The digital landscape continues to evolve with new innovative ways of marketing, advertising and branding for businesses. While Black business owners’ imitable creativity marks them as trendsetters in their respective markets, lack of access to essential digital tools keeps them a few steps behind when it comes to their businesses’ online presence. To improve that, the Fifteen Percent Pledge and Google Shopping have recently joined forces for a two-year partnership to help place Black entrepreneurs ahead of the curve.

The Fifteen Percent Pledge, founded by fashion designer Aurora James in June 2020, is a nonprofit that pushes for major retailers to pledge 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. As Google Shopping is committed to Black businesses within its own company mission, the tech giant is now backing the organization in its Business Equity Community — an online, networking platform that will provide Black business owners access to digital tools, training and workshops.

The online database will connect more than 1,200 Black-owned small businesses with retailers that have committed to the Pledge including Nordstrom, Sephora and Macy’s Inc., according to a press release provided to AfroTech.

“One of our key initiatives here at Google Shopping really is to commit to supporting Black-owned businesses and helping them, especially on the merchant side to make it easier for people to find their businesses,” Google Shopping director of marketing Stephanie Horton told AfroTech. “For us, [the Fifteen Percent Pledge] just seemed like a perfect match and a great synergy of missions.”

Horton spoke with AfroTech about the Fifteen Percent Pledge partnership, Google’s digital training for Black entrepreneurs and inspiring other big partners to join the movement.

Editorial note: Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.

AfroTech: What does the moment of this Fifteen Percent Pledge and Google Shopping partnership personally mean to you?

Stephanie Horton: For me, it’s a bit of a personal passion with everything that’s going on. Back in the day, my dad actually had a side hustle as a small business owner. I think just seeing him work and kind of not have all the resources that he could’ve had to grow was really important. 

When Aurora started the Fifteen Percent Pledge, it was always interesting to me. And coming over to Google and really looking at what our initiatives were and our focus on really wanting people to have the opportunity to shop Black businesses, but also giving Black businesses the opportunity to grow and have the skills and tools they need to be able to actually supply to all of these big retailers. When we dove a little deeper into everything they were doing, we thought it could be a really great partnership to help a lot of the businesses in their database to be able to connect with larger retailers and really understand the digital space so they have the tools to grow.

AfroTech: How did communication first begin between Aurora James and the Google Shopping team about the partnership?

Stephanie Horton: In my past life I worked at Vogue and lots of different fashion retail places, so I had a relationship with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Aurora. I was in constant communication with someone from her team that I also worked with in previous days who reached out and were like, “This is kind of where we are now,” and it was interesting because they were at a crossroads. I think they had been at it for a little over a year. They started to build these great merchants. They had this amazing database. But, they were like we really want to be able to provide things to really help them. And, in talking to her, “I was like we’re kind of in the position to help you do that.”

Again, as one of our key initiatives here at Google Shopping, it really is to commit to supporting Black-owned businesses and helping them, especially on the merchant side to make it easier for people to find their businesses. For us, it just seemed like a perfect match and a great synergy of missions. 

AfroTech: There are many initiatives that champion Black-owned businesses, but what was the driving factor behind Google Shopping backing the Fifteen Percent Pledge?

Stephanie Horton: I think the whole mission behind this Pledge is to get these businesses on the shelves of major retailers. I think in order to do that though, they need to have the infrastructure. One of the main problems, especially with a small business, is that your supply chain can get stunted. You might not have the funds to really understand how to get to that place. You might not have the digital tools necessary to integrate with bigger retailers.

I think that Aurora and the team have set up an amazing infrastructure to have the opportunity available to have shelf space at these great brands, but if you don’t have the tools and tips on your end and the knowledge and the training to really get it done, the opportunity sort of passes you by. I think for us, it was a great opportunity to really help those young and small merchants be able to take advantage of this great opportunity to the fullest of their potential.

AfroTech: Google's training for the program focuses on helping Black entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Does the program also offer training for them to learn how to keep their businesses on track after the two-year partnership ends?

Stephanie Horton: Yes, we’re really looking at this progressively so it’s not just a one and done. The first series of training is focused on helping businesses reach more customers. The instructor will teach businesses how Google search works, which is really important. Sometimes it can seem easy, but it’s good to really understand. And, the ways people might find their businesses online. We’ll also walk them through the latest tools and search engine optimization, strategies for building an online presence and engaging more customers in Google.

The second training will progress to more so retention and sustainability of business. And then there will be the third training. It’s kind of a progressive approach that we’re taking. So, the first is online basics and making sure that you’re discoverable and that you’re optimizing the use of how to drive traffic to your website. And, then we’ll progressively go toward ‘How do you sustain?’

AfroTech: As the director of marketing for Google Shopping, what do you believe are key things a business needs to do to standout online?

Stephanie Horton: I think for sure a distinct point of view and understanding of what you’re trying to offer to the customer is important. The second one is a strong customer value proposition. Why do I need this from you? And, really being able to communicate in a clear and strong way to consumers is really important. I think really understanding your supply chain and distribution channel so that’s why I think that the Fifteen Percent Pledge is so important because it really ties back to helping distribution. I think that’s another reason why we support and love Fifteen Percent Pledge because it’s giving people the opportunity to have distribution, which obviously causes instant awareness.

AfroTech: While Google Shopping is a part of the call to action for more eyes to be on Black businesses, how does the platform hope to inspire similar big partners to join such a movement?

Stephanie Horton: I think that Black businesses are obviously important. I think that George Floyd and the whole movement behind that really sparked that, but I think it’s really being able to go a little bit deeper and let people shop their values. People should be able to shop whatever they want in the way they want it and I think that’s what Google is really good at. We saw searches for Black-owned businesses increase by 600% [in June 2020]. So, it’s obviously a place where people are interested, and not just Black people, but all people are interested in supporting these businesses.

It’s not just targeting a Black audience, but that everyone wants to help and support and everyone’s help and support across the board — women, Latinx, Black. So, I think for me, hopefully, that with Google kind of leading this charge across a lot of different mediums, here we can inspire other people to understand that and want to do the same.