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Fostering Diversity and Inclusion Has Become a ‘Business Imperative,’ Experts Say

The social upheaval of 2020 forced a reckoning in the retail industry. Now, it’s not just up to consumers to support black businesses—but retailers and brands must also showcase the diverse talent and products that they’re looking for.

At NRF’s virtual Retail Big Show on Thursday, experts weighed in on their efforts to elevate black-owned businesses, both through support and education as well as exposure.

Shelly Bell, Black Girl Ventures founder and CEO, describes her organization as a fully immersive ecosystem for Black and brown female business owners, providing them with access to funding, tools for civic engagement, education in science and technology, and other support systems to help bolster their endeavors.

“One of the ways we do that is we have a unique crowdfunded pitch competition,” she said, where founders present their business ideas to an online audience and solicit tax deductible donations.

The educational curriculum at Black Girl Ventures is tailored to the busy lives of entrepreneurs, who might not be able to put their businesses on hold to attend an accelerator program or a retreat, Bell said. With five chapters across the country and efforts taking place in about 12 cities, it has seen more than 300 black or brown female founders benefit from its services.

Large corporations that buy into the initiative can help accelerate efforts to get new businesses off the ground. Visa, for example, has created resources specifically for small business owners, while Google has partnered with Black Girl Ventures to help scale its network of businesses across new markets online.

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This particular cultural moment has seen “so many announcements about people who want to work with, support, help grow and invest in Black women-owned businesses in particular,” she said, from lenders to tech companies and marketplaces that might showcase their products. Under-represented founders should keep their eyes open to opportunities and “make the move yourself as an entrepreneur, of actually reaching out,” she added.

“I would take them up on it—apply for the resources that are available,” Bell said. “Build relationships right now, while we are all in quarantine, over the internet with different kinds of companies.”

Just last week, Nike became just such a resource for Black Girl ventures, expanding upon its commitment to support the Black community with a $500,000 investment in the organization. The cash infusion gives the group’s female founders access to capital and capacity-building tools to buttress their growing businesses.

Nike’s Black Community Commitment, which provides funding for social justice groups providing education and economic opportunity, has also donated to Black Girls CODE, NAACP Empowerment Programs and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and will support a series of grants this year totaling $1.75 million for organizations in Boston, Memphis, St. Louis, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.

Bell said she hopes to see Nike’s contribution enable Black Girl Ventures to grow its reach through new chapter development while improving its technology infrastructure for crowdfunding and storytelling campaigns.

Uncommon Goods

Another platform looking to give Black entrepreneurs and become a venue for influence is Uncommon Goods, an online marketplace that trades in artisan products like homewares, apparel, jewelry and textiles from small businesses and independent creators. Katherine Danneberg Mattey, chief merchandising officer for the New York City-based company, said the platform took on the challenge of diversifying its network of brand owners after giving its portfolio a closer look last year.

“We really didn’t know what the diversity of our vendor base was,” she said, “so we did a vendor census to find out the complexity of the diversity of the makers we were working with.” Uncommon Goods found that only about 1 percent of its vendors were Black-owned businesses, and only 5 percent were BIPOC.

“New product is the fuel that drives our business and makes customers excited,” she added, and after the cultural turmoil of summer 2020, consumers were quickly becoming more conscious of the impact their purchases could have. “We created an initiative and a commitment to bring on more Black-owned businesses by the end of the year,” Mattey said. The platform settled on 25 new vendors as its 2020 goal, and it has folded 30 new Black or BIPOC-owned businesses into its assortment to date.

The pandemic has changed brand and vendor discovery for Uncommon Goods, she added. While normal circumstances might see the company’s buying team scouring trade shows for new product, “this situation has quite frankly forced our hand to fish in a different pool,” she said. The cultural zeitgeist has actually illuminated new vendor possibilities as the discussion surrounding race and support for minority-owned businesses has gone mainstream.

