In recent months, as COVID-19 swept across the United States and disproportionately affected people of color, and in the last week, following the death of George Floyd and a wave of protests calling for an end to police brutality and racial injustice, many people have wondered how they can help the black community. Millions of dollars have been donated, countless photos and videos have been posted to social media, and individuals and major corporations alike have announced their solidarity. But as these responses unfolded, Aurora James found herself wondering what true allyship from a large business looks like in this situation.
“There are obviously a lot of things that need to happen to change everything that’s going on, including major reform,” she says. “But I personally want to focus on achieving economic justice and equality.” As the founder of shoe and handbag brand Brother Vellies, James has experienced first-hand how difficult it is to make it as a black-owned business, and she’s watched as other black-owned businesses have been forced to shutter since March, accounting for 40 percent of those that have closed as a result of the pandemic. So, when it came to finding solutions to rid America of its systemic racism, James knew that one of the most important steps would be creating a level playing field for black-owned businesses and created the 15 Percent Pledge.
The campaign seeks equal representation in major retailers and companies and asks them to commit to buying 15 percent of their inventory from black-owned businesses. “Black people represent 15 percent of the population in the United States, and we need to represent 15 percent of the shelf space,” James says.
Although a grassroots organization, 15 Percent Pledge is by no means starting small. In one of its first Instagram posts, the campaign called upon four corporate giants: Target, Sephora, Whole Foods, and Shopbop. But looming even larger than these retailers is the $14.5 billion that 15 percent of their product budgets account for, a sum that would be generated back to the black community if they take James’s pledge. “A lot of the insecurity we’ve had during the pandemic comes down to not having the resources, and that means that we need a lot more money and need to be more supported,” she says, so that $14.5 billion could make a big difference.
A commitment to buying 15 percent from black-owned businesses would also mean increased availability of the funding many of them desperately need. “If these businesses can commit to taking that pledge, it would lead to more VCs and investors looking to support black-owned businesses and taking them seriously because they know there’s a built-in demand,” James explains. And if consumers take the pledge to spend their money on black-owned businesses 15 percent of the time, there will also be an increased demand for retailers to stock them. “It really works full circle,” she says.
In the four days since James posted her idea for the 15 Percent Pledge, she’s already heard from a number of businesses. “A lot of people have started reaching out, and I think they’re trying to figure out how to do it in a way that makes sense for them,” she says. “Those are conversations that we’re entirely open to having because there are a lot of different ways that this can apply to different businesses and different people.” She hopes that businesses will look at the pledge, think about how they can apply it, and proactively reach out to have that discussion. “There are some really brilliant minds who are working with us on this, so if you’re a business who is unsure of how to go about this, just reach out, and we will try to help you figure that out or at least give you some steps to head in the right direction so you can go forth on your own.”
James believes there are three key steps to approaching the 15 Percent Pledge. “The first step is about auditing and taking stock of where you are actually at right now,” she notes. For businesses, this would mean going through their lists of brands and suppliers and figuring out how many are black-owned. For a consumer, it would mean looking at shopping habits, from clothes worn to restaurants eaten at, and seeing how many black-owned businesses are a part of everyday life. “And then, we’re asking people to really own and accept that as a second step,” James says. “Really take ownership, and make it public if you can. Say, ‘We have this many designers, and only this percent of them are black.’” From there, it’s all about committing to changing that. “The thing about this period of time right now that’s so important is that we are all collectively acknowledging our shortcomings and that we all need to do more,” the founder says. “We’re all collectively owning that, and we’re not asking anyone to do it alone, but it’s that commitment to growth that matters the most. It’s saying, ‘We realize only X percent of our purchasing power has gone towards black-owned businesses, but we are now committing to growing that, and here’s how we’re going to do it.’”
But accounting for 15 percent of shelf space is only the beginning. James hopes that businesses will look at the pledge and figure out how they can apply it across the board—not just in buying but in hiring, extending grant money, and working with influencers and models. “I think it’s a holistic conversation right now because we’re asking people to look at their entire behavior,” James says, noting that businesses are really a reflection of our lives. “It’s not just about looking at your friend group and saying, ‘Ok, I only have this many friends out of 100 who are black’ and then focusing on making more black friends. It’s more about asking what kind of culture you’ve created in your own life that has been so singular that you don’t have people of color in your life.”