It started with two middle-finger emojis.
Last June, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin, with three other Minneapolis police officers charged with aiding and abetting, shook America to its core. As protests formed and Black people everywhere grieved, the entire country was forced to open its eyes and ears to a common refrain that was being heard but not absorbed: Black lives matter.
As expected, the weak responses and lack of accountability from major brands and corporations sent their crisis managers flying, wondering what infographics needed to be designed and which organizations they could make a tax-deductible donation to so people would stop harassing their social-media managers and calling them racist in the comments. Many companies thought that was enough. All Sharon Chuter had was two middle fingers in response.
“I was really focused on the protest, only to come home every day to see brands do what they do best, releasing statements, making donations,” Chuter told me over the phone. “The last trigger for me was the Instagram pages that popped up, where it was actually people [chronicling] how much brands donated. ‘Oh, Fashion Nova donated one million, so they're good. This one donated two million, so they're good now.’ [A writer] reposted one of these things, and I commented on her post saying, ‘Here's what I think to the brands’: It was two middle fingers. I was like, ‘Here's what I think about these donations. How can you donate when you are part of the problem?’ That post was what made me snap.”
Chuter is the founder and CEO of groundbreaking beauty brand UOMA Beauty, which made headlines in 2019 with a 51-shade foundation range that accounted for skin type in addition to tone. In 2020, she won Refinery29’s Beauty Innovator of the Year award for her action-driven approach to representation in the beauty space. Chuter is also the founder of Pull Up For Change, a grassroots social-media campaign demanding that beauty brands disclose the number of Black employees working for them at the corporate level — crucial when you take into account that only 8% of people employed in white-collar careers are Black. The goal of #pullupforchange is to challenge brands to do more than make a donation and post a black square on Instagram by forcing them to examine their role in contributing to racial inequality and injustice.
“At that time, everybody was focused on donation as the benchmark as to what's a great company and what's not,” Chuter said. “That was really what triggered my frustration to the highest level to go, ‘Well, consumers, you're looking at this all wrong. Who gives a shit that they donated, right? You don't fucking kill me and then pay for my funeral.’”
After the middle fingers heard ‘round the world, Chuter had tunnel vision: It was time to hit those companies where it hurt. No one likes having people digging around in their business, but she had a shovel and was prepared to go deep. "I was so incensed at that point that I didn't care what I lost. I was just like, ‘This is bullshit that we're here focusing on corporate donations instead of things that are going to create long-term solutions,’” she said. “These guys are the root cause of a lot of these problems. If George Floyd was the CEO of Goldman Sachs, he wouldn't have been killed the way he was killed.”
Nobody should have to know a person is “important” in the eyes of society to think twice about the optics of what would happen if they died in their custody. But the lack of representation and actual enactable change wasn’t, and isn’t, acceptable. When we abolished segregation, it was only in the legal sense, not the economic sense, which is how topics like gentrification become such “hot button” issues. “Economics created racism, and we have to fix the economics if we are going to start to dismantle [racism],” Chuter said. So Pull Up For Change was born, starting with an Instagram post and becoming a movement.
As of this writing, over 70 brands have “pulled up” and participated in the challenge to report their percentages of Black representation, most within the month of June last year. Chuter pointed out that, behind the scenes, reactions to #pullupforchange were... a mixed bag. There were the companies angry with her, lashing out for holding up a mirror to what they weren’t willing to acknowledge — people wanting to scapegoat the Black woman who upset the white women by saying they’re wrong and not wanting to exist in their discomfort; the people thrilled someone was finally saying something; and then there were the companies that, well, did nothing, and found that their silence was deafeningly loud.
“I commend every single brand that pulled up. It took incredible courage to actually do that, and that's always the first step to success,” Chuter told me. “We had brands literally say, ‘l have no Black employees.’ You're going to get dragged, you're going to probably have to turn off your comments on Instagram, but they did that anyway. And that takes courage, and that takes conviction.”
So we asked some of the early participants of #pullupforchange how their companies have evolved in the past year, and what they’re doing to move forward.
Amanda E. Johnson, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer, Mented Cosmetics
“What Pull Up For Change did for us is make it that much clearer what we needed to stand for, and how we needed to get what we were already doing out there," Johnson said. "Last spring during all of the social unrest, even before Pull Up For Change, we donated a percent of proceeds to Chicago Community Bond Fund, Therapy Fund for Black Women and Girls, Restoring Justice, and The Liberty Fund.”
