Aurora James didn’t set out to launch a movement that would reshape an industry in May 2020. Business owners like James—who founded the sustainable lifestyle and accessories line Brother Vellies—tended to be focused on keeping their brands afloat during the global pandemic. But after the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests for racial justice that erupted across the country, she challenged major retailers to do more than offer empty platitudes on social media about their support for the Black community.
In an Instagram post that immediately went viral, she urged them to instead dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses (since Black people make up approximately 15% of the US population, she reasoned).
“So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power,” she wrote. “So many of your stores are set up in Black communities.”
Companies listened. Ten days after her initial post, Sephora became the first major corporation to commit to the Fifteen Percent Pledge, the nonprofit James founded after a flood of enthusiastic responses (more than 30,000 Insta-likes alone). It was far from the last. To date, 29 companies have taken the pledge—from Moda Operandi to Macy’s—and in less than three years, the Fifteen Percent Pledge has added more than 400 Black brands to retail rosters in the US, the UK, and Canada.
It’s been a remarkable ride for James, who was recently nominated for Accessory Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Not only has she successfully encouraged leading corporations to embrace a more equitable business model, but everyday consumers are actively ensuring that #BuyBlack is more than just a pithy hashtag. And in a nod to just how quickly her organization has transcended fashion, the Fifteen Percent Pledge’s inaugural fundraising gala raised $1.2 million and honored both supermodel Iman and Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams.