HUMANS WE HEART: Aurora James, Founder of Brother Vellies & Creator of the 15% Pledge
Aurora James has always been about changing the fashion industry for the better. Since 2013, she’s emphasized a sense of community and championed artisanal craftsmanship at her footwear and accessories brand, Brother Vellies. Recently, she created the 15% Pledge, a nonprofit organization that advocates for economic justice by calling on major retailers to commit 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. As proud participants in the Pledge, we were so excited to chat with the inspiring woman behind it.
Hi Aurora! Mind if we start with a few getting-to-know you Qs? COFFEE ORDER:
I love iced almond milk lattes with brown sugar.
BOOKS ON YOUR NIGHTSTAND:
A Promised Land by Barack Obama.
PODCASTS/ALBUMS/PLAYLISTS IN YOUR EARBUDS:
I’m obsessed with The Daily podcast. I’ve also been listening to a lot of jazz recently, like Stan Getz and Ella Fitzgerald.
Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up where you are now.
I lived in Canada and Jamaica growing up, and when I was 23, I fell in love and moved to LA. Eventually I was fortunate enough to travel to Africa, where my father was born and raised. I became really interested in traditional artisanal skills, and had $3,500 saved, so I launched Brother Vellies at the Hester Street Fair in New York.
Most of the work I’ve done has started from not being afraid to experience what people typically refer to as failure. Perseverance through failure is the one thing that can eradicate failure. The book isn’t over at one stumbling block if you don’t want it to be. Keep writing the story, and that’s how you get a really good arc.
That’s a great point. So many people are taking chances in trying to create their own brands, especially with the expansion of social media. Do you have any advice for someone with a seed of an idea that they want to grow?
Since social media tends to obscure things, I think the more radically honest we can be, the more people will understand that there are fewer barriers to accomplishing your dreams. What’s also amazing about social media is the ability to tell stories. So whether you have 75 followers or 75,000, share the process of creating your company along the way because passion is contagious. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, other people will be as well.
Speaking of passion projects—let’s talk about the 15% Pledge. What made you want to start it?
I was inspired to start it because George Floyd was murdered, and I did not want that to be in vain. I did not want companies to be able to make the claim that they support Black people without actual analytics and audits and accountability in the fight for economic equality.
Absolutely. That’s so important. How will the pledge evolve in the future? Do you think the percentage might change?
Well, 15% is a really great goal as it correlates to the population. But I think what’s incredible is that once you have that shelf space, if everyone’s business is doing well, then it will naturally grow. The Pledge was only born just over six months ago, and we’re already hiring people and expanding—it’s a full-throttle nonprofit! But the work is just getting started. I think for so many of us, 2020 was a year of self-examination, and 2021 has to be a year of implementation.
Love that. Here’s to more expansion and implementation in 2021. And finally, since this is our Humans We Heart series, is there anyone you admire that you’d like to shout out here?
Sherry Bronfman and Bethann Hardison. Both of these women have lived super vivid New York lives and really paved the way for a lot of the work I’ve been able to do as a designer, creative and also as an activist. I could listen to them both talk for hours on end. They are the most incredible heroines of books that have not yet been written!
Thank you so much, Aurora. Check out some of the Black-owned businesses we’re giving shelf space to here.