Johnson said that Mented was an early advocate for the campaign: “We also posted our staff members, board members, and percentages to highlight Mented numbers, and those haven't changed. We are still a very diverse company and board, especially compared to other brands. Our board right now is 100% women, 66% Black. I mean, I guess it's the age-old, ‘We're not new to this, we're true to this.’ And so we were able to easily get onto what Sharon was talking about because that's who we are.”
Mented is looking to bring on more board members, with the goal of creating an inclusive, diverse lineup of people. Johnson’s focus is on the retailers, too. “When we talk to our retailers — we're in Target, we're on HSN, we're in Ulta — we ask who else is participating," she said. "We are mindful that we are often the only ones, but we don't want to be the only ones forever. I would say Target and Ulta have stepped up in a major way over the last year.” Ulta recently announced its participation in Aurora James’s 15 Percent Pledge, which asks major corporations and retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. “These brands can do whatever they want, but the minute a retailer demands it, the brand will change,” Johnson explained.
True inclusivity runs so much deeper, and Johnson wants to go so far as to examine who is sourcing the products, creating them, purchasing them, and everything in between. Next, she’s hoping to see a five-year plan from retailers detailing how they plan to move forward with the highest demands from customers: “clean” ingredients, diversity, and inclusion. “I think brands should be held accountable in their supply chain, in the retailers, in their boardrooms and management,” Johnson said. “To me, all of those things are equally important because all of those places are where we've been excluding people and allowing for missed opportunities. And I wouldn't put one of those higher than any other.”
Sheena Yaitanes, Founder, Kosas
“Part of what made the Pull Up for Change campaign so impactful is that it compelled companies, including our own, to be held to account for its shortcomings when it comes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” Yaitanes said in a statement. “While we are proud of key steps we have taken to improve on our shortcomings — working toward ensuring our shade ranges are inclusive, diversifying our partnerships with creators, and collaborating with Black Beauty Roster's makeup artist community — it is clear that it will take longer than a single year to achieve true equity. We are, however, fully committed to achieving this goal and will continue to be transparent in making our customers, team, and the beauty world aware of our successes and failures.”
Drew Elliott, Global Creative Director, MAC Cosmetics
“Fighting systemic racism is a long-term journey. Last year was about taking an introspective look at ourselves and the areas we could improve on as a brand,” Elliott told me via email. “Now that we’ve laid out the foundation of our commitments, we will continue to build on those efforts, and already have a series of new initiatives in the pipeline for the remainder of 2021.”
Per Elliott, those initiatives include: working to ensure MAC’s workforce better reflects the racial demographics of the United States; increasing racial parity across all levels via partnerships and Howard University’s 21st Century Advantage Program, a professional development program for business students; providing resources to advance racial equity with support and partnerships with Women of Color on Broadway, The Links, Incorporated, Boys and Girls Club of Harlem, and Sigma Gamma Rho; internal advocacy by improving diversity training programs based on ongoing employee feedback, required unconscious bias training, and the formation of the M·A·C Melanin Beauty Collective, a taskforce of Black M·A·C Artists to advise and educate the brand about Black beauty, as well as the M·A·C Movement, an internal advisory board to mobilize employees around commitments to racial equity and advise the brand on injustice issues; partnering with leading Black creatives and faces in the brand’s campaigns; and working to make MAC products accessible to all skin tones — and that’s just in the US alone.
“Offering a more diverse shade range or featuring diverse faces in campaigns is a step in the right direction, but brands also need to put in the work internally and externally,” Elliott said. “People at the counter need training on how to service people of all skin tones. We need diverse points of view at the table when developing products and campaigns. We need to stand up and be an ally when we are called upon, and sometimes when we are not.”
Representatives for Anastasia Beverly Hills, ColourPop, Milk Makeup, and Huda Beauty were contacted for this story, but did not respond in time for publication or did not have additional comment.
So, what’s next for Pull Up For Change? The organization will continue to advocate for transparency, because that is the core the initiative is built on and it remains a critical mission. What’s different is that now, it’s going to make the private insights public. “We sent about 600 companies a template to capture their data, because last year was crazy. Everybody was capturing it in different ways,” Chuter said. “We now want to move into not just collecting for the sake of collecting, but aggregating useful data.”
That’s right: Chuter and Pull Up For Change are coming for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOC). The EOC is problematic because, by all accounts, it should be doing what Pull Up For Change is doing, but it’s massively outdated and easy to misreport. Every company with more than a hundred employees is legally obligated to report their employee breakdown, and that’s not even touching on race. The racial classifications are beyond insufficient: Native Americans are still referred to as American Indians, and there’s no category for people of Middle Eastern descent.
