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Elevating Black-Owned Beauty Brands: Advocacy, Activism, and Sustainability in Retail


In the realm of retail, there is a burgeoning movement to amplify the presence of Black-owned brands on shelves and showcase their unique offerings. In this article, we delve into the advocacy and activism driving this momentum, spotlighting the impactful work of Aurora James, the Founder of the Fifteen Percent Pledge, and her innovative approach to promoting Black representation in retail spaces.

The 15% Challenge - A Catalyst for Change

Toronto-native turned New York City-transplant, Aurora James, is the embodiment of advocacy and activism in the entrepreneurial space, particularly within the realm of Black-owned businesses. Brother Vellies, founded in 2013 by Aurora James, has become a symbol of traditional African design preservation and artisanal job creation on a global scale. However, James' brainchild, the Fifteen Percent Pledge, truly took her advocacy to new heights. Through this nonprofit organization, Aurora James stands at the forefront of advocating for increased shelf space for Black-owned brands, pushing for a commitment of 15% of purchasing power by retailers to support these businesses. 

James has made significant strides in championing the representation and empowerment of Black entrepreneurs, especially women. The Pledge’s workforce has expanded to ten full-time staff members, partnering with nearly 30 major companies, including Macy’s, Sephora, and Nordstrom. By 2030, the organization aims to drive $1.4 trillion of wealth generation by Black entrepreneurs, aiming to boost Black business representation by 14.6 percent. 

Showcasing Impact Through Tangible Results

The significance of this movement is compelling, particularly in light of the absence and slow reduction of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) dollars. Under public pressure after George Floyd's murder in 2020, companies worldwide spent an estimated $7.5 billion on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that year, making vocal commitments to diversity and equitable treatment within their organizations. However, as firms have backpedaled, Revelio Labs, a workforce intelligence company, has reported that attrition rates for DEI roles have outpaced those of non-DEI positions in over 600 U.S. firms that laid-off workers since late 2020. The attrition rates have increased over the past six months.

It is crucial to highlight that Aurora James did not solely depend on DEI dollars to keep the momentum of the Fifteen Percent Pledge going. DEI promises are leaving, yet Black-owned businesses continue taking up shelf space. The work speaks for itself, showcasing tangible results such as Sephora's partnership with the Pledge, which plans to devote 15 percent of its shelf space to products from Black-owned brands. The Sephora website currently lists 13 Black-owned brands.

One of the examples that derives from this list is Topicals. Owned by Black and Asian-American entrepreneurs Olowe, 23, and Teng, 24, this brand secured $2.6 million in funding from investors including Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John, entrepreneur and DJ Hannah Bronfman, and Emmy-nominated lead of HBO show "Insecure" Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji. With each national reckoning, Olowe and Teng have grown Topicals' momentum, a tangible example of the continued increased impact of movements and activism efforts such as the Fifteen Percent Pledge.

From Activism to Entrepreneurship: A Transformative Journey

The activism and entrepreneurship of Aurora James strike a chord with the 2023 State of Black Women-Owned Businesses Report®, revealing that passion is the driving force behind 85% of Black women entrepreneurs. Despite the ebb and flow of DEI commitments in corporate realms, James' unwavering dedication to the cause stands out. Through the Fifteen Percent Pledge, she underscores the significance of community-driven advocacy and the power of strategic partnerships in fostering lasting change. James' passion is evident in the Pledge's impact, which can be seen in the impressive numbers. The Pledge has developed business relationships with more than 625 Black-owned businesses, and its work, along with its partners, has the potential to shift over $14 billion to Black entrepreneurs and enterprises.

The Distinction Between Black-Owned and Black-Founded

As acquisitions by white conglomerates of Black-owned businesses, like Honey Pot and Shea Moisture, increase, there is now a distinction between Black-owned and Black-founded products on shelves. Black-owned signifies that the business is still owned by Black individuals, while Black founded indicates that it was founded by Black entrepreneurs but has been acquired by others. An example is Honey Pot, a line of "feminine care" and sexual wellness products founded by Bea Dixon. When it arrived on shelves in 2014, it was proudly marketed as being owned by a Black woman, with its products touted as plant-derived and backed by a team of female gynecologists. However, over time, Honey Pot changed ownership, transitioning from "Black-owned" to "Black-founded." In a 2020 interview, Dixon spoke about her ultimate goal of selling Honey Pot and the stigma surrounding such decisions. 

Challenges and Opportunities

As conglomerates acquire Black-founded businesses, the essence of ownership and community representation can become diluted. Dr. Aria Halliday explores the familiar process of Black women when creating a product or service in her book, Buy Black: How Black Women Transformed U.S. Pop Culture. Black women typically rely on their immediate social networks, such as friends, family, and sorority sisters, when seeking feedback for their products. However, once their products expand to stores like Target or Macy's, there is a loss of control over who their target audience is and how their image is perceived. Dr. Aria introduces a concept called embodied objectification, which reflects the relationship that Black women have with one another, from the producer to the consumer.

Being a Black beauty founder often means being met with swift grief rather than extended grace, regardless of the impact one has made in the industry. The story of the Honey Pot and founder Bea Dixon exemplifies the trials faced by Black beauty founders when navigating acquisitions and ownership dynamics. Furthermore, it underscores the importance of ensuring diverse avenues for growth and sustainability for Black-owned businesses. Therefore, as activists, we must ask ourselves, “ How can we support the sustained growth of Black-owned conglomerates, offering avenues for ownership and influence within the Black community?” 

The Vital Role of Community-Oriented Capacity Building

The journey of Black women entrepreneurs in the retail sector is underscored by the significance of support systems and mentorship. As shown through the powerful influence of the 15 Percent Pledge, the absence of guidance and community networks can hinder business growth and sustainability. Community-oriented capacity-building models are pivotal in nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit of Black women and fostering a thriving ecosystem of innovation and empowerment. The 2023 State of Black Women-Owned Businesses Report® highlights the importance of community-oriented capacity-building models for Black women entrepreneurs. The report reveals that more than half of the surveyed Black women entrepreneurs do not have mentors, and two-thirds are not part of any entrepreneurial networks. 

The Fifteen Percent Pledge is a movement that exemplifies the profound and sustainable impact community-driven advocacy can have on Black-owned businesses. Specifically, this movement demonstrates that consumer and retailer co-creation play a significant role in driving change. Not only do Aurora James and her team partner with major corporations to increase shelf space for Black-owned products, they also collaborate with Google to provide a directory of Black-owned products available in the market. Moreover, consumers are able to make a commitment pledge as a vital part of the movement. The pledge drives consumers to take inventory of their products and intentionally allocate their budgets toward the purchase of Black-owned products.

Continuing the Movement

The story of Aurora James exemplifies the intersecting realms of advocacy, entrepreneurship, and activism in the uplifting of Black women entrepreneurs. By nurturing a supportive ecosystem, building entrepreneurial networks, and promoting collective empowerment, we pave the way for Black women entrepreneurs to thrive- whether they choose to retain or sell their businesses. The movement started by Aurora James serves as a blueprint for uplifting Black-owned businesses, emphasizing the importance of preserving autonomy and economic freedom within the community. It is imperative to replicate and establish additional community-driven advocacy models to uplift and empower Black-owned businesses. The enduring legacy of Aurora James serves as a beacon of hope for marginalized communities and a testament to the transformative power of collective action.


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