Will the huge rise of interest in black-owned brands continue far beyond this news cycle? A special episode with the founders of Brooklyn Tea in New York and WearBrims in Atlanta. Plus: Charlotte Williams of SevenSix Agency explains how your company can demonstrate inclusivity – beyond just a black square post on Instagram.
ALFONSO WRIGHT: Jeff Bezos actually said it pretty well. Someone was upset that he said Black Lives Matter. And he told that person on Twitter to his face, right? I don't mind losing you as a customer. Right? So I think there's a point where, and I don't know, they did some charts in the, you know, the marketing and finance department and are like, you know what, we can afford to lose the racist and we'll still be fine. Someone did some math somewhere and figured out like, you know what, this is the side of history we want to be on, and this is worth it for us.
DANNY GIACOPELLI: That was Alfonso ‘Ali’ Wright, at Brooklyn Tea, a tea room he owns with his partner Jamila McGill, in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. As Alfonso says, tonnes of brands are making statements right now – on Instagram and emails and elsewhere. But they're out of genuine compassion for what's going on. Or, let's face it, due to peer pressure, or fear of not saying anything. But where's all of this soul-searching actually heading? And will the huge rise in interest in black-owned brands continue far beyond this news cycle? That's the topic of this edition of the Courier Weekly.
DANNY: So welcome back to the show. I'm Daniel Giacopelli. And this is the brand-new weekly podcast from Courier Magazine. Everyone who hasn't been living under a rock by now knows what's been going on the past few weeks in America and around the world. The Black Lives Matter protests have caused huge ripple effects across society, but also across the business world too. And, in particular, there's been an absolutely enormous rise in interest in black-owned brands. But is this just a flash in the pan? Is it cynical? Or will it lead to actual lasting impact? Or, is it a bit of all of the above? Here's Jamila and Alfonso, from Brooklyn Tea.
ALFONSO: So I've been making my mom tea since I was three years old. My mother's Jamaican, so tea is a big part of our culture. We drink tea in the morning, we drink tea when we're sick, we drink tea if we sprain our ankle. Tea is the solution to everything. Being the mischievous child, as Jamelia likes to call it, well, I started taking sugar out of my mom's tea little by little, to see if she would notice. And she never did. That kind of got me into a rabbit hole into, you know, thinking about, are we drinking sugary drinks because we like them or because it's a habit? And that got me into tea and tea culture. And I kind of just love that world of the tea culture and the reality. Years later, I meet this young lady and...
JAMILA MCGILL: And then we start dating. I am a southern belle at heart. And so, at that time, I'm just drinking sweet iced teas. Hot teas are like not even in my repertoire at that point. Only if I'm like, on my deathbed, feeling sick. And Ali did this really beautiful job of courting me, right? Making these beautiful pots and cups of teas, with like cinnamon sticks at the bottom... I just kind of fell right into it. And we decided to go with that idea of creating communion and ways to bring people together through a tea company. And so we started online in 2017. We opened our storefront here in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn in December of 2018. We're now a year-and-a-half old. And we're still moving.
DANNY: What are both of your takes on kind of the, the rush of a lot of media right now. And a lot of – just a lot of attention right now on black-owned businesses as a thing. It's more in the media now than it probably has ever been. Do you think that's superficial? Is it surface level? Will it do good in the long run?
JAMILA: I think, D, it’s all the above. All right. And I think some of it is a genuine interest. I believe there have been businesses that aren't predominately black owned who have come out to support us pre-Covid. There are ones who we've never heard of who have come up, or people we've been eager to connect with, who are now coming onto the scene. And I think it runs the gamut. And for us, we choose to be realistic, and that – oblivious to what those different things are – still have the ultimate goal of driving our business and increasing our brand awareness, increasing the benefits of tea to as many watchers and viewers and audiences as possible. Because at the end goal, we know that once people get our product, it doesn't matter how they got to us.
