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Agent of Impact: Aurora James, Brother Vellies

ImpactAlpha, June 19Aurora James wasn’t satisfied with corporate statements of solidarity for Black lives after street protests over the killing of George Floyd and deep-seated racial injustice. Solidarity should be more structural.

“So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power,” James, founder of Brooklyn-based luxury accessories brand Brother Vellies, posted to Instagram. Her simple call to action for retailers: “We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space.”

The post, which called out big retailers like Whole Foods, Walmart, Saks, Home Depot and Target, went viral and the #15PercentPledge was born (and became a full-fledged nonprofit with a website). The pledge asks retailers to take stock of their shelf space for Black-owned businesses and publish a plan to increase the share of Black brands to a minimum of 15%. 

Within a matter of days, Rent the Runway and some smaller retail sites signed on. Last week, cosmetics powerhouse Sephora got on board. Of the 290 brands Sephora carries, just nine are Black-owned. That will increase nearly five-fold under the pledge, which pushes companies beyond statements and donations to build real revenue streams for Black-owned businesses that have had limited access to coveted retail shelf space.

James, who started Brother Vellies with $3,500 from her savings account, built a customer base at a Lower East Side flea market. The Toronto-native works with artisans in Africa and elsewhere to craft luxe and often whimsical shoes and accessories that have gained a celebrity following.

In the pandemic, Springbok bags have been an afterthought for most consumers; to keep artisans employed. James started a home-goods line.

“Coming this far myself and knowing what a huge difference it can make to have meaningful support and a big purchase order from one of these companies, there are no words for that,” James told Vanity Fair. Getting a small brand picked up at Sephora, and around the world, “that is a dream come true, a game changer.”

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