How Black Lives Matter could be a catalyst for change in the fashion industry

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All companies are in favour of more Diversity & Inclusion, in theory. But in reality, many businesses are struggling to turn theory into practice. In this series of articles, we focus on inspiring practical examples.

Episode 5: Historically, the fashion industry has not attracted enough BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) talent. Tapestry saw an opportunity to drive and effect meaningful change in this industry. 

Tapestries are often the work of many hands. The most famous tapestry of them all, the 70-meter-long masterpiece at Bayeux, was woven into life by dozens of workers over many months nearly 1000 years ago! 

So, when iconic New York fashion brands Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman joined forces to form Tapestry in 2017, the name was more than a nod to the textile industry. It also spoke to the power of diversity and collaboration and the strength people draw from working alongside people of contrasting backgrounds and life experiences. 

It’s a compelling brand message — but how does it stand up in the real world?  

The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement of 2020 was a reality check for many U.S. companies, whose diversity and inclusion policies now had to grapple with a society-wide rise in consciousness around racial equality and the legacies of slavery. As progressive as it was, Tapestry had to recognise that BLM was challenging the diversity status quo and that the company needed to adapt. 

“The fashion industry has traditionally been exclusive and Eurocentric in nature,” says Carmen Arocho-Blanco, who joined Tapestry as Senior Director, Equity Inclusion & Diversity, in December 2020. “Historically, the industry has not attracted enough BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) talent and Tapestry saw an opportunity to drive and effect meaningful change in the fashion industry.” 

Arocho-Blanco’s background is in tech, a sector known for gender imbalance, with men tending to dominate at most levels. She points out that Tapestry, by contrast, has a good record of women in leadership, including the CEO role and in their board composition. However, there is significant opportunity to improve BIPOC representation at the leadership level.

Listening and learning

How do you start to address these imbalances? The first step, says Arocho-Blanco, is to listen to employees, a process that had already begun at Tapestry before she joined the company. Several employee resource groups were formed to serve the Black, LGBTQ+ and other historically marginalised communities, as well as working parents and caregivers. In addition, Tapestry published its diversity goals, with a commitment to increase the ethnic diversity of its North America-based leaders to better reflect the general corporate population by 2025.  

What was lacking was a formal, operationalised diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) strategy to drive meaningful and sustainable change towards those goals. “We just knew that it was the right thing to do,” Arocho-Blanco says. “We're a people-centered company, and we needed to show up for our people. But when I walked in, I was very clear with stakeholders that we weren't going to 'solve' racism or sexism. This is a business strategy predicated on driving change. And it needs to be sustainable and scalable so that we can keep making progress regardless of whether BLM or other movements are in the headlines. If we're only chasing an issue because everyone else is chasing it, that's just being performative. And our stakeholders, be they employees, consumers, or investors, hold us to high standards, which is a value we take very seriously." 

The four pillars of diversity

Arocho-Blanco breaks down Tapestry's DE&I strategy into four main pillars: talent, culture, community, and the marketplace. To achieve its goals, the company needed to place diversity and inclusion at the heart of all these areas — and identify the hidden and often long-standing barriers that might hinder that process. Accomplishing this meant putting people first. 

"We started on an engagement journey via the expansion of our employee resource groups," explains Arocho-Blanco. "We also set up an inclusion council that was open to anyone in the organisation, from store associates to senior vice presidents. And because different markets have different DE&I challenges, we expanded these councils into Europe and Asia." 

The listening strategy continued through sessions known as "Be Heard." These were forums where members or allies of a community could talk about what they were experiencing, including anything from physical threats (2020 also saw a spike in anti-Asian and anti-Jewish hate crimes) to the kind of microaggressions that all too often go unchecked. 

Out of these sessions emerged four task forces made up of employees who wanted to drive action during a time of need for the different communities they represent. The Jewish Employee & Allies task force introduced Tapestry to the American Society for Yad Vashem. Through a partnership facilitated by The Coach Foundation, this task force had the great privilege of hosting Toby Levy, who shared her personal and powerful story of surviving the Holocaust and how courageous conversations are the first step to fighting hate. Similarly, the Asian Heritage task force, which has since evolved into the newest Employee Resource Group, delivered a powerful session on dispelling the model minority myth in partnership with Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Leading by example

Inclusion councils and task forces are essential tools. But by themselves, they don't help members of historically marginalised and underrepresented communities get promoted. Tapestry knows that it needs more ethnic and racial diversity at its senior levels, and to accomplish that, it has implemented leadership financial incentives to drive change. "We've tied 10% of our executive compensation to DE&I measures," says Arocho-Blanco. "These measures are all behavior-based, so we're not giving people quantitative targets or quotas. Instead, we're rewarding leaders for behaviors such as expanding their networks, participating in diversity events, and widening the talent pool to encourage applications from BIPOC." 

In addition, Tapestry has implemented a policy so that most jobs at senior manager level and above are posted, allowing all qualified employees to apply. This is designed to address the “you’re next” problem, whereby current employees get promoted via a tap on the shoulder – a process that tends to bake bias and other imbalances into the system. Now, even if you're on a team and think you're ready for that promotion, you still have to compete for it and the job opening is transparent and visible to all.

Rising to the moment

As the only Latina in the room at many organisations throughout the early stages of her career, Arocho-Blanco knows from experience that sustainable and (to use her term) non-performative change takes time. Eventually, Tapestry will achieve greater diversity at the vice president and C-suite level and has already made great strides with our Board of Directors who are 40% BIPOC and 50% female.  It is also focused on improving the pipeline across the company’s more junior levels giving members of underrepresented communities the support and resources they need to move up.  

One thing that's not an option is turning back the clock. Cable news channels may have moved on from George Floyd and BLM, but the communities from which these movements sprung have not. "We have to rise to the moment," says Arocho-Blanco. "We cannot possibly address every issue that exists everywhere. But by holding people accountable and leading with our values, we can, as we say at Tapestry, stretch what's possible. We are committed to creating spaces which welcome people and ideas from everywhere because we believe that difference sparks brilliance and that will make our company and our industry stronger.”      

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