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Fashion Entrepreneur Aurora James: ‘We Need to Support Black-Owned Businesses. Period.’

As the Black Lives Matter movement rose in prominence after the death of George Floyd, with thousands of Americans marching in the streets to protest racial injustice, corporate America joined the zeitgeist.

But for all the declarations of solidarity with the movement, Brother Vellies founder Aurora James—along with many others in the Black community—say the track records of many companies show otherwise.

“I was watching Black-owned businesses literally shutter before my very eyes while I was also seeing these major retailers say, ‘We stand with you,’” James says during a TIME100 Talks conversation. “And the reality is that you actually don’t.”

Frustrated by the performative actions of major retailers, the 35-year-old fashion entrepreneur wanted to find a way that companies could make a tangible change. And from there, the 15 Percent Pledge was born.

“The Black woman that I am was hurting and the Black entrepreneur was like, ‘What support looks like in this day and age is financial,’” James says.

The 15 Percent Pledge is a viral social media initiative started by James that calls on corporations and individual consumers to commit 15% of their purchasing power to Black-owned businesses. They also hope to see major retailers allot 15% of shelf space and contracts to Black brands and companies.

“Black people are 15% of the population and 15% of space from a major retailer would feel accurate,” James explains.

Although many major corporations have made one-time donations in the millions to various Black advocacy organizations, James says a long-term commitment to creating a more equitable market share is what is needed to uplift Black communities in a more permanent way. The idea behind the pledge takes inspiration from James’ own fashion brand, Brother Vellies, which hires artisans from South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Morocco to handcraft sustainable shoes and handbags.

“It’s so much easier to say we’re going to make a $10 million donation. Black people spend more than $10 million in one day at these stores,” says James. “Ultimately, if we want to see the Black community in America prosper and thrive, we are going to need to support Black-owned businesses. Period.”

So far, major retailers including Sephora, Rent the Runway, West Elm and Med Men have joined the cause. Now, they are publicly calling on Target, Whole Foods and other major corporations to heed their call.

“No business is too big or too corrupt to be overhauled,” says James. “It’s just about people on the forefront saying, ‘I’m willing to stand up and make a difference.'”

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