First Lady Jill Biden pledged her support for the Fifteen Percent Pledge at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on Saturday night. She took the stage to speak at the third annual fundraising gala for one of fashion and beauty’s most visible equity advocacy organizations.
“Certain moments in history stir our souls, wrench our hearts and shake our collective conscious,” Biden said, reflecting on George Floyd’s murder, which galvanized the founding of the Fifteen Percent Pledge asking retailers to reflect the Black community by dedicating 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. “In that moment, Aurora James stood up and raised an uncomfortable mirror to the corporate world.…We’re all here because we know the threads of social justice are interwoven with economic justice,” she told the crowd of entrepreneurs and executives from Google, Nordstrom, Sephora, Victoria’s Secret, Ulta Beauty and more, before touting President Joe Biden’s record on equity and pitching for a second term.
“Today, Black business ownership is growing at the fastest pace in 30 years. And he’s not going to stop. When Aurora started this effort, she acknowledged people would think maybe it’s too big, or direct, maybe people would think it’s outrageous. Tonight, we agree, yes, it’s big; yes, it’s direct; yes, it’s even hard, but we also need to show her something else, that yes, it is possible.”
It was one of many impressive moments at the event hosted by Pledge founder James and chairwoman Emma Grede, which drew a fabulously attired crowd following the black-tie Black designer dress code.
“This is my first time and I’m so excited, it’s extraordinary. I went shopping, I already brought some things. I’m glad she moved it from East to the West. There is lots of money and things to ponder here,” said June Ambrose during cocktails on the faux city streets of the studio backlot, where the Fifteen Percent Pledge had set up several pop-up shops selling everything from Sami Miro deconstructed jean jackets to James’ own Brother Vellies feather-trimmed handbags and ruffled mules.
“I’m here to support,” said Oakland retailer Sherri McMullen, wearing a rainbow tie-front top and trumpet skirt by Christopher John Rogers, one of the many Black designers she has championed at her boutique.
Biden, Meena Harris, stylist Zerina Akers and several others wore looks by L.A. designer Sergio Hudson, while Gabriella Karefa-Johnson wore a sparkly Diotima knit dress.
“Part of why we set this dress code every year is so you, our community of supporters can understand firsthand just how difficult it is to access Black brands,” said Grede. “It’s an experience that encapsulates our mission at the Pledge to bring Black business to the forefront of consumers’ minds and close the racial wealth gap.”
At the dinner, tables were set with flowers by Maurice Harris’ Bloom and Plume, and gourmet chicken and waffles was on the menu curated by Ghetto Gastro. Business leaders networked with entrepreneurs and creatives including stylists Jason Rembert and Bryon Javar, interior decorator Brigette Romanek, choreographer Stephen Galloway and chef Lauren Von Der Pool.
The atmosphere may have been convivial but the issues were urgent.
“There are no longer protections in place so that we have an equal shot to education, a good job, a bank loan, really anything,” James told the crowd, referencing the end of affirmative action and the attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion. “We cannot take our privilege for granted, we have to pay it forward. Tonight, we’re doing just that by awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars to some incredibly deserving small business owners.”
The first $100,000 Sephora grant went to Brown Girl Jane, the luxury wellness and fragrance brand.
“To anyone who feels unseen, we bottle inspiration for you, to Sephora, we are grateful to be a vessel. Thank you for reminding us the future smells like home,” said cofounder Malaika Jones.
The Google-sponsored $200,000 Achievement Award went to clean skin care brand Hanahana Beauty, whose Ghanaian founder Abenah Boamah brought her mom as her date. And the Trailblazer Award honored actress and Pattern Beauty founder Tracee Ellis Ross, who spoke passionately about her journey to starting her brand, including that when she first mentioned the idea to her management, they suggested she create a line of wigs instead.
“A Black founder, this is crazy guys, I know this room knows it but I’m going to say it real loud, a Black founder can make products that are for everybody,” Ross told guests. “A Black founder should be the one to determine who their customer is. The system should not.”
The Fifteen Percent Pledge expected to raise more than $2 million at the gala to further its mission of working with its existing 29 partners and bringing on more.
“The Fifteen Percent Pledge was such an inspirational touch point for me as we created Thirteen Lune,” said Nyakio Grieco, cofounder of the beauty retailer. “The boldness of Aurora’s mission allowed me to fully understand shelf space is the first step…and the onus isn’t only on the retailers but the check writers,” she said, scanning the room and adding, “And there’s nothing more fabulous than walking into a room where so many people who often felt unseen are so gloriously seen.”