Aurora James attends the Fifteen Percent Pledge Gala at the New York Public Library in February 2023.
Jamie McCarthy—Getty Images

I started my brand Brother Vellies with a suitcase full of shoes at a flea market in New York City and $3,500 to launch a business. What many people don’t know is that when I was trying to get my company off the ground, I looked into multiple financing options to build the brand I always envisioned, and ended up taking out a $70,000 loan from a predatory shark that ballooned to well over $1 million in debt.

My experience is not unique. This is par for the course for so many Black entrepreneurs. On average, white founders start their businesses with around $72,000 dollars more than their Black counterparts. Financial opportunities for Black business owners are limited—bank loans have long been notoriously difficult for Black entrepreneurs to receive and venture capital funding remains abysmally low. The only reason I was able to actualize my dream was because I won a 2014 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund grant and received a $300,000 investment in Brother Vellies. This funding changed the trajectory of my life.

That opportunity, and facing an economy that is still closed off to so many Black entrepreneurs, led me to start the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks major retailers to ensure at least 15% of their shelf space is dedicated to Black-owned brands, and our annual Achievement Award in partnership with Shop with Google—a series of grants awarded to Black businesses to help build their brands. I experienced firsthand how no-strings-attached funding can flip the script for Black entrepreneurs and have seen similar outcomes for our inaugural winner, Christina Funke Tegbe. Earlier this year, Tegbe, founder of luxury skincare brand 54 Thrones, received our $200,000 award, which she was able to use to launch a new product with Sephora that sold out online in less than two weeks. The grant also allowed Tegbe to expand her partnerships and brand presence into other retail stores, including Nordstrom.

Read More: We Need to Support Black-Owned Businesses. Period.

Grant programs and initiatives specifically created for Black entrepreneurs are essential for driving economic equity and creating generational wealth in communities of color. Some of the brightest minds behind incredible products haven’t had the access or opportunity to be seen. To be clear, Tegbe’s 54 Thrones, like Brother Vellies, did not succeed simply because we are Black. We each had a unique point of view, an incredible product, and we were given the chance to succeed.

But right now, our hard-earned progress with such grants and initiatives are under attack and at risk of backtracking. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down affirmative action earlier this year was a major setback with devastating consequences for institutions committed to supporting historically marginalized communities. Overturning affirmative action was not the end goal, but rather the first step of a much larger strategy by radical conservatives to turn back the clock and restore an economy that only serves people who look like them.

Edward Blum and his team at the American Alliance for Equal Rights have used the Supreme Court decision as the legal basis to file multiple lawsuits against firms and businesses to halt DEI initiatives and grant-making programs. By targeting Fearless Fund, a venture capital firm that provides grants to Black women founders, Blum illuminated what we always knew to be his true intentions. These conservative extremists do not care about equality, but are using a centuries-old playbook to mobilize large segments of the population through fear-mongering strategies that only divide us.

The reality is Blum and his allies are just getting started. We’re seeing the effects of their attacks on DEI initiatives ripple across small businesses, law firms, and other corporations. These tactics are designed to instill fear into those of us working toward economic equity and racial justice. They want us to back down, be quiet, and let them win. They want us to believe we can’t rise together, but I know that all ships can rise with the tide. It’s critical that we not let these people fool us into believing otherwise.

As a Black business owner and nonprofit founder, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared—scared that the Fifteen Percent Pledge will become the next target of these attacks, and scared for future Black entrepreneurs’ ability to exist and succeed. But now is not the time to retreat in fear. We are watching insidious and coordinated attacks on our civil rights unfold; all of us must pay close attention and speak out loudly against these conservative extremists. Institutions and individuals with a platform must stand up for Black entrepreneurs and defend the organizations that are dedicated to fostering economic equality. Race-specific grant programs crack open the door for people of color to have a chance—a chance to build businesses that ultimately benefit their industries, our economy, and our society at large. There is still so much work to do, and so many opposing forces trying to stop us, but we won’t back down. It takes all of us speaking out in unwavering solidarity to keep us moving forward.

James is the founder of Brother Vellies and the Fifteen Percent Pledge, and a member of the 2021 TIME100 list.

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