How Aurora James of the Fifteen Percent Pledge tapped a groundswell of support for Black-owned businesses
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How Aurora James of the Fifteen Percent Pledge tapped a groundswell of support for Black-owned businessesFebruary 2022
In the spring of 2020, Canadian fashion designer and activist Aurora James published a post on social media calling for large retailers to get serious about supporting Black-owned businesses.
The kernel of her idea was simple: Since 15% of Americans are Black, she argued, big retailers should dedicate 15% of their shelf space to products made by Black-owned businesses. James, a Toronto native and New York transplant, was motivated in part by a forecast that more than 40% of Black-owned businesses were at risk of closing permanently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.
The concept immediately resonated. After tagging a number of big companies in her post, James launched a petition that garnered nearly 100,000 signatures within a day. She then quickly incorporated the Fifteen Percent Pledge as a nonprofit advocacy group. Within 10 days, the first large retailer, Sephora, joined the pledge.
Since then, the group has signed 28 major companies, including Google, and James expects the initiative to drive an estimated $10 billion in revenue to Black-owned businesses in the United States. That success has created a new urgency to identify and organize those businesses into a database retailers can use to activate on their pledges.
“Every quarter, we’re making recommendations to them of Black-owned businesses that we think makes sense to scale into their shelves,” said James.
Google, for its part, has committed to scale its free digital training to companies in the database to increase their visibility across search and digital commerce channels.
But the work doesn’t end there. James says there is a fundamental change underway in how big companies take action to support communities of color — away from optics and toward meaningful action. She wants the Fifteen Percent Pledge to help them realize that transformation.
“It’s not just about how many people of color are in your advertising campaign,” she says. “It’s about how many people of color are working in your retail stores, and then graduating into corporate. And how many people of color are on your board.”
Stephanie Horton: Hi, everyone. My name is Stephanie Horton, I’m the global marketing director for Google Commerce. So happy to be here today to discuss Google’s partnership with Fifteen Percent Pledge, with founder Aurora James.
Aurora James: Hi, Stephanie. I’m so excited to be chatting with you today. As you know, I am the founder and creative director of Brother Vellies and also the founder of the nonprofit advocacy organization the Fifteen Percent Pledge. And I’m so excited to dig in with you.
Horton: So my first question for you: You started Fifteen Percent Pledge with an Instagram post in 2020, and it’s now a full-fledged nonprofit. Can you speak more about how you made that first post and why?
James: It was spring 2020. Like all of us, I was at home trying to stay safe and trying to keep my family and my community also safe and not get sick. And when Mr. Floyd was murdered, I started getting a lot of calls and emails just from different people wanting to know how they should address what was going on within their company. And, while these companies felt like they were saying the right things, and it felt like their heart was in it, I necessarily wasn't really feeling it.
James: And on that Saturday, May 29, a friend of mine called me about a major retailer. And she just told me that they had just donated a couple of million dollars to a nonprofit organization. And I was like, you know, that’s amazing. But it’s also important for us to remember that Black people spend more than $2 million on any given morning at that retailer. And if we’re talking about what it means to be anti-racist, and actually make change in the long term, it’s going to take a lot more than a one-time donation.
James: And she was like, well, what would you want them to do? I was like, well, Black people are almost 15% of the population. They should commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. You know, all of the rates that we were seeing of the Black community not getting the support that they needed prior to the pandemic was just being exacerbated. At the time, they were estimating that over 42% of Black-owned businesses would close because of the pandemic.
James: I took an hour, wrote it all out, I posted on Instagram, and I tagged a bunch of companies that I thought should take the pledge. We launched the petition on Monday at noon. By Tuesday, we had almost 100,000 signatures; and by Wednesday, we became a nonprofit. And by day 10, Sephora, became the first major company to commit to the Fifteen Percent Pledge. And, since then, we have signed 28 major companies to the Fifteen Percent Pledge. And we are moving over 10 billion in revenue to Black-owned businesses across this country. And I truly believe that we are just getting started.
Horton: Obviously, different companies are probably doing this in different ways. How are people actually using the pledge?
James: Yeah. So everyone is sort of doing it a little bit differently. But from the retailer’s perspective, they’re sort of the most classic case. If you look at an Ulta Beauty, for example, they’re committing to getting to 15% of their shelf space actually being from Black-owned businesses. So every quarter we’re making recommendations to them of Black-owned businesses that we think makes sense to scale into their shelves, because it’s not meant to happen overnight, right. [Horton: Right.] It’s supposed to be a lifestyle change.
James: So I think now we’re starting to think about diversity with a much broader range, right? [Right] And it’s not just about, okay, how many people of color are in your advertising campaign. It’s how many people of color are, you know, working in your retail stores, and then graduating into corporate. And how many people of color are on your board, right? [Horton: Right.]
Horton: So getting into our partnership: We recently launched, obviously, Google announced it’s support of Fifteen Percent Pledge and its mission, and its commitment to scaling its free digital training to the businesses in your database. Can you speak more to this ecosystem and how consumers, businesses, and even big brands can be using it to increase their support of Black-owned businesses?
James: Totally. So our ecosystem is incredibly important to me, to have a place where we can find black entrepreneurs, whether you are the Sephoras of the world or the West Elms of the world who are on there every day going through the different Black-owned businesses. [Horton: Yeah, yeah.] Or if you’re one of our consumers. Because we always ask consumers to take the pledge in their own life, commit 15% of your own spending to Black-owned businesses.
Horton: So just getting into some logistics now. How can brands who haven’t taken the pledge yet join? How does it work? What do they do?
James: Yeah. So they really just reach out to us and we start having a conversation with them. Some of them are really, really on it and others are just like, “What do we do?” You know? [Horton: Yeah.] And both places to be at are great places to start, right? Like, it's one foot in front of the other. What we’ve seen in the data so far is that it’s actually a really profitable experience for them.
Horton: Well, Aurora, I mean literally, this has been amazing. I want to thank you so much for joining us. It’s been such a great conversation. I’ve actually learned so much. I would urge any brands tuning into this right now to consider how they can increase their support for Black-owned businesses and the Fifteen Percent Pledge. I would really remind any consumers watching, to your point, please use the Fifteen Percent Pledge as a new ecosystem. Black-owned businesses support in every way you can.
Horton: And if you are a Black-owned business, make sure you join the roster of pledges and businesses and, a little plug to Google, add the Black-owned business badge to your Google Search, Maps, and Shopping to make sure you’re discoverable and showing up when people search Black-owned businesses or Black-owned X, because that’s going to help you as well. And, finally, just check out Fifteen Percent Pledge’s website to learn more. Take action. And Aurora, I thank you so much again. This has been such a pleasure.
James: Oh my gosh, Stephanie, thank you so much for having me, and thank you so much to Google for supporting the pledge and all of the Black-owned businesses across this country by allowing us to coalesce in this way. So, so much love to you guys.
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