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This Initiative Could Direct Billions of Dollars to Black-Owned Businesses

Cam Wolf

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.”

The best way to support the 15 Percent Pledge at the moment is to make it harder for those companies not to commit to it. In addition to signing up online (or text “PLEDGE" to 917-540-8148), James suggested that people call corporate offices and tag brands on social media to demand the change. “It goes a long way, because they really do see that,” James explained. But corporations can be slow moving—changing your personal buying habits so 15% of your spending goes to black businesses is one way to start.

James envisions the 15 Percent Pledge as an initiative that’s not just good for black businesses but beneficial for the corporations willing to stand with it. In 2018, a study of consumers found that 64% of today’s shoppers will buy or avoid brands because of their stances on social and political issues. From what we’ve seen in the response to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, consumers are demanding more than just tepid statements from the brands they once shopped from. That’s especially true for the many luxury brands that have long appropriated black culture without actively supporting it. “We spend so much time consuming black culture and so little time spending money on black businesses,” James said.

James is careful to note that the 15 Percent Pledge is not the only solution. “This is a really tough time for everyone, and people shopping is by no means going to ease the pain of the lives that we have lost,” she said. “There are also a lot of other things that we need people to be doing, like donating to bail funds.”

While James is fielding calls from major corporations now, it’s key for people who want to support this cause to remain vigilant. “These moments have all historically blown over,” James said. “So a lot of these companies are going to try to draw this out for as long as they can with the hopes they can maintain and return to the status quo. So it's really on all of us to continue putting pressure on them.”

Originally Appeared on GQ