When we relaunched Future Commerce in 2019, we began with an essay that set the tone: consumers have expectations that your brand didn’t set for them. Those expectations have been etched over time, like a stream carving through rock and clay, by the likes of Amazon. At the time we believed those expectations to be 2-day free shipping, and free returns. Today those expectations are much more important and vital to our future as a free and fair society.
We are at a pivotal moment: consumers are demanding transparency in diversity and equal representation for persons of color in consumer brands.
Pull up or shut up
Pull Up or Shut Up, launched by Uoma Beauty CEO Sharon Chuter is a direct response to the numerous brands that released statements in support of Black Lives Matter.
To Chuter such gestures were nice, but aren’t enough. "Whereas we understand and appreciate the support, be conscious that to piggyback off a trending hashtag when you have been and continue to be a part of the problem is once again appropriating and exploiting the black community. So we ask all brands who have released a statement of support, to publicly release within the next 72 hours, the number of black employees they have in their organizations at the corporate level. We also need to know the number of black people you have in leadership roles."
In other words, pull up or shut up. An impressive number of brands, including Estee Lauder, Shiseido, and Sephora pulled up. Those that didn’t Chuter called out by name and urged Pull Up followers to flood their social media pages with demands for their diversity data.
Ms. Chuter fully expected to see under-representation in the brands she called out, especially in the leadership ranks. But she views this honest reckoning of hiring practices as a first step, and she’s right. We can’t fix problems if we don’t first recognize they exist. So rather than excoriate brands like Lush, which has just 2% aboriginal representation, none of whom are in executive roles, she thanked them for their transparency.
Pull Up or Shut Up struck a chord for us at Future Commerce. Tomorrow we will release our inaugural Nine by Nine report, which we undertook with our partner, Klaviyo, to highlight both established, and up and coming, brands which help to redefine what makes a brand valuable. As we dove into the project, we came face-to-face with a stark reality: the world of business is still very much a white man’s club, and it’s likely to stay that way until we see deep structural changes in how new enterprises are funded and operated.
81 Brands Changing Our World
Nine by Nine is a report on the state of retail as viewed against nine recurrent themes we tackle on our podcasts and FC Insiders articles, such as late-stage retail and the need to address the dearth of affordable retail in many communities.
We looked at a total of 287 brands and rated them based on how their practices are helping to change the world for the better. For instance, we’ve identified local heroes, aka businesses that are positively affecting their local communities, such as Thistle Farms, a non-profit personal care company that employs women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
We borrowed Frank and Eileen and Grayson founder Audrey McLoglin’s term, 100 Club, because we wanted to include founders who eschew outside funding and the demands of investors to prioritize growth and profit above all else. And we wanted to include brands that cater to CARLY -- the consumers who shop their values.
Rating these 287 brands required six months of qualitative and quantitative research, listening to, cataloging and transcribing 170 hours of podcasts recorded over the years, and conducting significant quantitative research on social media to assess which brands are top of mind and for which reason. To top of all that, we interviewed 14 people in our Future Commerce Experts Network and reached out to our 72 FC Alumni (guests of our show) for their insights.
This process allowed us to whittle those 287 brands down to nine finalists across nine categories, or 81 brands in total, which is why we’ve named the report Nine by Nine.
From day one we had hoped that 30% to 50% of the companies that would ultimately make our list would be ones founded by women. We were partly inspired by ShopTalk, which announced an all-women lineup for ShopTalk 2020. But mostly we were inspired by the many amazing female entrepreneurs within the Future Commerce alumni.
Meeting that diversity goal among companies that met our other nine criteria was difficult. Why is that?
First, most brands need to rely on private equity or VC funding, and those firms have appalling track records in terms of diversity. Last year, only 3% of funding went to companies founded by women (up from 2.2% the year before), although 17% went to companies with at least one woman founder. Worse, only 1% of venture-funded startup founders are African American. That’s not surprising given that 80% of VC firms have invested in zero Black startups.
Racism and sexism appear to not be a purely American export. The data suggests that the EU also suffers from the same fate when it comes to access to capital for female and minority entrepreneurs.
Consumers, like those who Sharon Chuter is rallying, demand change. They want to buy from brands that are run by a diverse leadership team and serve diverse communities. Unfortunately, they are stymied by a funding situation that is rife with systemic inequality. The sad reality is that brands with the most media attention, hype, and funding are not founded by women and people of color, they’re those who are on an accelerated growth path and ultimately hope to sell their companies and cash in.
We at Future Commerce join consumers in believing that the definition of what makes a brand meaningful -- the core question explored in the Nine by Nine report -- must change. At present, funders view growth and market share as the overriding determinant of value. The entire system must be rethought.
Making room for change
If you’re a regular listener to our show, you know that over the past few months we’ve talked about the ways in which business leaders stepped up to tackle the challenges of combating COVID-19. They had little choice; with no national leader taking charge of the effort, it fell to businesses to determine which employees are essential, who should stay home, and when to close their shops and factories. Many even decided to switch their manufacturing to produce PPE, hand sanitizers, and respirators when the Federal government abdicated its responsibility for providing the states with such things.
And we see business leaders taking bold stands, such as when Reddit founder (and fellow Palm Beach resident) Alexis Ohanian stepped down from the board, asking that his seat be given to a person of color. He says he’s trying to set an example for other leaders -- by stepping down. That’s powerful. It’s not enough to call for change, leaders need to make room for change.
Ecommerce - the great equalizer?
We view eCommerce as more than just a slice of the retail sector. We believe it has the potential to serve as a great equalizer. Why is that? A number of factors, but access to products and technology have become self-serviceable in the past decade. It now takes less than $10,000 to launch a single-product DTC brand. That’s about the same cost as what it takes to launch a Chick-fil-A franchise, without the hassle of physical brick and mortar (and becoming an automaton that repeats “my pleasure” in your sleep).
Ecommerce allows people who are economically disadvantaged to get a new brand off the ground at relatively low cost, and thus broaden the gender and racial diversity of the retailers from whom the consumer can shop. Our goal -- through Nine by Nine, our podcast and articles -- is to give greater visibility and representation to business models, ideas, products, brands, and most importantly -- the entrepreneurs -- who have been historically disadvantaged from a fundamentally flawed system. Their genius is largely unsung by the business press, and their goals undervalued by investors.
But it’s the business press and investors who are out of touch with consumers, not the entrepreneurs who are seeking to change the world. As we see with the Put Up or Shut Up challenge, consumers want insight into a brand’s diversity story so that they can vote with their dollars. These are, after all, the same people who are marching in the streets to say that Black Lives Matter. This isn’t a flash in the pan trend, this is the consumer rewriting the rules of retailing right before our eyes.
And yet, despite the consumer’s very clear desire for a more just and equitable retail environment, we found it difficult to find equal representation across all categories. Why aren’t there more people of color and women leaders in eCommerce?
These are the conversations I want to have, however messy and uncomfortable and imperfect they may be. The truth is, like racial equality, we’re never going to get things right if we don’t start talking about what’s wrong and how we need to go about fixing those problems. So let’s talk about it, even though it will mean hearing things that we’d prefer to leave unsaid.
White supremacy has been left to stand for long enough. Let’s tear it down.