Over the past week, in the aftermath of Minneapolis police senselessly killing George Floyd, many people have spent the time seeking out ways to fight police brutality and systemic racism. These pleas made it to Aurora James, founder of shoe and handbag brand Brother Vellies, who came up with at least one difference-making answer. Showing up to protests, making donations, voting, having difficult conversations with family and friends, and calling local government officials are all ways to chip away at systemic racism—but James saw an additional way to create change, too.
Her time running a business had taught her that at big and small stores alike, it’s less likely for black-owned businesses to be represented on shelves and ecommerce. And the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit black-owned businesses particularly hard, had already got her thinking about the issue. “As a business owner and someone in the retail space, I am really personally aware of the lack of representation on a lot of [major retailers’] shelves,” James said over the phone Monday. “And I know that black people spend a ton of money in this country and we deserve that representation.” In response, she launched the 15 Percent Pledge over the weekend, calling on major corporations to commit to making 15% of the products they stock come from black businesses.
James started by calling on major corporations like Target, Sephora, Shopbop, and Whole Foods. (The latter two are owned by Amazon.) The math was striking and obvious: 15% of those four companies’ product budgets is some $14.5 billion dollars, by her count. What if she could help redirect that to black-owned businesses?
James understands firsthand the difference working with a popular retailer can have. She started Brother Vellies with $3,500 and a stall at a flea market, but the business transformed when it was picked up by the once-beloved New York retailer Opening Ceremony. “Without that account, we wouldn’t have been able to fully launch Brother Vellies the way we did, and essentially get out of the flea market,” said James.
Now, the 15 Percent Pledge aims to create that same metamorphic moment for many other black businesses. Corporations have already gotten in touch to see how they can commit to the pledge (James declined to share particular names). “Some of them are a little bit trepidatious, like, ‘Well, this is really hard,’” James said. “Yes, there are a lot of things like that are really hard.”