“What we've done this time is take a more calculated approach — they fill one column and it gives them analysis like crazy,” Chuter explained. “We are helping them now see their entire pipeline, not just how many Black people have you employed on whatever level, which was the question last year. Now we're asking them: ‘Between last year and now, how many people have you hired in terms of your income and your new hires? What is your retention? What does your Black retention look like? What does your Black pipeline look like in terms of internships and early careers ’ to make sure that you're developing? What these guys are doing is just poaching the same people and creating musical chairs right now in the same circle.” The way Chuter sees it, that 8% of Black corporate employees cannot increase if brands are only hiring from the same pool. The goal is to release the data in July, where it will live on the Pull Up For Change website, constantly being refreshed and changed — just as we do as a culture.
Chuter wants to go beyond accountability and transparency, and move into being part of the solution. “I didn't just want to be holding people responsible, I wanted to truly be acting directly for change,” she said. As such, Pull Up For Change created a number of new programs: Hired, which is a program to connect employers with potential employees; the Pull Up For Change fellowship program, which works with top universities in the country to help get talented students into a career pipeline; and finally, Make It BLACK, Chuter’s work with fellow beauty brands to release limited-edition hero products in all-black product packaging, with 100% of net proceeds going to the Pull Up For Change Impact Fund, which provides capital and grants to Black-owned businesses and Black founders.
Chuter’s overarching mission is to create at least four black billionaires over the next 10 years. “That's my clear objective through our program and our initiatives because we need that,” she said. (The funds raised from Make It BLACK will be used in an upcoming pitch competition for Black founders — more to come on that later.)
I don't do this for the accolades. I don't do this for the pat on the back. I do this because I need to get my community working.
At this point in our conversation, I found myself overwhelmed with tears and emotion, because Chuter is so passionate and vocal and I am a Cancer with a gentle tear reflex. Chuter is doing all the work we want to be doing, and does it for the good of the world. “I don't do this for the accolades. I don't do this for the pat on the back. I do this because like I said, I need to get my community working," she said. "I need to get them paid. I need to get our quality of life to level up. And that's what I spend my time doing — I'm not running my business.” She’s blunt, she’s forthcoming, and she’s 100% not here for your performative bullshit. As someone with a personal “Racists To Avoid At All Costs” Gmail filter that I use to hide professional contacts who have disregarded my Blackness in favor of their own personal comfort and professional access, she’s a shark to my baby fish.
Chuter has seen the beauty industry react in manners she never thought possible. We, truly, are living in a BPUFC (Before Pull Up For Change) and APUFC (After Pull Up For Change) era. She has these brands straight-up shook, and one scroll through a TikTok or YouTube comment section will show that people are paying attention, and they’re not stepping off corporate necks any time soon. Now, it seems every brand — even those who previously shied away from talking about race or gender or getting political out of fear of that one “it’s not that deep” comment — is realizing the need to be more purpose-driven. It’s time to refocus on what the core mission is, and it better not be profits.
“There's a lot to be done better, because I think a lot of people are having the right intent but steering the wrong way, like with retailers trying to create Black sections in their store and whatever,” Chuter said. “The intent is good — the outcome is a problem that creates another problem.” She compares diversity and inclusion initiatives to learning to swim: No matter how much you’ve studied swimming, the first time you jump in, you’re gonna get water up your nose and in your chest and you won’t be able to do anything but doggy paddle — but you’ll continue to try, over and over again. You cannot give up just because you failed, or because you’re worried about the loud voices on the internet dragging you/your mom/your cousin/your ancestors.
“What we can all do better and what we must do is be consistent, no matter how exhausting it is, no matter that it doesn't get the views, that it doesn't get the comments, that it doesn't get the likes, that people have moved on,” Chuter said. “Who gives a rat's ass? We have to stay on it and stay on it and stay on it because truly, that's what's going to drive the change. The pressure has to remain.”
Chuter is aware that she’s changing the game forever, and that the ripple effects can be felt even beyond the beauty industry. “What I know for every single company, especially in the beauty space, [is] the world is not the same — it will never be the same for them. That veil has been removed, and it is what it is,” she said. “So now, whether they like it or not, whether they want to do this, whether they care about the purpose, no matter what they do and they don't do, they have to at least put a front that they care. Pandora's box is open. People are going to continue to ask, 'What does your black employment look like?’ And that's a win.”
Raise your middle fingers in the air, and wave 'em like you really do care — about Black lives, about Black careers, and about creating a better world for a community that has long awaited it.