In 2020, as millions of people protested for racial justice across the country, Brother Vellies founder Aurora James challenged major retailers to do more than offer empty statements of support. “So many of your businesses are built on Black spending power,” she wrote in an Instagram post that quickly went viral. “So many of your stores are set up in Black communities.”
Her ask: Create lasting change by dedicating 15% of shelf space to Black-owned brands. Ten days later Sephora became the first major corporation to commit. The Fifteen Percent Pledge is now one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in America, and James has completely reshaped an entire industry.
Glamour honored James for her work at the 2022 Women of the Year Awards on Tuesday, November 1. Huma Abedin, best-selling author of Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, presented the designer with her award.
“There are some people who see a problem and look away,” Abedin said. “Others see a problem and lament at the unfairness or the injustice. Then there are women in the mold of designer Aurora James—who choose not just to acknowledge, speak out, and empathize, but to do something about it, which is the vastly harder choice. And to do it successfully is often impossible.
“Recently I’ve had many conversations with women about success and what it means to each of us, and the truth is, it’s different for everyone. For some women, it’s financial security or a certain job title. For others, it’s finding the perfect partner and creating a family, or making beautiful art, or standing up for an issue that matters to them. And for many it’s much of the above. Aurora believes that success is not just what you earn for yourself, but the doors you open for others. And she has opened many. She launched her beloved label, the sustainable lifestyle and accessories line Brother Vellies, in 2013. Her goal was clear: to spotlight traditional African design practices and techniques, while creating jobs that would sustain African artisans. It was creative and bold. Some might even say it was risky. But anyone who has spent even the briefest amount of time with Aurora would not have been surprised to know that it would become a massive success.
“Aurora and I were talking about this earlier today—the notion that while talent is universal, opportunity is most definitely not,” Abedin added. “And for her—someone both talented and determined, creative, and constructive—that opportunity for success, to expand her vision and her work, came in 2015 when she won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Founder’s Award, and with it the adoration of style lovers around the world.
“Then, in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, national trauma, social and racial unrest, when many feared the unknown and simply sat still preparing for the worst, Aurora did the opposite,” Abedin went on. “She merged her creative vision, business experience, fashion prowess, and penchant for opening doors of opportunity for the Black community by launching the Fifteen Percent Pledge. Now the nonprofit she started with a simple, and some would say audacious, post is changing the face of fashion, retail and social justice.”
When James accepted her award, she became emotional as she thanked the women who helped open doors for her—and her mission to pay it forward. Below, read her speech in full.
Seeing that montage of photos of my mom I haven’t seen in many years is really hitting me in the heart, and it’s also making me think of something I read this morning, which reminded me of something my mom used to say to me all the time. I’m gonna share it with you. It said, “You will receive the love that you feel you are worthy of receiving.” And I spent today trying to decide if I believe that or not. When I started Brother Vellies, I believed that they were deserving of the opportunity and access as artisans. I wanted to see them be in the community. When I posted about the Fifteen Percent Pledge that day, it was because I believed that Black entrepreneurs deserved an opportunity. I know what can happen when we are given a chance. And as I look around this room, I see so many women who have given me a chance. And that has allowed me to turn around and open the doors for other people who, to be honest with you, are even more talented than I am.
So when I think about that question, I think about all of the women in this country who are not being treated in the way that they deserve to be treated. I think about the women in Iran who are not getting what they need. And I know that the answer to it, whether I believe in that statement or not, is that we need more love. And I think that it has to start with us and ourselves. I look at those photos of myself as a child, and I think about how many times I felt so uncomfortable in my skin so often. I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like my voice was too squeaky. I felt like I was too big or too tall. Or not big enough. Any of the things enough. And it’s all wrong.
I know now that every single mistake that I’ve made along the way has made me the perfect imperfect messenger to deliver the ask, which is just that we open the door for other people. I am so in awe of so many of you in this room. It sounds really crazy, but please literally call me anytime. Because there are so many issues for us to solve. And I have never been more certain of anything else in my life than what I’m gonna say right now, which is I know collectively in this room, we can solve so much more than we even realize.
Originally Appeared on Glamour