Alicia Porter is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, where she was born and raised in the Pittsburgh and Collier Heights communities, respectively.
Her mother was a professional seamstress for a shirt company in the 50s and 60s, and she passed that knowledge down to her daughter.
“She taught me how to sew when I was eight years old,” Porter explained. “At the time, it was a gift I didn’t realize that I had acquired.”
Porter said that her mother passed away three months after she began teaching her how to sew, but she took what she learned and began making her clothes.
“Throughout high school, I would make my own clothing,” Porter said. “They weren’t professionally precise, but that was the best I knew how to do.”
Porter attended Frederick Douglass High School and East Atlanta High School before attending Paine College, where she became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., in the fall of 1986. It was during her time in Augusta, Georgia, that her sewing skills were put to the test.
“I got into two traffic violations on the same day,” Porter recalled. “So I called home and I asked my dad if he could pay for the tickets for me, and he said ‘no’”. Porter’s dad told her that she had to figure out how to pay for the tickets.
Then one night, Porter said her mother spoke to her in a dream to make pillows, and with a sewing machine she borrowed from a friend and lettering she used from a store close to campus, she began making pillows for students.
The pillows were the beginning of The Burning Sands in 1988. However, about a year later, during her senior year at Paine College, her father had passed away.
“That’s not just one parent, that was two parents. Being the youngest of three, I was kind of groomed to be the leader of the family, and I had to leave.”After leaving college, she heavily pursued a career in journalism, holding several positions in local media outlets in Augusta, but after struggling to make ends meet, she returned to Atlanta where she worked in Grady Memorial Hospital.
It was there, however, where Porter learned what she wanted to be – an entrepreneur. And she was determined to focus on what she does best.
“I said no matter what happens, I’m going to start a sewing business,” Porter exclaimed. “So, for an entire year, I studied entrepreneurship. How to be self-employed, how to pay taxes, how to hire and at that time, we were on the cutting edge of social media. So we didn’t have that luxury.”
Her first attempt at business came on the campus of Spelman College, where a colleague from the hospital recommended Porter participate in “Market Friday”, a weekly event where entrepreneurs could rent a table and sell their product. Porter only made $30 that day, but the best news was waiting for her at home.
“When I got home, I had a message on my answering machine from the Eta Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.,” Porter said. “They wanted me to make them 35 line jackets, and I had never did line jackets in my life.”
Porter made an order form for them and placed them in a book, and a week later, she went to go pick them up.
“I figured nothing was gonna happen, and I was ok with that,” she said. “I went to pick up the book. I turned it upside-down by accident, and money fell out at my feet. And I had no idea what to do next.”
Luckily, she met someone who knew how to lay jackets out and she was able to complete the order, thus officially establishing The Burning Sands by Alicia.
Porter’s Greek store is located in The Mall West End, a spot she’s held since 1999. Line jackets have since become a specialty of hers, along with other custom items including crewnecks, towels and hats, among other items.
“Uniqueness, quality, and originality,” Porter answered when asked about the store. “That is one thing I pride myself on in this company. It’s often hard because we are a small specialty retailer, and Atlanta is a huge market for Greek life. But we do our best.”
She has seen success with her business over the 22 years since she opened a location in the Mall West End, but to Porter, the community is just as important to her, especially youth development and feeding the hungry. She also cares greatly about relationships, sharing how important Greek life’s depth is.
“It is so, so important to me. There are a lot of people who come in who may not understand the depth of Greek life,” Porter said. “In Greek life it’s about family. No matter what colors you wear, or whether you wear colors or not, it’s about family.”
Porter expressed how much it means to build connections, and how it is much deeper than handshakes or eye contact.
“It’s getting to know our customers, their mothers, their fathers, their journeys,” she emphasized. “Those relationships are very, very sacred to me.”
The Mall West End is set to close and be redeveloped within the next year or two, meaning Porter and The Burning Sands have a tough reality to face. But Porter desires to stay in the community.
“This is the heart of The Burning Sands, this is the heart of Greek life,” Porter said.“We’re gonna do everything in our power to make sure that happens and continue to serve our community, as we have been branded here for over 25 years.”