“Looking at what’s been in the media and what people are talking about” on Instagram and social media, the brand has found no shortage of Black and female-led businesses to support. “This has really opened up all of these doors to us to finding these products in places that we weren’t looking before,” she said, “and quite frankly, it’s changed my perspective on how my team is going to look at working with people going forward.”

The influx of new vendors and small businesses—some in their infancy—has also provided Uncommon Goods with an opportunity to help them develop into true wholesale brands, Mattey said. “We’re teaching them how to do wholesale by working with us, because we might be their first wholesale account,” she added. “It enables us to get something and give something at the same time,” as the Uncommon Goods team helps guide them through account management processes like invoicing and gives them brand exposure on a global marketplace, for perhaps the first time.

Lack of diversity can lead to ‘subpar product’

The discussion about brand purpose and social impact has become pervasive in the fashion sector with experts also weighing in at PSFK’s Retail Innovation Week virtual event on Wednesday.

Brian Dodge, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, urged companies to be mindful about what it means to promote equity within their businesses. “Diversity and inclusion are really two distinct things,” he said.

“Diversity, as I think about it, is sort of changing the class photo,” he said, while “inclusion is doing everything you can to allow people to bring their rich experiences to their jobs.”

“If you do both of those things, you’ve got some magic,” he added. “If you do one and not the other, you haven’t gained much at all.”

Companies have by now cottoned onto the fact that diversity, like sustainability, is a “business imperative,” but they may not be doing all they can to help employees feel seen and heard while reaping the benefits of their unique viewpoints.

“If the individuals who are making decisions about the products that you sell on your shelves are reflective of—or have an understanding of—your customers, they’ll make better decisions,” he said, while conversely, if employees “don’t feel like they can bring the insights from their own life experiences into the conversation,” companies won’t see the full value of their contributions.

One way for executives and team leaders to make sure that they are fostering an inclusive environment is to start with hiring individuals with diverse personal experience. “One of the mistakes that we always make is that we rely on resumes to evaluate candidates for jobs,” he said, “but when you really think about the team that’s around you, it is rarely the things that show up on their resume that are most useful in discussions within the business.”

Teams should complement each other, Dodge said. “A whole bunch of people with the exact same training, even if it’s exemplary, will produce a subpar product” without the diverse perspectives that it takes to assess projects critically.

“I think that there’s two things that are really important to any organization—it’s your people, and it’s your revenue,” Ezinne Okoro, global chief inclusion and diversity officer for New York marketing and communications agency Wunderman Thompson, echoed.

As intent as executives can be on developing business strategies for growth, they must also focus on talent acquisition for future success. “That’s what diversity and inclusion and equity is all about—it’s really about getting the best of the best, keeping them, and making sure everyone has a sense of belonging in your space,” she added.

Okoro said bringing in diverse viewpoints can be the key to creating meaningful work that resonates with different audiences, rather than attempting to master a checklist of “best practices” to appear more inclusive.

For organizations just starting out on the journey to become more equitable, Okoro believes honest reflection—taking stock of strengths and weaknesses—is key. From there, they can create a framework for change.

It’s important that brands not skip this step, as a company’s workforce will see the ability to take responsibility for past actions as an authentic platform on which to grow and evolve. “Your employees are going to appreciate that honesty, that transparency, and then they’re going to hold you accountable,” she said.

“I think companies want to do well, and they want people to know that they’re doing well because they want the recognition from clients and customers,” she added. “But a lot of times, companies forget that your employees are your ambassadors, they’re your first champions.” It’s not enough for corporations to release statements of support for social justice, for example, without first making sure that “in-house, employees really know what you’re doing and what you stand for.”

“A lot of companies made statements for Black Lives Matter, and some of them got backlash for it,” Okoro said. Nike and Adidas, for example, vaguely condemned racism through social media campaigns  and statements last summer after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. Employees were nonplussed, however, alleging that both brands faced internal struggles with inclusion—despite heavily courting minority audiences and featuring athletes and artists of color as spokespeople.

“I think a lot of companies make that big mistake, where they’re really ready to pull the trigger when it comes to external facing things,” Okoro said, “but they need to make sure that they recognize what’s going on internally.”