By  on October 23, 2012

NEW YORK — A message of inclusion reverberated through the Black Retail Action Group Annual Scholarship and Awards Dinner at the Chelsea Piers on Friday, where five individuals were honored for “breaking barriers” while many in the crowd of 400 said career opportunities are still often closed to people of color — and that’s bad for business.

Diversity in the ranks of retailing leads to better decisions and bigger revenues, including more effectively targeting the African-American market, which is expected to exceed $1.2 trillion this year.

“There is a big opportunity for us to reach out and recruit more,” said Tim Belk, chairman and chief executive officer of Belk Inc., who received BRAG’s Business Achievement Award. “Every year, the markets we serve are getting more diverse, so we have to work harder to stay in touch. We want to increase the pipeline for African-Americans going into retail and moving up.”

Belk, the Charlotte, N.C.-based department store chain, supports BRAG’s efforts by sponsoring scholarships and providing internships and, according to its ceo, has been stepping up its hiring of people of color in a range of jobs. “We really believe in the cause BRAG stands for,” Belk said.

“This industry has a lot of room for improvement,” observed Fern Mallis, the fashion consultant and former head of IMG’s New York Fashion Week, which she acknowledged continues to get heat for its paucity of black models on the runways. Mallis also received BRAG’s achievement award and marked the occasion by wearing a Tracy Reese sequined paisley top.

Susan Akkad, senior vice president for local and cultural relevancy at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., received the business achievement award, and June Ambrose, celebrity stylist, received the J.J. Thomas Business Innovators Award. In addition, 31 winners of BRAG scholarships were honored onstage.

Beverly Johnson, who in 1974 became the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue, received BRAG’s Special Recognition Award. She’s since become an actress and entrepreneur. Before modeling, she was on an all-black swim team and recalled being barred from certain locker rooms. On occasion, she saw pools suspiciously being drained after her team competed, hardly the usual procedure for maintenance. Asked how she sidestepped racial barriers on the path to success, Johnson said simply, “I don’t know. I was just there. Ninety-five percent of everything is just showing up.”

Edward Wilkerson, designer director for Lafayette 148, would agree. While attending the High School of Art and Design, he showed up at scores of Garment District showrooms seeking a job, until finally he got one in the design studio of Anne Klein. “If you really want it, no door is closed,” Wilkerson said.

“I think there are still barriers,” added jewelry designer Elma Blint. “You have to have a certain level of confidence when you are African-American, and you have to always prove yourself. Financing, too, is a major issue in starting a business. If you’re African-American, it’s hard as hell.”

“I am committed to BRAG,” said Gail Monroe-Perry, who has just embarked on her second stint as the group’s president. She succeeded Gary Lampley last summer and previously served from spring 2004 to spring 2008. The nonprofit organization, which is run by volunteers and supported by retail and retail-related companies, works to promote the advancement of people of color in the industry through an internship program, an executive-development program, seminars, college campus clubs and fund-raising events that spotlight the mission and provide scholarships. Friday’s gala raised about $350,000.

As president, Monroe-Perry is the top volunteer and apt to spend evenings and weekends on the cause, since she’s also got a paying job as senior director of talent acquisition at Warnaco Group Inc. Busy schedule notwithstanding, she seems determined to bring change to the group and noted that she’s bringing “SWOT” — a strategic-planning method that involves evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to a business or organization — to the table.

“We have to be very clear about the ‘value add’ to the members of BRAG, the community and our business partners,” Monroe-Perry said in an interview. While volunteerism keeps the organization moving, Monroe-Perry expressed the need to hire a full-time executive director, with a team underneath, to further pump it up, which would require intensified fund-raising.

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