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BRAG Battles Retail’s Glass Ceiling

Just a handful of African-Americans have risen above the senior vice president level in the retail industry.

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From its modest digs on East 131st Street in Harlem, where there’s just one full-timer and no sign on the front door, the Black Retail Action Group takes on a major mission — promoting diversity in retail.


“I’ve said it many times before, but room needs to be made at the table where decisions are made for people of color,” Gary L. Lampley, president of BRAG, said during an interview. “This will allow for all points of view to be considered and will most likely allow for new business opportunities to open up.”

Simply put, Lampley believes inclusion in the ranks of retailing leads to better business decisions and bigger revenues, including more effectively targeting the African-American market, which is expected to exceed $1.1 trillion by 2012. There’s still a thick glass ceiling in retailing, where just a handful of African-Americans have risen above the senior vice president level. Among the few exceptions: Theo Killion at Zale Corp.; Patrick Robinson at Gap; Sheri Wilson Gray, formerly of Saks Fifth Avenue; Aylwin Lewis, formerly of Sears; David Brown of Urban Brands, and Delena M. Sunday at Nordstrom.

“Whoever coined that term ‘post-racial’ was a little premature,” Lampley said. “There is still a lot of work to do. We continue to advocate for equality and inclusion. We keep it front of retailers all of the time.”

But not in a vociferous way. Rather than rattling corporate America, the BRAG organization, led by the eloquent Lampley, whose president’s position is a volunteer role, has several initiatives geared to help people of color reach their potential in retail and related industries, from the ground up. BRAG runs an internship program, an executive development program, stages seminars, and organizes college campus clubs and fund-raising events that spotlight the cause.

At the BRAG office, Nathifa Blake, the administrative assistant and only full-timer, and Lampley are surrounded by boxes filled with donations for the goody bags and silent auction for BRAG’s annual scholarship and awards gala at Cipriani Wall Street this Friday night. It’s a special night, celebrating the organization’s 40th anniversary. About 500 people are expected to attend the event, where Delena Sunday, Nordstrom’s executive vice president of human resources and diversity affairs, as well as Tommy Hilfiger and Larry H. Barkley, senior vice president of retail at Tourneau, will be honored with BRAG’s business achievement award. Cookie Johnson, co-founder of CJ by Cookie Johnson, will receive the business innovators award, and Essence Magazine will receive BRAG’s corporate award. Model Tyson Beckford will get a special recognition award.

“On Friday, we’ll award 11 scholarships to students from Thurgood Marshall Academy,” Lampley added.

To date, BRAG has awarded more than 350 scholarships totaling more than $300,000. Friday’s fund-raiser also supports summer internships for college students who have finished their junior year. Already, about 1,000 students have been interns. “It’s a wonderful professional work experience,” Lampley said. “They’re not getting coffee. Absolutely not….If you do well, you leave with an offer” for a job, Lampley said. Eighty to 85 percent of the BRAG interns have received jobs, he noted.

“Many of the interns have gone through Bloomingdale’s training program to become buyers as well as executives,” observed Nicole Cokley, Bloomingdale’s operating vice president of diversity and community relations, and a member of the BRAG board, which meets monthly. “In 1977, when Marvin Traub was president of Bloomingdale’s, he received the BRAG corporate award, and I was a BRAG intern. BRAG has become a resource for students of color, including those who have not had an interest in the industry, by exposing them to opportunities through internships and mentorship.”

Asked to comment on Bloomingdale’s track record for inclusion, Cokley replied, “Attracting and retaining diverse talent continues to be an opportunity and area of focus for Bloomingdale’s.” BRAG also organizes student clubs at colleges and universities to provide mentoring and networking opportunities and job leads. There are BRAG chapters at the Fashion Institute of Technology, The Laboratory Institute of Merchandising, Ohio State University, The Terry Lundgren School of Retail at the University of Arizona, and Howard University, where Lampley is a visiting lecturer in the art department. He was involved in BRAG for about 20 years before becoming president in 2008. BRAG was founded in 1970 as an outgrowth of a similar organization, the National Negro Retail Advisory Group, which folded, though some in the group felt the vision should be kept alive, and went on to form the Black Retail Action Group. Selling retailing as a career to young people is not easy, Lampley acknowledged. It’s not a glamour profession, he added. “There is no doubt that many students remain neutral about pursuing a career in retailing for reasons as varied as lack of advancement, long work days and poor salaries,” Lampley said. “However, over the past few years, retailers have been tackling this issue, and they are becoming more focused on staff development and training.” Andrea Hoffman, founder and ceo of Diversity Affluence, a company that helps businesses market to affluent ethnic consumers, agreed that some headway has been made with inclusion, yet not enough. “I think a lot of brands are doing well on the sales level, in retail store management and maybe in human resources,” Hoffman said. “Personally, I have not seen much in top management. A lot of these companies are missing the boat on what exceptional talent is out there. You will have a more global perspective. Think global and act local. Your people need to reflect your consumers.”

BRAG’s executive development program consists of a series of interactive workshops where individuals, at any stage of their career, identify and devise plans to break through barriers by evaluating their true value to their company, or their “personal brand.” The workshops are also geared to help corporations create better work environments.

BRAG’s mission is growing. “We are very interested in getting involved with bringing back production to the U.S. and creating new business opportunities around this topic. There is a real void in the marketplace as it relates to multicultural designers,” Lampley said. He also said that he wants BRAG to become more involved in Harlem “so that we enhance the community…We have already begun to contribute to the overall quality of life in this community.”

Lampley believes that BRAG has been “the best kept secret in the industry. We were formed to be a grassroots organization. All too often, cause-related organizations are delicate, and the dream that established them can not guarantee their continued success. But BRAG’s 40 years of survival epitomizes success. We remain diligent in our pledge to advocate for equity and inclusion.”

 

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