DANNY: We didn't expect it. We didn't see it coming, of course, but it's kind of heuristics, right? So it's on top of everyone's mind right now. And because it's on top of everybody's mind right now because they see it on social, they see it on CNN, they see, you know, the inequality and the disparities that America gets leverages on black folks, is now very apparent, very in your face. And one of the ways to combat that is economically. So I think people are just doing something, and it happens to be this thing they're doing is highlighting black businesses in the way they never have before. Hopefully, this has some long-term effects. But it's never been done before like this.
ALFONSO: So, you know, we really don't know what the long-term effect is gonna be. Because this is brand-new territory. When Blackout Tuesday happened last Tuesday, I was amazed at how many large corporations made an actual message about Black Lives Matter. Usually corporations kind of just shy away and try to have no message at all as much as possible.
JAMILA: And they use fluff words like diversity instead, just saying like diverse businesses, instead of just saying black-owned businesses, or saying women-owned businesses instead of black- and women-owned businesses. So there have always been tiptoed and skirted attempts at trying to get towards it. But again, not this frank, and not this blunt and spelled out in so many different, of the like, the conglomerates.
ALFONSO: But do you think so much of that, a cynic would say, is just corporate crisis management, right?
JAMILA: Yeah, a large part – I think they have staff members that they have to answer to – there is a black man and a black woman sitting at their desk, wondering where that company stands. And I think they're getting internal pressures.
ALFONSO: And peer pressure. I mean, if you are Lyft and Uber, right, who are competitors. And Lyft makes a bold statement like Black Lives Matter. And you're sitting there like, uh oh, what do we do now? Right? Because if you say nothing, you're going to lose some shareholders, right? You're gonna lose some share if you say the wrong thing. And I think Jeff Bezos actually said it pretty well. Someone was upset that he said Black Lives Matter. And he told that person on Twitter to his face, right, I don't mind losing you as a customer.
JAMILA: And if we were to reflect back on boycotts that have happened, to the bus boycott, right? I think the intention was not to focus on, did we change the heart of the bus driver? Right, that'd be great. The boycott was done because there was money, there was power in the dollar. Even if you are racist, we're going to make you treat us better. Because you have to decide about if you care about your racism more, or do you care about supporting yourself and your family more.
ALFONSO: When you guys are looking forward to the coming months, I mean, the past four or five months have just been total instability, chaos, crisis after crisis, political instability, economic instability, how do you guys plan the day-to-day, the month-to-month of the company not knowing really what next is gonna hit us, you know – is a comet gonna fall from the sky, are aliens gonna come down? I mean, it's like, 2020 has been the year of all years, right? How do you plan a business amid that?
DANNY: I mean, we're in a bad dystopian movie right now. So I guess when the zombies come out, we'll start selling something to them. I'm not sure.
DANNY: Zombies love tea, I'm sure.
ALFONSO: Yeah, I hope so.
JAMILA: Gotta stay hydrated!
ALFONSO: We'll convert them [laughs]. But I think what we're doing really is day-by-day-ing it. What Covid taught us, you know, is we have to be adaptable, we have to pivot, we have to evolve. So whatever comes next, we're just gonna take it as it is and do whatever we can to overcome it. And that's really all we can do. We just kind of plan in the moment and think of, you know, a short-term, long-term strategy, how we get to this month, and then, ‘OK, something weird happened. All right, how we get to that next month?’ It seems, especially until the pandemic’s over or until there's a vaccine, it seems almost foolish because we don't know the next wave is gonna happen to make long-term plans right now, unless it's like years out. And because we're a startup new business, years out also is a little crazy. We have no historical data to go by. So I think we're focusing our energy on how can we pivot? How can we evolve? How can we adapt to what's coming, you know, this week, next week, so we can just kind of stay alive.
DANNY: Alfonso ‘Ali’ Wright and Jamila McGill of Brooklyn Tea in New York. So, where are brands going wrong with their approaches to diversity and inclusion, and how can they implement better practices internally, and better recruitment too? And how can they communicate what they stand for? Well, I posed all of that, and a bit more, to Charlotte Williams, the founder of SevenSix Agency, a diversity-focused social media and influencer marketing agency right here in London. Here's Charlotte.
