Aurora James discusses New York Urban League honor and Fearless Fund ruling: ‘We are in an attention economy’

Aurora James talked about why her New York Urban League honor is "bittersweet" in light of the Fearless Fund ruling.

Aurora James, Fearless Fund, New York Urban League, Fifteen Percent Pledge, Black businesses, Black brands,
Aurora James attends The 2024 Met Gala Celebrating "Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

When Aurora James, founder of the brand Brother Vellies and the Fifteen Percent Pledge and vice chair of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, heard the news about the Fearless Fund ruling, she took to social media immediately.

In a TikTok video posted after the news broke, the founder unpacked the federal appeals court ruling that suspended the program, which largely awarded funding to Black women-owned businesses, after it was sued by the American Alliance for Equal Rights, a group led by Edward Blum, the conservative activist behind the Supreme Court case that ended affirmative action in college admissions.

“The past four years have been really exhausting, especially for the Black community, and that’s exactly when people like [Blum] swoop in and try to legislate things that counteract the progress that we’ve made, and they sort of want us to be too distracted or too tired to notice,” James told theGrio. 

She noted that speaking out about what’s happening and “galvanizing” people through her platform is important at a time like this.  

This advocacy, along with the inroads she’s made for Black businesses through the Fifteen Percent Pledge, has earned her a place among those being honored by the New York Urban League during the organization’s 58th annual Frederick Douglass Awards gala Thursday. The gala’s honorary co-chairs this year include Meagan Good, Tonya Lewis Lee, and Bethann Hardison. Others being honored alongside James are George Gresham and Renee McClure. 

When asked how it felt to receive this honor, James said, “To be honest, it’s a bit bittersweet.”

“The past six to eight months have been a little bit challenging with people trying to roll back some of the progress that we’ve made in the equity and inclusion space,” she continued. “But I think, you know, this award is really important because it speaks to the work.” 

James, the first Black female designer to ever win a Council of Fashion Designers of America Award, launched Brother Vellies in 2013 with the ambitious goal of creating a brand free from exploitation. The result has been a celebrated brand offering one-of-a-kind luxury shoes and accessories by African artisans that patrons can feel good about wearing.

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She didn’t stop there. After watching big-name brands and businesses commit to doing their part to move the needle for Black and brown people in this country during the racial upheaval surrounding George Floyd’s death, James founded the Fifteen Percent Pledge in 2020. Her mission was to get major retailers like Nordstrom, Sephora and Macy’s to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black brands. Since it launched, 28 companies, including Nordstrom, Sephora and Macy’s, have joined the pledge.

“We’ve all heard the saying that talent is distributed equally, but opportunity and access is not,” James said. “I think the pledge, and really that initial call to action that I posted on social media four years ago, is just about opening up some of the access for people. And these are people who are brilliant.” 

James is aware there are those like the Blums of the world who may view initiatives like the Fifteen Percent Pledge or the Fearless Fund as somehow exclusionary. Many say things like, “Why can’t this go to the best candidate?” She challenges that way of thinking by highlighting how these funds actually help to ensure the best are receiving the platform. 

“Previously, there were so many groups that have just been historically excluded,” she noted, adding, “A lot of these stores would just buy whatever the next Heinz product is or the next Estee Lauder product is. It’s easier just to keep plugging in with these giant companies that you already sell and have a relationship with than it is to actually take a chance on a small business.”

However, taking that chance can be a win-win for all parties. James noted how brands have been given a chance through her pledge and it has been life-changing for the founders and their brands. One founder approached her recently to share that he had been able to buy a house for his family through his work with the pledge. 

James said driving the needle for Black and brown businesses ultimately boils down to what we give our attention to. Spending attention could look like how you vote in the upcoming election, what you spend your money on, and even what you literally pay attention to online and in culture. 

“We are in an attention economy. People are competing for your attention beyond anything else,” she said. “What you give your attention to is what will win the day. The Kardashians win because they get our attention on all the different platforms. It’s tough. America has a lot of different ways. So, if we redirect our attention, we can also redirect a lot of the power in this country.”