Women of the Year

With the Fifteen Percent Pledge, Aurora James Is Offering Corporate America a Deal

In the spring and summer of 2020, as millions of people marched and protested for racial justice, Aurora James—founder of the beloved label Brother Vellies—wanted to create lasting change. She asked for this: 15% of shelf space for Black-owned brands. The Fifteen Percent Pledge is now one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in America. But James is just getting started. 
Theophilio top and jacket.
Theophilio top and jacket.Brad Ogbonna

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.

Christopher John Rogers dress. Khiry earrings. Tiffany bracelet. Photographed by Brad Ogbonna; stylist: Roberto Johnson; hair: Michael David; makeup: Danessa Myricks; manicure: Maki Sakamoto; production: Studio Lou; location: New York Stock Exchange.Brad Ogbonna

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.

As her line and nonprofit continue to blossom, she’s taking time to reflect (a memoir about her journey will be out in early 2023), while continuing to map out an even brighter future. Her latest goal? “I would love to create grant programs that can empower other women to go on and do great things in this country and the world,” she says. Helping others is a responsibility that she takes seriously.

“I refuse to believe that we’re here to be about ourselves all the time. That doesn’t make any sense to me,” she tells me over Zoom, with several time zones spread out between us. “The human experience is something that’s shared. We have friends to bear witness to one another’s lives. What do we want to bear witness to? What do we want others to bear witness to? What do we want our legacy to be? ‘I launched a fashion brand and then bought a boat?’ That’s not interesting.”

So, no to yachts. But a resounding yes to her continued fight for seismic change.

Dior dress. Mateo earrings. Almasika ring.Brad Ogbonna

Lola Ogunnaike: The Fifteen Percent Pledge has been a phenomenal success. More than two dozen companies have signed on, you have a staff of 17, and your inaugural fundraising gala raised more than $1 million. Why do you think it has been so well received?

Aurora James: The more progressive companies definitely saw our call to action for what it was, which was an opportunity. Making a donation is typically a onetime thing, and you’re walking away from it and hoping for the best. What the pledge calls for is something a lot more meaningful, which is allyship and actually saying, “Okay, how can you be an active part of the solution by doing what you already do best?”

Calling out major corporations for a lack of Black representation was a pretty risky move, especially in 2020. Did you have any fear about taking on the biggest names in fashion and retail?

I really was terrified to do it. It’s a lot easier to just sit in your earned comfort than it is to alienate a lot of the people at this table that you worked very hard to get to. But I felt like I had managed to earn a certain level of access, and it was time for me to use my own privilege to advocate for other people who had not yet been given the opportunities that I had. In my family growing up, part of “aspiration” meant not just success for what you can buy yourself, but success for the doors that you’re going to be able to open for other people and the opportunities that you’re going to be able to say no to if it doesn’t benefit your community.

Fifteen percent is not a huge ask, but some companies have been reluctant to sign on. What’s at stake if they continue to ignore this opportunity?

If you don’t want to keep up with the times and be a progressive partner and coconspirator in ending systemic racism, then you’re going to become a dinosaur. At this point, when we talk about the 29 major retailers that have committed to the pledge, it becomes a little bit more awkward for the ones that haven’t. Why are they unwilling to do it? Why would they rather sit on the sidelines and allow other people to do the heavy lifting? Why do they not want to commit to the Black community, and the whole country, in this way? This is not only a proposition to help Black Americans; it’s a proposition to help small businesses across the country.

You’ve argued that partnering with Black women is the most effective way to get this work done. Why?

A lot of companies think that they can do it alone, but we’re in this situation because companies try to do it alone. When we talk about major retailers specifically, as a national average less than 1% of their shelf space had been going to Black-owned businesses before I launched the Fifteen Percent Pledge. Institutionally, Black-owned businesses are not just underrepresented; they’ve been historically and systemically excluded from the proposition. In many ways that’s been by design. When we talk about steering the ship in the right direction, we have to be doing that in tandem, and we have to be doing that in community. No one company or retailer or nonprofit is going to be able to solve the historical injustices that we see in this country.

Magda Butrym jacket. Tiffany bracelet. Personal ring.Brad Ogbonna

Why is closing the racial wealth gap of the utmost importance to you?