CHARLOTTE WILLIAMS: Social media does not mean that you have finished the work. So you may have posted your black square on the Tuesday, and you now may have trickled some diverse content onto your feed and tagged your favourite black content creators or black-owned businesses. But it doesn't stop there. And I think what's really important to note is that it's not what you're doing on social that matters. It is quite tricky because we have a call-out culture. So if they're not posting something on social, there were people calling them out to ask why.
But I think what businesses really need to understand is, the job needs to be done behind the scenes. So you need to look at your internal structure as a company. If you look around your room on a normal day, what does your team look like? How does that reflect what you're posting on social? So the reason why you may not have done the best job of being diverse, or creating inclusive content, is because your team is not inclusive. And if it's not a diverse team, when you look around the room, you feel like you haven’t included everyone whose voice needs to be heard.
So my personal opinion, and what I'm suggesting with my clients is, OK, if you have posted the back square, that's great. But look into now not going crazy with your statements – because a lot of you can't make those statements – and focusing on how within your team you can create a new structure. What roles do you need to fill in your team? Can you actively force your recruitment? People who – whether you use external or internal people for this – can you encourage them and I would say force them to look outside of their normal box, and don't go to who they normally look for, because that's obviously not working, look at other ways that you can recruit a diverse workforce.
Outside of that, looking at ways that you can actively support communities, be that through donating. And I know that a lot of companies, especially on the larger side, actually aren't able to donate to certain causes because of the policies that they have within them. So if you can't donate money, can you donate time? Can you make sure that you are offering mentorship schemes? Can you bring people into your business that can learn from you and then get, you know, something on their CV to say I worked with x company, and that will lead them to getting a really good job, because they've done really good work with you? Can you host other brands, who would need the help on your platform and share them with your audience? There are so many things that you can do as a brand that doesn't involve posting something on your social media.
DANNY: You know, it's sort of like if a tree falls in a wood and nobody's around to hear it, like did it happen? I guess kind of thing? Like, do you have to communicate, though, what you're doing behind the scenes? Like, can you be incredibly mission-driven and focused on diversity behind the scenes and recruiting and everything? But if you don't post anything, are you still falling short? Or do you have to constantly communicate what you're doing? So your customers and followers know?
CHARLOTTE: Well what I've advised some of my clients is, you know, they have a bit of a way to go. And right now, if they did inform their audience what they were doing, it's the beginning, a skeleton of a structure. And I think until you have that firm structure in place where you know that you are actively helping in whichever way that is, there's not actually much point in saying anything. So I think it's really important to have everything that you're doing noted. And if someone asks you specifically, well, ‘What is it that you're doing?’, you can then say, you know, we've taken the time as a team to internally shift and figure out what our plan is. But also, if you want to know what we're doing, here it is, we're not quite there yet. And I don't think there's anything wrong. Because the problem is none of this has ever been done, we're in a really weird situation where everyone's calling out these brands for not doing anything, you know, for the last however many years that they've existed. And now they've got an opportunity to do something, and you can't create your, like, amazing strategy in a week. It's been a week.
So one of the PRs that I work with, actually, he said this, you can't end 400 years of systemic racism with one week of strategising internally. And that's true, you can't do that. So I think it's really important to just take ownership of what you're doing, and know that you're doing it with good intent. And I think that's the most important thing, not doing it because you have to, which you know, you kind of do, but knowing that you're doing it because you actually want to see change. And you can think of ways that you can truly support. And you can make change using your platform, using your company, using your resources. And then once you have that in place, and it's in a place where you're able to share it in a valid way for it to actually make sense, then you can go on to do that. But if you've just spent a week looking at what your plan is, right now isn't really the time to be shouting about this amazing plan you've put together when there's no action that's been taken.
DANNY: That was Charlotte Williams from SevenSix Agency. And finally this week, we're in Atlanta to hear from Archie Clay the third and Tajh Crutch, the co-founders of WearBrims, a super-cool hat brand – fedoras in particular – that they founded back in 2017. We caught up about the challenges of growing a fashion brand and the power of protest and voting.
