"I was reading it, but I wasn't feeling it," says James, founder of fashion accessory startup Brother Vellies. "As a Black woman and business owner, I wondered what it would take to feel like these retailers are standing with me."
She gave them the opportunity to do so, launching the nonprofit initiative called the 15 Percent Pledge, which guides companies through the process of making meaningful commitments to Black entrepreneurs. The pledge asks major retailers to allocate 15 percent of their shelf space to products from Black-owned businesses--in line with the segment of the population who identify as African American or Black, according to the U.S. Census. So far, giants such as Sephora and Rent the Runway have signed, along with smaller companies like houseplant startup the Sill.
The 15 Percent Pledge has three prongs, which are designed to create permanent change at retailers and support Black entrepreneurs beyond simply buying their products. The first asks participating companies to take stock of the current percentage of shelf space and contracts given to Black-owned businesses and suppliers. Second, firms should take ownership of their findings, publish them internally and externally, and devise steps to address any biases or blind spots. Third, businesses should define their plans, address a strategy for staying accountable, and take action.
James feels these steps will help ensure success for the retailers that sign the pledge as well as for their Black vendors. "We have an opportunity to take the work that we're doing every day and transition it for the greater good," she says.
James worked as a fashion director prior to founding Brooklyn-based Brother Vellies, which sells handcrafted shoes, handbags, and home goods made in Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, and South Africa. She launched her company in 2013 after traveling through Africa and noticing that traditional apparel was dying out--donated goods from America were eliminating the need for artisanal jobs in some of these countries, she says.
Brother Vellies aims to maintain African design techniques and support local workers. James started her four-person company with $3,500 of her own money--she has yet to raise any capital or take out any loans--and is now "selling millions of dollars of shoes," she says. She declined to share exact revenue figures but said, so far, sales this year have tripled compared with 2019.
For Black entrepreneurs angling for shelf space at these retailers, keep the following four tips in mind:
1. Find the best fit.
Focus on finding retailers that are the right fit, James says. Examine your business model, determine if that company will support your mission, and relay that information to the firm, she adds. Make your case and hope that it will resonate with retailers, she says.
2. Do your homework.
When considering whom you want to work with, look at the market and see where there may be holes or needs, says Artemis Patrick, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer at Sephora. Determine what about your product is distinct from what's already on store shelves, she adds.
3. Make connections.
Once those businesses are identified, reach out to those firms and explain your interests, James says. Founders can connect via social media or message the company's buyers, a tactic that James used when starting Brother Vellies.
Some companies, such as Sephora, have a formal process for receiving product submissions. Sephora uses a service called Range Me, which allows entrepreneurs to make profiles and connect with retailers in the hopes of working with them, says Patrick.
4. Sell yourself.
When approaching any retailer, offer some suggestions on how you can work with them, says Eliza Blank, co-founder and CEO of the Sill. For example, Blank received an Instagram message from Shelley Vidia Worrell--founder of the cultural organization and retailer CaribBeing--about collaborating on a self-care box the Sill could sell on its website. In about a week, the kit showcasing Caribbean culture was selling for $89, Blank says. Doing the work ahead of time shows that you're serious about a partnership, Blank adds.
Additionally, share your founder story with prospective partners, Patrick says. It paints a picture of who you are, why you created the business, and what you hope to accomplish.