Buying Black Brands Is Not Enough — Many Won’t Survive Without Mentorship

When rising designer Salone Monet was developing her footwear collection — aimed at serving women of color who couldn’t find nude styles to match their skin tones — she turned to a trusted source for advice again and again: model, actress and activist Bethann Hardison.

“I was getting a lot of mentorship from Bethann. She pulled together a group of people in the industry that I could email or text whenever I had any questions,” recalled Monet, who launched the business in 2018. For the designer — who counts Beyoncé as a fan — being part of Hardison’s Designers Hub platform also paved the way for some unexpected funding during a pandemic that has presented endless challenges. Last fall, Monet was one of 10 recipients who received a grant from CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund’s “A Common Thread” initiative, supported by Tom Ford International.

For years, Hardison has been working behind the scenes to guide young Black talents who are trying to break through.

She has seen every side of the fashion industry and is well aware of the obstacles. Hardison got her start working in the Garment District, was a pioneering Black fashion model in the 1970s and later owned her own modeling agency.

“I constantly tell people, ‘Not everyone is going to make it.’ The fashion island is only a certain size, and there are so many designers. But the island isn’t getting any bigger.”

Through her platform, Hardison challenges the creatives she works with to ask themselves the right questions as they formulate their strategy: Do they have the infrastructure to build a direct-to-consumer platform? Is retail the right path? How can they effectively wholesale?

“I’m not here to make them famous. I want them to understand the business,” Hardison said. “There are so many young talents out there who don’t have anyone to advise them.” 

During Black History Month 2021, mentoring and education programs have entered the spotlight as companies take their initial commitments around equality to the next level.  These efforts are critical as the pandemic continues to impact Black businesses disproportionally, due in part to lack of credit and access to the Paycheck Protection Program and other government funding. (A new round of PPP, worth about $284.45 billion and approved last December, is specifically targeted toward minority-owned businesses, many of which did not qualify for the first batch of loans.)

In the last nine months, there has been some notable progress among corporations, as America’s racial reckoning continues. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, companies, organizations and individuals moved quickly to enact new equality initiatives — both within their own ranks and to support the broader Black community. 

Meanwhile, consumers rallied around #BuyBlack, and big retailers such as Nordstrom and Macy’s stepped up their commitments to stocking and supporting Black-owned brands. Much of the immediate action was a direct result of Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, which signed on Gap Inc. this month after joining forces with Macy’s, West Elm and Sephora in 2020.

While getting Black brands in the door is a big step, James and other leaders believe the next part of the conversation is equally as important.   

“It’s already tough for a new business to start if you’re anyone — to get financing, to put a team together, to make sure you connect to the consumer the right way — all those things,” said James Whitner, founder and owner of The Whitaker Group. “But when you’re a Black business, it’s tough because you don’t have the same support infrastructure. A big responsibility goes back to a lot of the publicly-traded companies and equity funds and banks to lock in on their Black consumers and understand what the needs are for Black businesses to be successful long term.”

James Whitner The Whitaker Group
James Whitner, owner of The Whitaker Group, wants to help other Black entrepreneurs navigate some of the obstacles he’s faced.
CREDIT: Courtesy of The Whitaker Group

Stepping Up

The call for action has never been clearer or louder — and this month, several major companies unveiled new mentoring-centric programs to help Black founders build brands with longevity.

Fast-growing digital retailer Revolve said it would dedicate a new section of its site to showcasing Black-owned and designed brands — and all of those talents would have access to the company’s just-launched mentorship program that focuses on the fundamentals of growing and scaling a business.

“We’ve been evaluating how we can use our strengths and resources, and help make a substantial and long-lasting impact to fight inequality,” Michael Mente, Revolve’s co-CEO and co-founder, told FN. “Black-owned and operated brands are far too often overlooked in the fashion industry when it comes to receiving the resources and platform needed to build out vital parts of their business. We want to help change this. We are uniquely positioned because we’re able to provide our emerging brands with invaluable information across different aspects of their
business that are imperative to their growth.”

Other companies are teaming up with established organizations that support Black founders. Nike pledged $500,000 to Black Girl Ventures, its newest partner focused on economic empowerment. The athletic giant’s investment will support Black Girl Ventures’ mission to provide Black and Brown women founders with access to “community, capital and capacity-building.” 