The opportunities that I’ve been given and the allies that I’ve had along the way in my own journey with Brother Vellies have helped me open the doors for $10 billion to be reallocated to other founders who look like me. I can’t help but think of all the other people who, if given the opportunity, are also going to be able to effect great change around the world. Every day that there is a child born in this country who is not given what they need to become their best self, we run the risk of losing the person who could have discovered the cure for cancer or how to mitigate catastrophic climate change. Ultimately, by not creating more parity in this country, we’re cutting off our noses to spite our face.

You don’t seem too afraid of taking risks. Launching your own luxury accessories line nearly a decade ago was another huge gamble. Make the case for why women should bet on themselves.

Sometimes your best mode of transportation is a leap of faith. Everyone is like, “Well, how could you have launched your business with only $3,500?” Well, I only had $3,500, so what else was I to do? And sure, I could have gone and taken a job working for another designer, but that wasn’t what was going to give me purpose in my life. I only have one life, unfortunately, and I really feel like it would be inappropriate to squander it doing something that didn’t give me a sense of purpose.

So how do you measure success?

I measure success by what myself, my company, and my nonprofit can give or create for others and what impact we’re able to have. I’m definitely an imperfect messenger in a lot of ways, but knowing that I wake up every day and truly try to give every single thing I have—my brain, my heart, my emotional capacity to doing this work—especially over the past two years, is how I measure success.

Loewe dress. Khiry earrings. Ariana Boussard-Reifel braceletBrad Ogbonna

People are no longer marching in the streets or posting black tiles on Instagram. How will you ensure that support for your organization doesn’t wane now that racial justice is no longer at the forefront of the national conversation?

I don’t know if that is on me. I think that that’s on the white people reading this. That’s on people who’ve called themselves allies, the people who posted the black squares. How are they going to make sure they continue to support organizations that support Black-owned businesses? I have to keep doing the work and prove that the work is good business, because whether we like it or not, in this capitalist country, people are going to keep doing the things that keep being good for business.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been under intense scrutiny in recent months and the headlines have largely been negative. How can an organization dedicated to civil rights and economic justice ensure that its work is not overshadowed by damaging press?

There are very well-funded machines that are hell-bent on trying to dismantle any movements that they think are going to destabilize the stronghold that they have on this country. I’ve seen that firsthand. We as individuals have to make sure that we really do our best to understand the information that’s being presented to us and the sources for that information. We need to do that when it comes to racial justice. We need to do that when it comes to politics. We need to do that when it comes to our communities. And first and foremost, we need to always be willing to give women and people of color the benefit of the doubt, do our research, and not rely on clickbait-y things.

Christopher John Rogers dress. Khiry earrings. Tiffany bracelet. Brother Vellies shoesBrad Ogbonna

Have you felt pressure to discontinue your advocacy work?

All the time. People have threatened my life on multiple occasions.

How do you handle that?

For every one horrible person that tells me that I need to die, there are three other entrepreneurs in my inbox telling me that they were given an opportunity because of the Fifteen Percent Pledge. I have to focus on the light and not let the dark pull me down, but I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t hard sometimes.

How would you like to see the Fifteen Percent Pledge continue to flourish?

I really want to see six other retailers in this country commit to taking the pledge: Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, Amazon, CVS, Kroger. If those guys committed to partnering with us in a very real way, it would be a game changer. We will be able to take a gargantuan step toward closing the racial wealth gap in this country over the next decade.

What are you most optimistic about for the future?

Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in this country, which is incredible! Once you show Black women there is going to be opportunity, there is going to be space, they are very equipped to rise to the occasion. I also think about what it looks like when these women find success as entrepreneurs and then consider running for public office and start changing legislation to truly make the country more equitable. A lot of the corrective work we’re doing at major corporations is because this country has not actually been set up for all its citizens to win. What does it look like when we can have entire countries start realigning toward a North Star of equity?

Lola Ogunnaike has written about culture, art, and design for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn and Lagos with her husband and son.

Photographed by Brad Ogbonna; stylist: Roberto Johnson; hair: Michael David; makeup: Danessa Myricks; manicure: Maki Sakamoto; production: Studio Lou; location: New York Stock Exchange.