Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2023 year in review.
When Charlotte Bowens decided to restore her health, she was inspired by a nonjudgmental trainer. And during that decade-long journey, she created a way to help more people like her become more fit.
Bowens, a research administrator at Arizona State University, invented an ultralight hydration vest that’s designed for people with bigger bodies, so they can drink water easily while exercising or hitting the trails.
Bowens’ invention got a big boost in 2021 when she won $10,000 during a Demo Day pitch competition held by the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute at ASU.
And now, the VestaPak, which sells for $175, is poised to go nationwide.
Bowens hopes the VestaPak gets more bigger-bodied people into outdoor activity — something that was almost unthinkable for her 10 years ago.
In 2013, Bowens had a health scare and ended up in the emergency room.
“The doctor said, ‘You have high blood pressure, you’re morbidly obese, you’re clinically depressed,'” she said. “It really shook me. It was the wake-up call I needed to change my life.”
She went to the YMCA and got on a treadmill, where she maxed out at two minutes.
The trainer told her, “Good job! Come back tomorrow.”
“After realizing that I had done a terrible job of taking care of myself, for him to affirm me like that meant a lot,” Bowens said.
Every day she walked a little longer. Then she started running.
“The more I did it, the better I ate and the more my mind felt better,” she said.
She quit smoking.
“One day I thought, ‘You just ran five miles and you’re going to sit here and pick up a cigarette?’” she said.
And she gave herself grace.
“I used to say every morning, ‘Just go out and do your best. You’re planning to run six miles but if you run one, that’s OK.”
She started running 5K races, then 10Ks, then marathons and – 16 months after that emergency room visit – an ultramarathon.
When races became tough, she would encourage herself.
“That gentle conversation I would have with myself came because of that staff guy at the YMCA,” she said.
“I think he seeded something in me that changed my life.”
Finding gear to fit
Still, it was wasn’t easy.
When she crossed the finish line of that first ultramarathon, “That victory was bittersweet because I couldn’t find gear to fit my body.”
So she hacked a hydration pack.
“I’d go to thrift stores, sales racks and eBay. I’d buy extra larges and tear them apart and put them back together,” she said.
“I went to the library to check out a sewing machine and I just figured it out because I really wanted to do it.
“I wasn’t going to let the lack of gear stop me.”
She continued running ultramarathons, from 2014 to 2020, when she realized she was coming to the Southwest so often for races that she decided to move from her home in Michigan to Arizona. She’s now the administrative director for the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at ASU.
During those years, she kept hearing that the big brands would be making gear in more inclusive sizes, and she saw big-bodied endurance athletes at races.
“Well, 2020 came and went, and it was, ‘Wow, you guys really aren’t going to do anything.’”
So Bowens started Conscious Gear and applied to a startup accelerator for Black entrepreneurs through Local First Arizona called We Rise.
“I thought, ‘If I don’t get into this, good, because I can leave it alone.’ But I got in and they gave me money and it was like, ‘I’m onto something.’”
She then applied to Venture Devils, a program to support ASU students, staff, faculty, alumni and community founders within the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute. In fall 2021, Bowens wept tears of joy when she won $10,000 in the Global Sport Institute Venture Challenge pitch competition.
At that point, the VestaPak was a work in progress.
“There was some duct tape and some safety pins. It was in very rough condition,” she said.
“But what was beautiful about being in Arizona was that I was on the trails more and seeing more diverse body types and seeing more gear.”
She asked people in her running or hiking groups to try out the vest. They told her it was too bulky.
“People were like, ‘We’re already big, Charlotte!’ And I was like, ‘You’re absolutely right. Even I don’t like it.’
“And then people just wanted it to feel comfortable. When you’re in a bigger body and you never find anything that fits, comfort is like a golden ticket.”
So she got rid of some straps and redesigned it into a vest.
“It’s almost like an oversized sports bra — snug but comfortable, and highly adjustable,” she said.
She bought a sewing machine, hired an industrial designer and created a prototype to send to manufacturers.
She won another $10,000 from the REI Path Ahead Ventures accelerator program.
“I didn’t really need the money at that time. What I needed was a manufacturer,” she said.
Then she got into an accelerator program through Target.
“I had never before seen the power of Target,” Bowens said. “Target leveraged its brand to reach out to its manufacturers and say, ‘We have a program about diversity, equity and inclusion, and are you invested? If so, will you work with this startup to help them go from low-batch manufacturing so they can grow?’
“There were like six companies that sent promotions to my doorstep within a couple of weeks. I had my choice, and they were all good.”
Bowens now has 5,000 VestaPaks. They’re currently in a “soft launch,” sold at the Chandler REI and through the Conscious Gear website, with plans to expand online sales next year.
In September, Bowens got an email from USA Today telling her that the VestaPak had been selected for the newspaper’s gift guide — but she couldn’t tell anyone. The list debuted in October, and after public voting, the VestaPak came in seventh for the top 10 best gifts for outdoor enthusiasts.
“It was pretty amazing and humbling,” she said, grateful that attention proves her concept.
“If you doubt whether this was needed, now you know.”
Bowens has found a wide range of customers for the VestaPak.
“People with limited mobility enjoy having it. People who just walk enjoy it. People are tired of carrying these heavy water bottles.”
Looking ahead to 2024, Bowens plans to offer more products in Conscious Gear.
‘I’m working on something called the Conscious Pack, which is even more lightweight,” she said.
And she’ll be expanding the sizes of the VestaPak, which now comes in three sizes, up to 8X, as well as designing clothing.
“I’m working on cold-weather running pants — that’s me having memories from Michigan — and also highly ventilated shorts, because I’m in Arizona,” she said.
Also, 2024 is about getting back into races.
“I’m not going to own an outdoor brand and not be outdoors,” she said. “I won’t be able to put my real love into it unless I can do the thing that led me to it in the first place.”
And, like her experience that first day on the treadmill, she’s hoping the VestaPak can bring a little more grace into the world.
“I want to liberate us from making judgments about bigger bodies.”
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