Aurora James and Emma Grede Size Up Fifteen Percent Pledge’s Progress and Pivots

In a political climate where diversity and inclusion initiatives are increasingly under attack, the Fifteen Percent Pledge is forging ahead as one of the fashion and beauty industry’s most visible equity advocacy organizations. And this weekend it will have its first Hollywood moment.

Saturday night at Paramount Studios, founder Aurora James and chairman Emma Grede will host the nonprofit’s third annual gala with 400 guests, including host, comedian Robin Thede; the night’s Trailblazer Award honoree, actress and Pattern beauty founder Tracee Ellis Ross; Laura Harrier; LaKeith Stanfield; Zuri Marley; Paloma Elsesser, and more.

They will join executives from Nordstrom, Sephora and Google at the $10,000 a plate dinner that raises funds for the Fifteen Percent Pledge’s annual operating budget, which has soared from $500,000 in 2020 to an estimated $7 million for 2024. Nearly $500,000 in grants will be given to Black-owned small businesses, including a new $100,000 Sephora beauty grant, in addition to three Google-sponsored grants.

Emma Grede and Aurora James

Emma Grede and Aurora James

Erik Carter/WWD

Not just for high rollers, Pledge activities will be accessible to the public over the weekend when Shop With Google will host a VR experience with Fenty Beauty and a pop-up shop with Los Angeles designer Sami Miro. Shoppers can also visit a Citi-sponsored store on the studio backlot featuring 28 Black-owned brands including Brandon Blackwood, Diotima, Christopher John Rogers, Harlem Candle, Hanahana Beauty, 54 Thrones, Danessa Myricks Beauty and James’ own Brother Vellies.

Nordstrom Century City is also launching a pop-up of emerging brands curated in partnership with the Fifteen Percent Pledge.

“We’re going to hit a whole different audience. I think a lot of people sort of understand the idea of what the Pledge is, but not necessarily how it actually comes together every day and the progress that we’ve made,” James told WWD during a joint interview with Grede about the organization’s headway and plans for 2024. “And in light of recent attacks on DEI, and as we go into an election year, it’s really important to remind people that this isn’t a political agenda, it’s about creating actual opportunity for small American-owned businesses.”

“There’s nothing like that room to really understand the impact that the Pledge is having,” Grede said of the gala, which has previously been held in New York, with honorees including politician and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, model and philanthropist Iman and model and activist Bethann Hardison.

James founded the social justice organization in May 2020 during the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, asking companies to reflect the Black community by dedicating 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands.

So far, 29 companies have partnered with the Pledge by signing multiyear contracts with retailers Sephora, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Matchesfashion, Madewell, Gap, Hudson’s Bay, J.Crew and Victoria’s Secret, and strategic partners Google and Citi. The objectives written into the contracts vary, but beyond commitments to onboard Black-owned brands, they can include grants as well as programming.

Nearly 7,000 Black-owned brands have been brought into the Pledge’s Business Equity Community, where they have access to mentorship and consulting services, are considered for the Pledge’s quarterly recommendations to retailers, and activations and events.

While the nonprofit’s resources and brand community are growing, there are ongoing challenges, particularly with the fashion retail sector struggling. “Budgets are always a conversation,” said Latoya Williams-Belfort, executive director of the Fifteen Percent Pledge. “But our partners are committed to going deeper.”

The Pledge does not share sales data broken out by retailer or brand, but estimates its partners have the potential to generate $14 billion overall to Black-owned businesses once their 15 percent goals are reached, with a stretch goal of $1.4 trillion in overall revenues by 2030.

The first to sign the Pledge, Sephora has gone from 2 to 3 percent of its brands being Black-owned in 2020 to double that now.

“When [beauty founder] Danessa Myricks went into the Sephora Accelerate program, her business [grew three times] pretty much overnight,” James said of measuring the impact. “This is a woman who had a business for a really long time, she was in a lot of makeup artists’ kits already, but no one really knew who she was. And she never really got that chance to be at a retailer like Sephora. So seeing what happens when they’re given an opportunity…is really truly incredible.”

Emma Grede and Aurora James

Emma Grede and Aurora James

Erik Carter/WWD

James, whose 2023 memoir “Wildflower” documents her route to the runway, the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund Award and activism, and Grede, chief executive officer of Good American and cofounding partner of Skims and Safely, are passionate about promoting the Pledge, which beyond hard dollars generated has amplified the case for brand equity at retail and in consumers’ minds.

Part of the Kardashian family of businesses, Grede is a frequent “Shark Tank” guest, and the producer of the upcoming show “Side Hustle.” She is responsible for a lot of the Pledge fundraising and helps winnow down grant applicants.

“My favorite thing to do is really to work on the Achievement Award. There’s probably eight of us who work specifically on it. But you know, we get hundreds and hundreds of applicants and we go through those over a few months. I get very emotionally involved and start buying from everyone, and convincing myself, I need another candle, don’t I?” she laughed.

(Pledge staffers narrowed down applicants to a list of 10 and the public votes to determine three finalists via the organization’s website. Gala attendees will cast their votes during the event to rank the three final winners. The Sephora prize will also be awarded during the gala.)

James, who bought a home in Laurel Canyon during the pandemic and splits her time between L.A. and Brooklyn, regularly mentors entrepreneurs and this month will launch a podcast, “Friends and Family With Aurora James.” Grede is her first guest.

