In the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white police officer in May 2020, corporations across the US jumped to show solidarity. But for many, their words were not backed by action to drive sustainable change to end systemic racism and police brutality.
Aurora James, the New York designer behind the sustainable accessories brand Brother Vellies, saw an opportunity to create a framework to hold companies accountable. James had experienced the challenges of starting a business as a Black woman firsthand and wanted to use it to boost up other Black entrepreneurs. She quickly launched an initiative on Instagram asking retailers to commit to supporting Black entrepreneurs.
The model was simple — since Black people in the US make up nearly 15% of the population, companies should make sure 15% of their products are made by Black-owned businesses. In a matter of days, James registered the 15 Percent Pledge as a nonprofit advocacy group to help achieve this mission.
The 15 Percent Pledge has partnered with major companies including fashion and beauty retailers Macy’s, Sephora, and Gap, the food website Yelp, and publishers including Vogue and InStyle. The group also recently launched a job board for employers dedicated to creating diverse and inclusive work environments to post openings.
LaToya Williams-Belfort recently joined the 15 Percent Pledge in December as executive director. Global Citizen spoke with Williams-Belfort about how the company is empowering Black women in business, promoting economic justice, and holding corporations responsible.
Global Citizen: The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black-owned businesses and Black people. What is at stake when we don’t work to achieve economic justice alongside racial justice?
LaToya Williams-Belfort: Everything is at stake. The pandemic has shown us who is heavily impacted because of systemic infrastructures that have been in place for so long that when our country experiences a national crisis like a public health crisis, we saw disproportionate effects in communities of color and people of color. From an economic perspective, it’s that same application because of systemic barriers and economic structures that have created barriers to entry and equal access for Back people to build wealth, Black businesses, and of course, Black women.
If we don't right those wrongs and think about strategies to amplify and propel economic justice, then everything is at stake as it relates to systematically correcting race-based wrongs and going forward in a way that supports all Americans. If we don't emphasize economic justice, then we're chasing our tails.
We’ve seen so many statistics on how the pandemic is having the most economic impact on women and women of color. How has the 15 Percent Pledge specifically helped Black women in business?
Through the pandemic, 40% of Black businesses have to close their doors because of a variety of elements and no access and support.
Simultaneously, data have come out to say 140,000 jobs [were] lost just in December, those jobs all belonging to women of color.
Our founder, Aurora James, is a Black woman entrepreneur, and she understands all the nuances and barriers to entry that existed before COVID. We know that the pledge is thinking about how we amplify Black entrepreneurs, but also Black women entrepreneurs and how we can create programming and mentorship and work with our pledge takers to create pipelines to business and supply chain.
As someone who has worked in the non-profit space for many years, why do you think it's crucial to also engage the private sector in racial justice work? What’s the value in working with corporate retailers instead of directly with Black businesses?
Corporations in particular have benefited from a lot of the infrastructure that has been in place for many years in this country. It's their corporate social responsibility to think about social issues and partner with nonprofits, to think about economic justice and inclusion and diversity, and correcting race-based wrongs from a business and economic justice perspective.
Wholly as a community, when the levees are too heavy for government to bear, it is all of our job to work together — private sector, nonprofits — to create opportunities to support under-resourced communities or populations of people who have not had equal access.
The 15 Percent Pledge came out of the summer following George Floyd’s murder and brands trying to show solidarity but not necessarily delivering. Have you seen a similar sentiment around Black History Month this year?
Taking the pledge kind of propelled companies to think about a larger strategy that isn’t connected to Black History Month. In general, as a Black woman, I think many Black people struggle with the concept of Black History Month and how many corporations and retailers choose to show solidarity in Black History Month, [but] other months stall in other actions that are necessary to show sustainable change.
That stalling is what kind of propelled Aurora to create the pledge. It was that same kind of, “We stand with you, we support you during the unfortunate killing of George Lloyd,” but no real action. That is what we have to continue to push against. We don't need the expressions of support without putting numbers and data and sustainable change plans to those efforts. We see it in Black History Month. We will continue to see it until retailers, corporations, many industries make a strategic change, like taking the pledge to concretize their commitments to Black people in the Black community.
Vogue and InStyle have also committed to the 15 Percent Pledge. Do you foresee any other types of companies embracing the 15% model beyond the scope of retail and fashion?
We’ve already started to experience that momentum at the pledge. We have Yelp, who was one of our earlier pledge takers, and even the Gap brands have taken the pledge. Although they are a retailer, some of their metrics around our partnership have to do with internal DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] efforts and retention and recruitment and supporting Black people in the workforce.
A lot of companies are thinking holistically about what their shelf space is and what that feels like in their infrastructure. And if they don't have traditional shelf space, what are their DEI commitments and how can we work with them to amplify DEI just as good business and break down this old way that corporations, retailers, and different industries have brought about DEI by the very siloed Black History Month, Women's History Month type of way and think about how we can help them to move their inclusivity strategies forward.
How have companies responded to the 15 Percent Pledge publicly shining a light on how bad of a job they are doing in stocking products from Black-owned businesses?
In the very beginning of the pledge, we assembled a group of volunteers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, fashion executives. We looked at some of the biggest retailers that have large financial support from Black people and we audited them.
We came out with some interesting data points and those data points fuel a lot of the messaging you see on social media around encouraging companies that may have made statements in other arenas about standing with Black people, where the numbers show that Black people have stood with them and supported them but for some reason, they haven’t taken the pledge.
What we know is that taking the pledge is only right, it only enhances business. It only enhances staff productivity. Being committed to equity is not radical, it's right. Right now we know that they have direct connections with the Black community because the Black community supports them. So they should be equally invested in equity for Black entrepreneurs and Black people. The goal is to start a conversation because all arrows point to [the fact] that these companies should definitely be taking the pledge.
Are there any plans to eventually increase the pledge from 15% down the line?
For some of our partners, 15% is the floor but for some of our partners, as we create these dynamic relationships to how we interact with different pledge takers and how we look at their shelves and their internal and external efforts, 15% is the ceiling.
We want to make sure that the 15% is a doable number. We work with corporations on multi-year partnerships so we also want to make sure that we are setting them up to succeed.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.