First Published – June 14, 2020
NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Sephora’s Artemis Patrick and designer Aurora James, creator of the “15 Percent Pledge” to support black-owned brands.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Big companies like Nike, Amazon and Sephora have been expressing support for anti-racist activism with new ads and statements on social media. But many would like them to do something more concrete to show their support for black consumers, employees and black-owned businesses.
A Brooklyn-based retailer named Aurora James came up with an idea. It’s a social media initiative called the 15% pledge that challenges major retailers to pledge 15% of their shelf space to products made by black-owned companies. Sephora, which is owned by the luxury goods company LVMH, was the first major retailer to sign onto the pledge. And I’m joined now by Artemis Patrick, who’s the head of merchandising at Sephora.
ARTEMIS PATRICK: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: And Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies, who came up with the idea.
Aurora James, welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.
AURORA JAMES: Hi.
MARTIN: So let me start with you. I just want to read from your Instagram post. You wrote, 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. 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. Aurora, can I just ask – how did this come to you? Was this, like, a eureka moment? Or how did you come to this? Or had you been thinking about this for a while?
JAMES: No, I hadn’t been thinking about it. I had – what I was getting were a lot of emails and social media posts on my feed from these huge retailers that were, like, we stand with you. We’re in solidarity. And while I was reading it and seeing it, I wasn’t necessarily feeling it. So what I asked myself is, what would it actually take for these retailers to do for me to actually believe that they were standing with me as a black woman and also as a black founder?
And that’s when I thought about, you know, our population being almost 15% and saying, like, 15% of their purchasing power are going to black-owned businesses would feel like solidarity.
MARTIN: And you said, look – don’t get me wrong. I’m going to go on and read your post. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the complexities of this request. I am a businesswoman. I’ve sold millions of dollars of product over the years at a business I started with $3,500 at a flea market. So I’m telling you, we can get this figured out. Why would it be complex, though, Aurora, if you don’t mind my asking?
JAMES: I mean, I think – the thing is, when we actually started looking at the greater landscape of some of these huge retailers, like, they were actually carrying very few black-owned businesses. So in a lot of cases, going from, like, 1% representation to 15% representation nationally is an insane amount of work, right? But it’s a necessary work. And that’s the work I was asking for.
MARTIN: Artemis Patrick, Sephora, as I mentioned, was the first major retailer to take the 15% pledge. Can you just tell us a little bit about what the conversation was like inside Sephora? And how did you decide this was something you wanted to do?
PATRICK: So when Aurora called for Sephora to help with this pledge, we really recognized the opportunity to take meaningful action and to live out the commitments our company has actually made to support our black employees, clients and communities. And we really just wanted to be a leader in this movement going forward. And Aurora helped light that spark.
So, you know, if you talk about what was going on behind the scenes, I had a wonderful, honest discussion with Aurora about what this would mean. And we really spoke about the best way to go about it, which is to ensure that we’re not just rushing to meet a deadline but laying the groundwork for long-term success for these brands as well as meaningful change.
MARTIN: How many black-owned brands are at Sephora now?
PATRICK: Currently, we have seven out of 290. So we definitely could be doing better.
MARTIN: Can I just ask, though, given how – can I just – forgive me, can I just ask just how…
MARTIN: …Significant African Americans, or black people, really, all over the world are in fashion? I mean, Rihanna’s Fenty brand is a brand that I think a lot of people would know that’s at Sephora which I understand has been wildly successful – Pat McGrath, who’s out of London. Given how prominent African American women are – or women of color, let’s say – in the beauty space, it just seems strange that they haven’t been more prominent. Did this never come up before?
PATRICK: Certainly, it has. And I think, you know, we did notice this. We agree with you. It’s bizarre. So about five years ago, we started an accelerate program, and it was dedicated to building up a community of female founders and – specifically because you would be surprised as to how many are also male-founded – which is fine, but again, when you think about the industry, seemed a little off.
And so we did actually hit our goal of over 50 founders by 2020 that we helped with coaching and distribution, financing, things like that. And it turned out that actually 15% were black-owned founders. So we know it can happen. We just need to now really dig in and expand that infrastructure.
MARTIN: Artemis, I’m going to put you on the spot and ask, have you gotten any backlash for this? The reason I ask is that you’ll remember when Nike posted an ad a year ago featuring Colin Kaepernick, who initiated the take a knee, you know, protest during the NFL – you know, there are people, you know, making a point of, you know, burning Nike shoes and, you know, posting these things on social media.
Some of the sort of conservative groups sort of reacted with fury. Some have tried to come into shareholder meetings and denounce these moves. Have you gotten any pushback from people who say this isn’t your business?
PATRICK: You know, there’s always going to be commentary on social. But, you know, I have to be honest – the majority has been extremely positive. Because, as I mentioned, you know, we’re about self-expression. This is an industry that deserves to show the representation of the people actually buying the product.
MARTIN: Aurora, can you explain to people why this matters beyond the particular entrepreneurs whose businesses would get this boost?
JAMES: Well, what we see time over time is that female founders and also people of color who are business owners put money back into their community when they make it. And so while this is direct money that’s going to business owners, it’s also money that’s going to immediately channel back into communities. And when you empower business owners and allow them to spend money in ways that make sense, that’s so much more sustainable to me than just a one-time donation.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Artemis, I noted that other brands that have taken the 15% Pledge include Rent The Runway and WeWoreWhat. And the beauty care company Dove has been known for some time for their sort of inclusive ad campaign to see different skin tones. And it does seem that the fashion and beauty companies seem to be kind of taking the lead here. Why do you think that is?
PATRICK: For me, it’s especially important for our clients to be able to find brands made by people like them and to have access to products that meet their specific beauty needs. So, you know, while we, of course, believe that this same effort should be made by retailers across all categories, it feels right that the beauty and fashion industries are among the first to step up and make such changes.
JAMES: I just also want to say one thing to piggyback off of what Artemis said. Yes, beauty and fashion industries are the first ones to step up. But I think it’s also really important to note that these are industries that are predominantly led by women in seats of power. And when we had these conversations with Sephora, it was nine women on a Zoom call. And it’s largely women who are stepping up and realizing that all of these changes need to happen.
MARTIN: Artemis, do you think that’s true?
PATRICK: Right on.
MARTIN: Has that been your experience, too?
PATRICK: Yeah, absolutely.
MARTIN: Artemis Patrick is the executive vice president and chief merchandising officer at Sephora. Aurora James owns the accessories label Brother Vellies. She’s the creator of the 15% Pledge, calling on brands to dedicate 15% of shelf space to products created by black-owned companies.
Thank you both so much for talking with us today.
PATRICK: Thank you.
Black Economics says – This is great move in America. We are checking on what other companies are doing the 15% pledge, and how quickly they are implementing this. We are also wondering what UK branches of the same company are offering. Will UK companies offer a similar pledge – even if it is 7%, since there is a smaller percentage of a black population in the UK? We are working on this research.