ARCHIE CLAY: So I came to Tajh with this idea of creating our own hat company, I was like, ‘Yo, I have an idea of creating a hat company, what you think?’, you know, and he was like, ‘Oh no, bro. You know…’
TAJH CRUTCH: I got the phone call from him. And I was just like, ‘What's up, man?’ I thought it was our everyday casual conversation phone call, like, ‘Hey, you seen this on Instagram?’ Or it was like, ‘oh, da-da-da’, thought it was just an everyday kind of conversation, but he came to me and he was like, ‘Hey, man, I think we need to start our own luxury fedora hat company’. And I was like, ‘OK, Archie!’ [laughing] and I didn't take him serious from the beginning.
I was just like, I thought it was just a regular conversation. I thought, hey, we're just throwing out an idea like those everyday ideas that would probably just blow probably the next couple of days. He was consistent and hit me back the next day. He's like, ‘Yo, man, listen, I'm dead serious about our conversation yesterday. I would like for us to team up and create this bond. It's a market for us right now and no one is doing it.’ And we could be the first to do this, and our personal style palettes, we wore fedoras in our own personal style. So I was like it only makes sense. I was like, OK, maybe this is the time because, I mean, we both love fashion and we wanted to get into the fashion lane, we just didn't know exactly if that was our calling or if it was not.
So when he came up with that idea, I was like maybe this is a sign for, you know, us to team up and do this, you know, start this journey. And he was like, ‘Listen, I already got our manufacturer, I already got where we can get our felts from, I already got everything lined up. We just got to come up with a name, an identity and start this mission.’ And I was like, OK, so we were just going through different names – we were talking later on about names. And then I was like, well if we call it Brims, like that, and then I was just like saying, just throwing it out there jokingly – he was like, ‘No, that can work! Because that's strong, that's strong, you know what I'm saying, we can just tell them like, “wear brims”, you know what I'm saying, as our little slogan or our saying, ‘Wear brims’, you know what I'm saying,’ so the company started as Brims, and then it adapted to WearBrims as it grew, so I was like ‘OK, let's run with it’.
ARCHIE: The brand is something special to both of us, like it kind of goes back to our history and our aesthetic of our grandparents and things of that nature – Tajh's grandparents and my grandparents, mostly my granny, my granny passed away from cancer many years ago. She was a very influential person in my life for me. My father had a mental breakdown when I was around like one or two years old and like, kind of was removed from my life at that time period for the minute so my grandmother kept the energy all the time. I always looked up to her. I always – she's always been a motivational factor for me.
So I was just like, man, like, as we was thinking of ideas for the logo, things of that nature – I knew that her favourite bird was the red robin, so I was like, ‘OK, cool’. It's a dope type of like aesthetic, it's still cool. It still have a dope vibe to it. So we made the logo, every time we look at it, it's kind of a motivational factor for both of us, because we know where the mindset and the shift for us came from. Right? And we knew that it's kind of bigger than us, it's bigger than us, it's for our family. Like we're creating a brand and a foundation that symbolises our family. Because at the end of day family means the world to both of us. Like without family or friends, our brand wouldn't be where it is right now honestly, I'm being very transparent. And that's just kind of the birth of WearBrims [laughs].
DANNY: And when you guys launched, was it entirely online, direct to consumer?
ARCHIE: Yeah. Launched officially March of 2017. Idea of the brand was created in 2016. So we officially launched the brand itself in 2017. And we had a pop-up – super, super dope – and a lot of people there – energy was dope. We launched it there officially in 2017. And that was kind of like the birth that was kind of the foundation. But even for us, it was just like we knew we had a lot of work to do. We had a lot of work to do. We wasn't in the territory yet. We knew nothing about business, design...
TAJH: It was a lot of work that we had to kind of put into it, a lot of hours that we had to kind of investigate and do our homework on creating fedoras. Because when you ask somebody from the jump, like how do you create a fedora? We didn't know that answer. And then people were like ‘fedoras?’, you know, because everyone went for the dad hats, baseball caps, t-shirts as their first type of, you know, something to get into the fashion line of their business. But we went straight for fedoras because we felt like that was our calling.
