the middle of the belly of a building,” said Padgett. Women came in by appointment to buy.
The landlord was so impressed with the traction Busted Bra achieved that he surprised Padgett by building out a 1,500-square-foot store. He didn’t charge her for the construction and rented the space for a song. It still had no outside signage or windows. Yet, within a few years, the store generated $350,000 to $400,000 annually.
Entrepreneurship is never a straight shot to success. The City started tearing up the streets to build the Q line, a part of Detroit’s trolley system on rails. It was a three-year project. “It cut off people just a few miles from Busted Bra,” said Padgett. “So I started doing pop-up shops, in places where customers could get to us.” Eventually, she opened permanent stores and expanded to Chicago—six in total.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and stores were in lockdown. “We had lots of bills and no income,” growled Padgett. It wasn’t perfect, but Padgett quickly added e-commerce to her website.
“We started getting calls from female truck drivers around the country,” Padgett said excitedly. They were working but had no time to shop. Mothers whose daughters’ breasts were developing were calling, too.
Busted Bra started doing virtual fittings and mailing bras. Every day at 3 p.m., they streamed live, showing the latest bras or teaching people how to measure themselves at home. They did contests called “the Panty Raid Project,” where people could buy panties to send to nurses in the local hospitals.
Busted Bra didn’t make much profit, but it got people “in the door,” kept awareness of the stores high, and Padgett could pay her team.
Typically, the number of employers shrinks during an economic upheaval. The share of employers among women-owned businesses increased while men’s decreased. Yet, women-owned employers earn about one-quarter of the average revenue of men. If they had the same average revenues, they would add $3.2 trillion to the economy, according to the 2023 Wells Fargo Impact of Women-Owned Businesses: A focus on employer and nonemployer firms.*
The pandemic has ended, but the challenges have not. Detroit is heavily dependent on the automotive industry. The average household makes $35,000 annually. When automotive workers went out on strike, it dramatically impacted Busted Bra. Residents used their money to buy groceries, not bras.
“We have 34 employees, and it was very stressful,” Padgett admitted. She attended a Hello Alice Meet the Media event to see if her story would catch the attention of any of the media at the event. It caught mine. Hello Alice offers access to capital, workshops, and community.
Fortunately, the strike has ended. “As a local business owner and a proud member of the Detroit community, the conclusion of the UAW strikes signifies a hopeful path forward not only for the auto workers but also for small businesses like ours that thrive in a robust, equitable economy,” said Padgett.
How have you overcome obstacles?