It started with a social media post.
After the murder of George Floyd last year sparked an anti-racism movement, fashion designer Aurora James challenged retailers to put action behind statements of solidarity and up the number of products made by Black-owned businesses stocked on the shelves.
James called on companies to allocate 15% of their buying power to Black-owned businesses, roughly reflecting the Black community’s portion of the U.S. population.
The initiative has since evolved into a 10-person non-profit organization, known as 15 Percent Pledge, which has both pushed corporations and brands to diversify their product lineup and built a community of nearly 1,000 Black-owned businesses it’s working to support.
At least 27 brands, including retailers Macy’s and Madewell, Yelp, and the modeling agency NEXT, have taken the pledge—meaning that they’ve signed a legally-binding contract to work with 15 Percent Pledge for at least three years in order to diversify their shelf space or make relevant commitments for their business. That’s according to executive director LaToya Williams-Belfort, who joined the organization in December.
Williams-Belfort said that James didn’t expect these changes to happen overnight—and they haven’t.
The first task 15 Percent Pledge requested from corporations was an internal audit of which businesses were currently making up their shelf space. As expected, initial numbers for Black-owned businesses were incredibly low, Williams-Belfort said.
“When we took stock, our pledge-takers were coming in at 1%, 2%, 3%—I think that was really the range, definitely 5% and below,” Williams-Belfort said.
Sephora, which was the first company to take the pledge, said that seven out of 290 brands on its shelves were from Black-owned in June 2020. It’s already made progress, now offering 14 Black-owned brands, according to a Sephora spokeswoman. Sephora expects that 15% of its haircare category products will be made by Black-owned businesses by the end of this year. The retailer also noted that eight BIPOC brands recently graduated from the company’s incubator program.
There’s a lot of work involved in undertaking the initiative to boost those numbers: After businesses take stock of their current contracts and supply chain, 15 Percent Pledge tasks them with investigating potential blind spots and biases that have led to the disparities and taking concrete steps to address them. Pledge-takers are supposed to publicly publish their plans to achieve 15% numbers, alongside an accountability and transparency plan.
Many of the companies are still only in the process of diagnosing the issues, Williams-Belfort said. “This is not about a good six-month report card—not a crash diet, but a lifestyle change.”
Two non-traditional retailers that shared their goals and progress with Fortune, showcased notable improvement.
InStyle Magazine, which took the pledge November 2020, committed to upping the percentages of Black cover subjects, Black models and feature subjects, as well as introducing requirements for its new hires and annual freelancers, among other initiatives, a spokeswoman said.
Between September 2020 and February 2021, 42% of the magazine’s cover subjects were Black. Plus, 66% of the newsstand covers were shot by Black photographers, and 32% of the photographers InStyle hired between September 2020 to February 2021 were Black, among other changes. The magazine showed double-digit percentage growth in the Black-owned fashion, lifestyle, and beauty brands within its print issues between August 2020 and February 2021, according to InStyle.
Yelp, the consumer review app website, committed to diversifying the community events it hosted, the vendors it selected for internal events, its marketing content, and the business lists it publishes. It is slated to notch 15% representation of Black-owned businesses—or higher— in each of those categories, according to Miriam Warren, Chief Diversity Officer of Yelp.
“We’re on track to hit all of our goals for this quarter,” she tells Fortune.
A key part of 15 Percent Pledge’s mission is to build out a community and support system for the Black businesses they’re introducing to massive retailers.
Many Black-owned companies they work with don’t have the infrastructure to scale their capacity and their own supply chains overnight, said Williams-Belfort.
“The real work is going to be ensuring that those businesses are successful in the long-term, that they’re getting the support and mentorship that they need to really be able to become a part of that pledgeship community and supply chain and be successful,” she said.
The organization is building out resources to support the nearly 1,000 businesses it is working with in terms of marketing, business development and finding access to capital, which can be a significant barrier to scale and growth.
“Not until we address that in a meaningful way will we start seeing the change we hope to see in closing the Black wealth gap,” said Kamila Elliott, president of independent financial advisory firm GRID 202 Partners.
Some of the corporate retailers have taken on these new diversity initiatives—including capital programs for Black businesses—all while revenue has plummeted. Retail sales dropped 20% from February to April 2020, particularly at clothing and accessory stores as well as department stores, according to Deloitte.
Williams-Belfort said she has been “in awe” of the corporate efforts during the pandemic. “Just the investment to make this work at this moment and to understand the dire importance of it,” she said.
But taking the pledge has also helped boost morale and inspire creativity at the companies participating. At Yelp, the enthusiasm from both employees and consumers was immediate after they took the pledge, said Warren.
It’s been another way to connect employees to the broader missions, she said, “by giving them opportunities to know the stories of great local businesses.”
At InStyle, there’s been a new energy on the team, a spokeswoman told Fortune.
“Taking the pledge has inspired us to look beyond the sources we had gotten comfortable using and has reenergized our team,” the magazine said in a statement. “From a photography and styling standpoint, we’ve been actively looking to use BIPOC photographers and stylists, and having fresh perspectives in our photo and styling talent pool has given the magazine a really beautiful and interesting new look.”
With a little over a year under their belt, 15 Percent Pledge is thinking through what the future and potential of the organization can still become, including future fundraising initiatives for the non-profit and how to build out an ecosystem of CEOs committed to addressing racial disparities.
“I want to make sure that our organization is growing, our infrastructure is in place and that we can do this work in the right way,” Williams-Belfort says.
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