DANNY: So it took us a while to arrange this interview. Because – partly because we were just going back and forth. But also because, Archie, I know you were voting the other day. So I mean, what's going on right now in Atlanta, what are you voting for? For those who aren't in the US?
ARCHIE: Equal rights. That's what I'm voting for. I think that we're in a time where value is important, right? We can talk about this all day. We know the impact that we play in society, we know the impact that we played in America as a whole. And I think that what I'm voting for is what's always been known for forever. You know, I mean, like, nothing has changed. The only difference is that this knowledge is in the forefront of media. That's what it is like, everything has always been there. It's always been here, like it's always been in our faces as we drive, as we've seen a cop behind us, like as we speak, everything – it's always been there! Like it's never changed, you know?
So I think when I say I'm voting, I'm voting for equal rights now, and we've been saying that since civil rights, like me and Tajh were part of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated that was founded on civil rights. Right. And that's what our founder stood for, point blank period. So we've been fighting for this for so long. I think now, just, like it's good to see everyone come together. And I'm not talking about just race and being black. I'm saying, I seen this perfect picture in a post on Instagram, it's not black versus white, is this colour versus racism? You know what I'm saying, I think it's not a black and white thing, it's everybody versus racism. That's what it is. That's what I'm voting for.
DANNY: Do you both think that voting will lead to any tangible difference? Or is it mass protests in the street and kind of the power of people in the faces of racists essentially, that will kind of make actual change? Can it come from the bottom up? Or does it have to come from the top down?
ARCHIE: I even had to tell myself this because when everything first started, I had to educate myself – I think that the most important thing is educate yourself, educate yourself on what's going on. And now the lines back to voting. And I'm gonna bring up a perfect example. Right? I told Tajh this yesterday. This is how they suppress our votes, this is a perfect example of how they suppress our votes. So if I've been an active voter since I was 18 years old – I'm 30 years old now. I am 30 years old, I've been active, I've been voting since I was 18. My mom don't play with that, like my mom, she's very pro-black and like, ‘yo, you're gonna exercise your right to vote’ since I was 18. So I even voted since I was 18 for our mayor, the mayor's election for Keisha, who is our mayor [laughs].
But when I went to the poll yesterday, they said I wasn't registered to vote. And I was just like, wait, what, like how? So I went to voter.org, just to check and make sure. And I literally wasn't registered to vote. Somehow, I got kicked out the system. So I say this story to say that, also just to educate people that may be listening or will be listening to that, ‘hey, like, please make sure that you're registered to vote, even though you may think you're registered to vote’, because they are doing this to keep us from voting and keep our votes from not counting, point blank period. Like, I've never had this happen before. And why all of a sudden now, for someone that boasts every election is the most important election of everything, that all of a sudden I'm not able to vote? Like, that's crazy to me. You know what I'm saying, like, that's crazy to me, that tells you how much voting matters, because we can probably say we can protest, like everything that we do matters, like everything is a part of the strategy, right? To get our point across, to get the change across.
I said a couple days ago, like, just because you don't think it works, does not mean it's not working. I'm not a supporter of looting and rioting. But everything plays a role in the advancement of making a change, right? From protesting, to the looting, to the backrooms, to having been in Congress, to being in the local two elections like, and we've been taught that the local elections don't matter.
But honestly, I feel like the local elections matter as much as the presidential election in the Senate in Congress, because those individuals that are taking care of those cases for you on the lower end, to push it up. And if you have the low, and you have somebody at the top it kind of goes together like this. They can have a stronger impact together, because they're working together.
DANNY: I guess as two black business owners, have you faced – or how have you faced specific discrimination or challenges? You know, if you look at startup funding, and we have, I mean, it's just abhorrent, the kind of divide between who gets venture capital and who doesn't, in terms of your background and your race.