“We dig into where did you mess up? Where did I mess up? What was that point when you were like, ‘I need to give up here’ and who did you call and what did you do to get yourself out of that?” James explained.

The Pledge employs 15 people in New York, L.A. and Charlotte, N.C., who are broken into teams that work on Black brand development and programming, Pledge-taker accountability and account management, and operations.

For the retailers who have signed contracts, it’s a work in progress. None have reached the 15 percent goal, and the last new retailer to sign the Pledge was in 2022.

“Has the retail trajectory been slow over 2023 compared to 2020 and 2021? Definitely,” Williams-Belfort said. “I think it’s a combination of things — where the businesses are financially, and the social environment around and the conversation around systemic racism kind of being flipped upside down.”

But there are new retailers in the pipeline, she said, and her team is also working to broaden the Pledge’s partnerships and offerings.

“When Aurora first started there was a lot of talk about shelf space, and that’s still in our DNA, that’s still a part of our proposition. But Citibank doesn’t have shelf space, right? It’s really about what Citibank can bring to the table as it relates to creating a more robust and inclusive economy. They have tons of offerings,” Williams-Belfort said. “So how do we work with them as a partner, and how do we bring more partners from financial services and more partners from different parts of the business into the ecosystem to do this work?”

Sephora has hit the 15 percent benchmark with prestige hair care brands. The beauty giant has seen a lot of progress with the Pledge in part because in 2020 it pivoted Accelerate, its beauty incubator program, to focus on Black and Black, Indigenous and people of color founders, said Priya Venkatesh, Sephora’s global chief merchandising officer.

“Topicals is a brand we found soon after we took the Pledge and that’s been a tremendous success story, really added to the conversation and dimension within skin care, and could easily be a top 20 brand for us sometime in the future. We launched Eadem and that’s going well, it has a triple-digit growth and we’re expanding it to most of our doors,” she noted of the wins, explaining that the publicity around the taking the Pledge brought more Black brand founders to inquire about selling at Sephora than ever before.

best bf beauty deals topicals spot treatment

Without sharing numbers, Venkatesh said diversifying the shelves has benefited both the top and bottom lines. “Our sales are amazing, we have picked up market share, we’re getting a lot more Gen Z [consumers] and we are growing with a diverse client base.”

It’s not only changed the look of Sephora stores but also the morale of associates. “We have a pretty diverse employee base and it’s been a great motivator,” she said.

Sephora is debuting a $100,000 grant at Saturday’s gala, and the winner will be able to sell through the store. “We had to make some progress and show some work before we launched the grant because we didn’t want to be perceived as paying our way out of this,” Venkatesh said of the company’s long-term commitment.

“I’m proud to say beauty has shown a lot of progress with founder diversity, product on shelves, actual hard cash, if you count sales, all of that good stuff. And we look forward to having other industries, especially fashion and home goods, all of the other industries in the Pledge also come along on this journey with us,” she said.

54 Thrones beauty founder Christina Funke Tegbe used the $200,000 award to launch two new products at Sephora, which has helped her business grow to 10 employees. (She declined to share brand revenues.)


54 Thrones founder Christina Funke Tegbe

“The Pledge has delivered tangible results to our community,” said Tegbe, who has also appeared on “Shark Tank,” and received mentorship and funding from the Tory Burch Foundation, Anastasia Beverly Hills, McKinsey and Associates and Credo for Change, among others. “They’ve put us in touch with consultants so we can run reports and run the numbers and do deep dives and thankfully they’re growing and they’ll continue to grow their network, to advance the mission as a whole to tap into the retail education piece. Because you can be in a retailer, but if you don’t have the tools, you’ll be in there and then you’ll be out.”

“I would be lying if I said that all of the brands are going in [to retail] and getting everything they need to thrive,” said James, agreeing there needs to be more support for brands through education, marketing and exposure. “But do I think that they’re getting an opportunity that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise? Probably. They’re being thought of in a way that they wouldn’t normally have been, in the sense that there’s positioning that’s happening. There’s fees that are being waived, there’s payment terms that are being accommodated that wouldn’t perhaps otherwise be accommodated. There’s those special allowances that are happening that are putting them in a better position to thrive.”

And the Pledge wants to help them thrive in whatever environment is around the corner.

“Before I took the Pledge I pulled Brother Vellies out of all of our retailers, so I’m really thoughtful about different ways that brands want to reach consumers,” said James, touting the weekend’s partnership with Google Shopping on an AR store with Fenty as an example. “There’s a huge percentage of people who are finding brands on Google and using Google Shopping, so making sure that we have a pathway for our Black-owned brands to be able to get into augmented reality, if that’s where customers are going, is also really important to us. And the same with Instagram as well. How many brands do you discover on Instagram? I discover a ton of brands on Instagram and they didn’t take the Pledge. But the Pledge was launched on Instagram, they put the Black-owned business filter on the platform as well, which was really important, so not everyone needs to be a Pledge-taker. But we do want to work with everyone in figuring out how they can help help this ecosystem for these founders who have historically been excluded.”

And one day, she hopes, to ensure there won’t need to be a Fifteen Percent Pledge.

“To be honest, I see that happening,” James said. “Because if you walk into a Sephora store now it looks completely different than it did in 2019.”

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