A Note to Our Business Community

Lela Barker

SPEAKING UP FOR JUSTICE AS LEADERS + BUSINESS OWNERS

While racial justice has been smoldering for years, the reality of our current situation has suddenly rocketed into the psyche of many Americans. Much of the last month’s screen time in America was dedicated to videos showing the use of unjustified force against black bodies, resulting in a series of horrifying deaths in Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota. The fruits of those injustices have now delivered mass protests in virtually every state, some of which have ended in property damage, looting, and more indefensible videos of aggressive police force against peaceful protesters.

Racial inequality is now front and center in America, and I have a feeling that we’re in for a long, painful summer after the excruciatingly long spring we just endured. As cities burned and communities wept over the weekend, conversations began swirling about how heavy hearts are in this moment in the Think Tank (my mastermind for product-based brand owners).  I’m thankful to Jessica Lisane for igniting a conversation that unleashed a stream of “I want to be helpful, but I don’t know how to respond as a business” responses. That was the springboard for our current huddle about how to respond as ethically-driven business owners. What’s appropriate to say? Is it okay to market our products during a national crisis? How can we best express our support?

NEUTRALITY ISN’T REALLY NEUTRAL

This issue lies at the intersection of personal beliefs and business principles, which is an uncomfortable intersection for many entrepreneurs. While corporate brands often prefer to remain apolitical because their customer bases are vast and diverse, niche businesses don’t usually have the luxury of political distance. We’re closer to our communities and personally connected to our audiences. Those audiences are more tightly curated, and they’re often shopping with us precisely because they want to “vote with their dollars.” So while Amazon or Cocoa-Cola may get to remain “neutral” at this moment- you probably don’t. Not without consequences anyway.

Many clients have asked for guidance in crafting communications that effectively share their company stance on racial justice. I admit to some degree of discomfort with that ask. Why? My longstanding passion for racial justice is hard to cast aside, and it strongly flavors my personal perspective. Also, as a white woman of European lineage, leading a community as they navigate the racial divide feels awkward because I’m a tad ill-equipped in this arena. So what do we do next as business owners? I’m not sure, because I’m still figuring that out for myself. I regret that I don’t have all the answers, but these are the things I’m asking them to consider as they navigate the current crisis.

TAKING A STAND WITH CONVICTION + AUTHENTICITY

Every small business owner must decide if they’ll address the issue of racial injustice. That decision will be influenced by the composition of your audience, how strongly you’re committed to equality, and how closely your business is impacted or tied to this issue. One thing to keep in mind: people are closely monitoring who ISN’T speaking up, and many will be making future purchasing decisions based on that. While silence is typically the most comfortable option, it will likely have consequences in this season. If you want your business to be seen as a leader, then you don’t have the comfort of neutrality in this season.

But throwing up a “Black Lives Matter” graphic on your Instagram because it’s suddenly in fashion isn’t wise either. Tossing $25 to a justice-focused nonprofit is only mildly helpful. None of us should be doing that to check a mental box that says, “Good, we did our part. I addressed that.” That’s not enough. Be mindful of any actions that could be construed as grandstanding, bandwagon riding, or opportunistic. If you speak up, speak boldly without diluting your message to pacify others.

And proceed with extreme caution when monetizing products that play off of racial justice narratives. Criticism of pride-aligned products created by opportunistic corporations is abundant these days, and I expect that disenchanted consumers will soon close the feedback loop with businesses looking to cash in on the racial justice “trend.”

Whenever human tragedies are unfolding, I recommend that we slow our marketing roll. While there’s no expectation that we’ll pause marketing efforts altogether, it’s best to balance product pushes with communications that speak to the realities of our current events. I recognize that 2020 has been one shitshow after another, and at some point, we have to make sales to keep our teams employed and our lights on. Nevertheless, I encourage you to be sensitive to the cadence and intensity of your marketing.

I’ve been doing a lot of listening, and what I’m hearing from minority communities that they’re craving acknowledgment, self-reflection, and tolerance– even when the methods being employed aren’t the first preference of the majority. We need to use our voices to boldly state our values and rally others to use their voices as well. But if the issues of uneven policing and systemic racism are new to you, then I recommend we not preach on them. Instead, double-down on your personal commitment to bringing yourself up to speed and speak from your heart.

Be bold in your assertions. Be humble, acknowledge what’s happening, and ask how you can be of service. Trust and believe: leaders in this area have thoughts on that, and they’re typically happy to share. But several of my friends have intimated with me that they’re emotionally exhausted and often feel stuck on “repeat.” Don’t be shocked if you’re handed a list of resources with a suggestion that you do some research yourself.

With that in mind, I’ve curated a list of resources designed to help widen our collective vision. I’m parking this list of racial justice resources in an unbranded Dropbox folder, and I encourage you to share if it with others who might be in search of a solid list of antiracism resources.

In the meantime, I encourage you to find your voice. Stay safe. Stay hopeful.

HOW ARE YOU SHOWING UP?

I’d love to hear how you’re showing up for racial justice as a business leader. If you’re struggling with where to start or what to say, let’s talk about that, too. You’re certainly not alone!

Have a book, Instagram account, or podcast that’s unlocked a new level of understanding for you? Please share! This list I’ve compiled is a living document, and I look forward to continuing to grow it.

About the Author

Lela Barker

Lela Barker hails from the deep-and-dirty south (ATL, represent!), where she spends her days helping makers and product designers navigate the pitfalls of product pricing, brand development, and wholesale strategy. She launched her apothecary brand in 2003 and bootstrapped the hell out of that little business to cultivate a portfolio of 1500+ stockists worldwide, generating $12million in revenue and establishing successful distributorships in the Middle East, EU, Scandinavia, and South Korea. Lela is the keeper of a well-worn passport and the maker of the finest lemon meringue pie you’ve ever put in your mouth.

4 responses on “A Note to Our Business Community

  1. Brandy Searcy

    Thank you for this post Lela and for the conversation you’ve started in our Facebook group. As a business owner I have been really struggling with how much to reveal of my personal beliefs in that business. This is something I’ve been struggling with for quite some time, and I really feel like the current national response has provided the seed to crystallize my decision. I have decided to speak more openly about my beliefs in my business.

  2. Jackie

    Lela thanks so much for such well articulated passion – I’m very thankful to be in this group albeit on the fringe at present. This list you’ve put together is powerful. I need to start work on this myself before passing it on. Thanks again!

  3. Melissa Gondek

    Powerful reminders, thank you. Living authentically means taking a stand on issues that affect us all. In this case for me, it has also meant a lot of listening and learning. Thank you for giving us resources, and more importantly, strong prods to keep showing up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *