Gemma Kirby has a life story that is so phenomenal that when it comes time to tell her grandkids, they just might not believe her. She was the Human Cannonball for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. All silver and sparkles, Gemma became a focal point for the company, and was featured in publications such as The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She also appeared on countless television programs including “Late Night with David Letterman,” where she was launched through the streets of New York City from a cannon. Typically, whenever she performed, entire arenas would stand and cheer for her. Then Gemma suffered an injury, and a lifetime of dedication and commitment came to an abrupt ending.
“I was a cannonball, so this is the risk you run,” she explained. “Still, it’s a hard transition to make. Being in the circus made me feel like I was part of something bigger than myself. It was great, but when you come home after your 15 minutes, you realize the world is still here and it’s waiting to be improved by somebody. So you start to wonder, what can I do to give something back?”
Late last summer, when Gemma was feeling a little bit empty, and her life felt like it had lost some of its meaning, she went out into the woods to spend three days reflecting on what she had to offer the world. She started thinking about the type of world she would like to live in and how she could get things closer to that ideal. CBS asked Gemma a few questions about her bold decision made the woods, which was to launch a company with basically no startup at all.
So what did you think about in the woods?
They always say, ‘Do what you love and make it your work.’ I’ve always been an amazing bargain hunter. I love thrift shopping. I’ve never paid full price for anything. It’s been a passion of mine since I was a young teen. I love going out hunting for treasures and I thought how could I turn this into employment? I decided that I wanted to start this endeavor through Poshmark, which is an incredible app and website that allows men and women, but mostly women, to resell their gently used fashions online.
What happened next?
I was between jobs, so I was able to really devote myself to it. And because of that, I was able to support myself and pay my bills the first month I started. I was flooded with enormous gratitude. I was self-employed, doing something I loved, and it didn’t feel like work, it just felt like a dream come true. I never had that experience before. Even when I was a performer and I was doing a job I really loved, it still felt like work. It felt like hard work!
When did the charity aspect come in?
The next month, I decided that I wanted to take it a step further and start reaching out to my community here in Minnesota, and elsewhere around the world. I met so many amazing and generous people throughout my travels that I decided I was going to set up a Facebook page. The organization is called Dress Her Heart and we take gently used clothing from whoever happens to have some laying around in their closet. Ten percent of the proceeds of all items sold will be allocated to buying vital resources, including feminine hygiene products, diapers, shampoo, socks, and underwear for women and girls in our community. It’s super easy, 100 percent free, and a very low effort way to make real, tangible change in your community for women and girls who are struggling with homelessness, fleeing violence, sexual abuse, or human trafficking. Unfortunately, those are all really real and terrible problems in Minnesota. They are real and terrible problems all over the world.
You started your business with basically no startup money, no financing. Was that something that just happened or was it deliberate?
That was deliberate. When I started this business, I was pretty broke. I wanted to be self-employed. I wanted to self-sustain, but I didn’t know if I could start a business. It just seemed so expensive and daunting. I was thinking, ‘How am I going to start a business without any startup funds?’ I went to a consignment shop with a pile of clothes from my own closet. Boots, dresses, coats, whatever, and I sold them for $60. Then I went to another shop, and I sold some of my other clothes for $85. I took the credit from those sales, and I exchanged it for clothing at their stores. Then I took those clothes, which were nicer than the ones that I had, and I sold them on Poshmark. I used those proceeds to buy the next batch and so on.
And now you own a business that helps the community.
I’m just excited to see the support roll in. When I launched the Facebook page and invited all of these ladies and gentlemen from my past, people I met on the road, and they wrote back wanting to support the project; I know it sounds cheesy, but it felt so good. It felt like a solidarity amongst people. Not just female people, but amongst people in my world, my community, people who are coming together because they want to do good.
We’re in such a divided time right now, we see each other as different species. It’s all about us and them, but I think we are 90 percent the same. We want shelter, we want food, we want our kids to grow up healthy and we want to have a secure life. No matter which candidate we support or who we voted for in the election, I think almost everybody would like to do something charitable, would like to give back, and would like to do something to make the world a better place.
This article was written by Allen Foster for CBS Small Business Pulse.