ARCHIE: We haven't like directly faced those, but I think you can't really answer that like fully because it's like, the systems have already been put in place. So just like, you never know how that's hurting you, which I'm sure it will be, because even from a fashion – a high-end fashion standpoint – I was just talking to my peers yesterday about how it's hard to be recognised as a high-end fashion brand in these high-end magazines because they really don't want us there. If you look at it like PR mobs or if you're a guy like these brands are able to be in it because they have built the credibility through their celebrity influencers and things like that, they have a back up their brand, right. And I think, of course, that goes for every brand and things of that nature. But I think it's a little harder. We are a dope brand and reach out. It's just like anytime I say, ‘Hey, man, I work with brands’, but at the same time, it's just like, there may be a little bias in the sense of like, hey, they may be a black brand.
We don't know, we don't know what they're thinking. Because if you're working, if you're trying to reach out to a company like ‘oh they may be fully white’, you never know what the conversations are on the flip side of things. To answer your question, I think that we haven't dealt with that. But I think that the mindset is already there. So when you're working through, you're working through that you're pushing against the envelope because they're already like, you know, they have the system in place. That's already what they think in their minds just from how they work and how they move, that it may be harder, but at the same time, we have systems in play for us, they kind of help us navigate that. Because at the end of the day, if you have financial backing, it's easier to push your narrative, like you really don't need to have the individual because now you have the money to back it, right? So when you have the money to back it, money speaks honestly, if you think about it in America – money speaks more than race when you have money, money talks, you know what I'm saying, but if you don't have as much money it might be tough.
It's difficult to answer that question, because it's just like, I think the systems have already been in place for us. White Fashion Week, they don't want us there, create our own fashion week. You know, it's unfortunate that we had to do that, you know, I mean, but at the same time, it's just like now, now that you look at all – that's why it's important for me, like even other brands, other magazines, they have been reaching out to us now. And I love it. But at the same time, I always say this, like it needs to be organic, it needs to be organic, it needs to be something where it's not done, because everybody's doing it.
TAJH: We're hoping that it's not a temporary thing, or just like you said, it's a ten-minute conversation. And then next week it blows over. We have been getting a lot of people reaching out to us, and they're gonna allow us to explain it, how we feel and tell our story. And yeah, we feel it needs to be heard at the same time. Because, yes, you might just open up your platform, some people might be genuine enough to just talk to us and try to figure out and educate themselves on what's going on. So they reach out to different individuals to just speak to him again, gain that knowledge, you have those and I love that. But then you have the ones that's just, you know, ‘Hey, I know what's going on in this moment, let's just reach out to these black-owned companies and try to just show that we're doing something so we won't get backlash’. If we see that, it’s not genuine and that, yeah, that's a red flag. But at the same time, we're gonna get our story out and you're gonna, if you want to hear it, we're going to tell you exactly how we’re feeling. And we're going to explain what we're going through at these moments, you know what I'm saying?
Even if you push it out or not, if you hear it, it might change your perspective of it. You know what I'm saying, going forward. So I hope everything is genuine that's coming towards us now. Because at first, when we first started, there's a lot of people we did reach out to that told us ‘No’ – they closed their door on us and did not really give us opportunity. But then they see us full circle, that we're flourishing, and we're doing everything we said we were gonna do, and then they see our product is A1 quality, then they're quick to reach back out to us. And they say, ‘hey, yeah, I see that you reach out to us and da-da-da-da’, but it's just like, where was that same energy when we was just starting up and trying to, you know, build something from scratch that we really have no backing? It was just me and Archie, every cent out of our pocket. Then, we were just asking for not even a handout or anything, just a pat on the back or just a like, hey, a conversation. That's it.
It's fortunate now that it took some of these companies to notice us, because of what's going on, but before this was going on, a lot of companies was reaching out to us before the whole George Floyd protests and everything like that. But now we're starting to see a lot more companies come to these black-owned brands and trying to figure out and educate their company as well by speaking to black-owned companies.
DANNY: Archie Clay the third and Tajh Crutch, they're from WearBrims in Atlanta. And that's it this week. As always, if you've got any questions, comments or feedback about anything at all, just reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Daniel Giacopelli. The Courier Weekly is back again next week.