White female founders face a reckoning over racism

June 8, 2020, 4:35 PM UTC

“I’ve failed.”

“An apology.”


White female founders spent the weekend apologizing for their behavior—some of it racist—as the social movements that have taken over American streets extended to Instagram.

The highest-profile reckoning came at Reformation, the popular women’s clothing brand known for its commitment to environmental sustainability. A former general manager according to her LinkedIn profile, Elle Santiago, posted about being “overlooked and undervalued as a woman of color,” quickly prompting others to share more specific allegations about the behavior of Reformation’s founder, Yael Aflalo. Aflalo, who is still CEO of the brand but took what the company calls a “step back” in 2018, responded with an Instagram post that she had “failed” in “treating people equally…especially the black community.”

In an unusual statement for a CEO, Aflalo admitted that she “was not a very good leader,” but that any perceived racism was “not about the color of your skin,” but about her “shortcomings as a person.”

The next domino to fall came at the popular stationery brand Ban.do, founded by Jen Gotch. After former employees accused Gotch of racist behavior, the founder responded with this: “Yesterday I was called out on social media by multiple current and former employees for being racist, for creating and helping to propagate a racist company culture, and for building a brand that espouses inclusivity but doesn’t consistently reflect that. I am guilty, and not only am I guilty, I have been so ignorant and so insulated by the ease and comfort of my white privilege, that up until just a few days ago, I would have passionately and sincerely denied negatively impacting others.” Gotch said that she would resign as the company’s chief creative officer.

Reformation declined to comment further. Ban.do did not respond to a request for comment.

On Monday morning, the women’s news and lifestyle website Refinery29 announced that editor-in-chief Christene Barberich, a cofounder of the site, would step down. Former journalists for the publication—mostly women of color—shared their experiences with a “toxic” culture at the company over the weekend. Journalist Andrea González-Ramírez, now a senior writer at the Medium publication Gen, wrote on Twitter that women of color who worked for the website faced “being tone-policed, seeing others take credit for their work, being underpaid [and] not promoted” and more.

“What’s clear from these experiences, is that R29 has to change. We have to do better, and that starts with making room,” Barberich said in a post announcing her resignation. Refinery29 was acquired by Vice Media, led by CEO Nancy Dubuc, in 2019; Dubuc wrote in a memo to staff that the company would commit to an “inclusive hiring process with a diverse slate of candidates” for the site’s next editor. Refinery29 declined to comment further on the record.

The common thread among these upheavals—reminiscent in their speed and quantity of the early days of the #MeToo movement—is not just the allegations of racism but outrage over a sense of hypocrisy felt by former employees. Most of these founders have engaged with the language and online discourse of feminism, from Refinery29’s coverage of the political movement (often written by the same journalists now coming forward about their own experiences with their employer) to Ban.do’s notebooks emblazoned with encouraging slogans like “Make it all happen” and “Set some new goals.”

When those same brands started posting more directly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past two weeks, their engagement with the cause led many who had had experiences that didn’t align with that stated commitment to come forward.

Other, smaller brands founded by white women faced similar allegations on social media. The criticism was especially strong in the fashion and beauty industries, where Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter started the Pull Up for Change campaign, asking beauty brands to share the percentages of black employees in their workforces and on their leadership teams. Brands from Ulta Beauty to Kylie Cosmetics have participated so far.

“Over the last few days we’ve seen something that’s never happened before, with brands and corporations publicly showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, including making huge donations,” Chuter said in a video announcing her campaign. “However, to at this point still be absolving yourself from the role that you have played and continue to play in the marginalization and oppression of black people shows that a lot of these efforts may just be PR stunts.”

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