“While the financial capital is one of the biggest challenges, it sometimes overshadows the fact that there’s still this huge gap in access to influential relationships. The money actually comes from relationships,” said Shelly Bell, founder and CEO of Black Girl Ventures.

In an effort to fuel those kinds of valuable connections, Joor’s new mentoring program brings Black brands together with the wholesaling platform’s network of more than 300,000 retailers in at least 40 countries.

To make it happen, Joor joined forces with RAISEfashion, a collective of seasoned industry leaders formed in 2020. The group offers expertise to emerging Black talent and, in partnership with Harlem’s Fashion Row, will pick designers who will receive complimentary access to the Joor system and have a platform to present their collections. In addition, the labels will receive training on best practices to grow their wholesale businesses.

“Black brands are at a disadvantage when it comes to breaking into the retail industry,” said Divya Mathur, a RAISEfashion advisory board member and chief merchant at Intermix. “With partnerships like the one with Joor, RAISEfashion is able to offer both the mentorship and digital platform to successfully connect Black designers with prospective retailers to improve overall representation.”

Sergio Hudson — whose eponymous founder had a breakout moment when he dressed both former first lady Michelle Obama and new Vice President Kamala Harris for the inauguration — is one of the brands selected for the first round. Every six months, RAISEfashion will nominate an additional group of up to 25 Black-owned labels to join the program.

While some companies are targeting designers at the beginning of their careers, others are focusing on college students who haven’t yet entered the industry. Urban Outfitters, for example, has launched UO Summer Class ’21, a program that selects one student from each of five participating HBCUs. The students will participate in a 10-week internship program, where they will get one-on-one mentoring from members of the Urban Outfitters team. And once the internship is over, the mentoring will continue, the company said.

“Education, for me, is America’s key to getting through our racial problems,” said Alife partner Treis Hill, who collaborated with Urban Outfitters on an HBCU hoodies collection as part of the initiative. “The more we can educate African Americans in underdeveloped communities and neighborhoods, and encourage them to go to college and grow and do things in the footwear industry and corporate America, [the better].”

VF Corp. — which aspires to achieve 25% representation for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) within its director and above roles by 2030 — announced a series of new platforms and programs during Black History Month.  Among the initiatives is a tie-up with Pensole, the design academy founded by D’wayne Edwards. The collaboration will introduce Black and Brown students to VF’s Timberland, The North Face and Vans brands. After participating in a Pensole masterclass that will help develop them into capable designers, the young talents will earn the opportunity to participate in a year-long VF apprenticeship program.

VF’s VPs are also committing three hours per quarter to mentoring BIPOC employees within the organization, as well as individuals in the community.

Treis Hill believes education is a key part of solving America's racial challenges.

Paying it Forward

While companies big and small are taking up the mantle of change, some of the most effective mentors are Black founders who have carved their own unique paths in business.

“I’m from the projects and made a way for myself. Now, I’m trying to kick the door open so kids still in the projects understand how to make a way for themselves,” The Whitaker Group’s Whitner said. In 2020, Whitner grew the retail group’s “Free Game” educational series to help advise people who want to get started in the sneaker industry. Now, he wants to take that idea to the next level. “We’re going to continue to push Free Game, but it’s about picking up our overall community narrative,” he said. “It’s going to be about partnering with other small Black entrepreneurs to help them get over some of the hurdles that have been tough for me.”

Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of Pyer Moss and global creative director at Reebok, understands the power of building a community. At the virtual FNAAs in December, he recalled leaning on close friend Aurora James in the fledgling days of his business. “We saw a lot of people being bailed out and that wasn’t a reality for us. It became a brain trust between you and I, where we would be able to talk about business, which stores wouldn’t pay so that we could avoid them, all of those different things. And I was learning a lot from you because, you had already gone through the yearbook and had placed faces and names and personalities,” he told James.

Pensole’s Edwards, the quintessential mentor, said that when he left the industry as a designer, his goal was to leave the business better than he found it. “That’s the part that’s driving me now,” he said. “When I do decide to leave completely, I want to understand, ‘Did I do the job I set out to do — create a more diverse industry than I got into?’ Thirty years later, it’s gotten better, but there’s a longer way to go.” 

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