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Aurora James Has a Plan to Support Black-Owned Businesses in the Long Term

Here's what you need to know about the 15 Percent Pledge.
A lookbook image from Brother Vellies. 

A lookbook image from Brother Vellies. 

As fashion and beauty companies continue to respond to the ongoing police brutality protests happening around the world — whether it's through monetary donations to anti-racism organizations or by lending their platforms to promote Black creators — Brother Vellies founder Aurora James has an action plan to support Black-owned businesses in the long term. 

On Saturday, the designer shared an idea on her Instagram. "OK, here is one thing you can do for us...," a handwritten graphic read. The caption called on Whole Foods, Target, Medmen, Walmart, Saks Fifth Avenue, Sephora, Net-a-Porter, Barnes and Noble and Home Depot to "commit to buying 15% of your products from Black-owned businesses."

"So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power. So many of your stores are set up in Black communities. So many of your sponsored posts are seen on Black feeds," James wrote. "This is the least you can do for us. We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space." She titled it the 15 Percent Pledge

By committing to the 15 Percent Pledge, James continued, these retailers could offer Black-owned businesses immediate financial support (particularly amid the ongoing pandemic), and also help Black entrepreneurs secure funding from banks and investors to continue to grow their companies and market share. 

"As a business owner, and during this pandemic, I'm especially torn up by how much Black businesses were suffering," she told Fashionista via e-mail of how she landed on the 15 Percent Pledge. "I believe this pledge is ONE way major retailers can work on beginning to take steps towards financial equality. Black people spend trillions of dollars in this country every year, but yet represent an insignificant fraction of how these companies allocate their purchasing power. I'm asking these huge corporations to rethink their business strategy as well as rethink business relationships in order to fairly represent the Black community on their shelves." 

Within a few days of that first post, she had set up a website and a 501(c)(3). She also proposed a three-step plan for retailers: 

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1) Auditing and taking stock of where you are at. Look at your existing shelves, hangers, boardrooms and receipts. How many Black-owned businesses are you buying? How many Black women are in your C-suite? Do that work.

2) Take ownership of where you're at — ideally publicly. Maybe only 2% of your staff is Black, 1% of your content, whatever it is just own it. Accept it. Take accountability.

3) Commit to growth. What is your strategy to get to a minimum of 15% and how do you plan to be held accountable?

"I'm not asking these companies to buy random products just because they're Black-owned," James explained to Fashionista. "Of course, continue to do research and evaluate which Black-owned businesses work for [you.] We're just asking big business to invest in the future of the Black community. Many Black people choose to spend money with these businesses. Their stores are set up in our communities. Their sponsored posts are targeted to us. If they value our money, then value us as well and show us that we are represented."

According to James, "thousands of people" have signed the 15 Percent Pledge since it started. However, of the companies she tagged in her initial post, she's only "heard from one, which is very, very telling," she said. "Silence is deafening."

For the 15 Percent Pledge to make an impact, James said, "we need major retailers such as Target, Whole Foods, Sephora, Barnes and Noble — businesses that have a big economic influence. We want them to seek out and invest in brands they may have previously turned a blind eye to."

Some are taking notice: On Tuesday, Rent the Runway said it would join the 15 Percent Pledge and work towards ensuring that at least 15% of the talent the company features and hires (from the models that appear in its marketing, the ambassadors it pays to promote its product and the behind-the-scenes teams that create the content) is Black. It also announced it would earmark $1,000,000 to support Black-owned brands through wholesale, platform and co-manufacturing initiatives.

"What we are asking is not that tough," James continued. "We're here to help these retailers attain that 15%." The three-step plan she outlined on her Instagram is a starting point — what's important is that there's a deadline to work towards. "It could take a few years, but we're here to help lay out that plan and strategy," she added, noting that the 15 Percent Pledge has "some of the most brilliant Black minds on board to help make it happen." 

Right now, James's focus is on growing the 15 Percent Pledge's network. Individuals can sign the petition online or text "PLEDGE" to 917-540-8148; once they do, they'll receive updates from the 15 Percent Pledge about the companies that have signed on, Black-owned businesses and future events. Supporters can also follow its Instagram page.

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