The Hustle: Meet the Passion-Driven Executive Championing Economic Equity in Retail

Get to know Latoya Williams-Belfort, executive director of the 15 Percent Pledge.

Latoya Williams-Belfort

Latoya Williams-Belfort

The Hustle

Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling diverse, interesting women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

Latoya Williams-Belfort dreamed of breaking into on-air broadcasting as a college student, but as she evolved personally and professionally, she realized her true calling was nonprofit advocacy work. Over the last 15 years, the Bronx native has worked to champion social and economic equity at organizations including the United Way of New York CityThe Jericho Project, and Partnership with Children

Though she's been a longtime changemaker, the racial injustices of 2020 forced Williams-Belfort to begin thinking more critically about making a long-term impact in Black and Brown communities. Enter: the 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on retailers to ​​dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. Williams-Belfort joined the organization's team in December 2020 as executive director and has helped take the movement to greater heights over the last ten months. Ahead, Williams-Belfort reflects on her career journey and the impact of the 15 Percent Pledge.

You studied media and communications in college. When you were in school, what were your aspirations?

I had every intention of becoming an on-air news broadcaster. While working towards my media communications degree, I was obsessed with Mr. Earl Gilbert Graves Sr., the founder of Black Enterprise Magazine. I was drawn to the publication from a representation perspective. When I left college, I aggressively pursued a job there because I thought it would be a nice entry point into journalism. 

You landed at Black Enterprise Magazine as the events assistant. What was that experience like?

When I graduated in 2001, the way you found a job was to pound the pavement. I went to the Black Enterprise Magazine office every day for two months. I would wait and see if I could speak to the HR manager Natalie Hibbert. After two months, she took ten minutes to talk to me. At the time, they had a new developing department focused on events and production. They had an event assistant position available in that department, and I got that job. I always thank god for that meeting with Natalie Hibbert. She was an angel of mine and still is a friend and colleague. 

What did you learn from that experience?

I learned that planning is essential. I also learned that being ready for the opportunity was very important. At a company like Black Enterprise, I was surrounded by people of color who were experts in their field. I was able to learn several aspects of the business. I grew from an events assistant to a corporate event planner. I was able to travel the world and meet other dynamic people. I learned about hard work. I was there to do one job, but I was in the editorial, marketing, and advertising sales department every chance I got. Black Enterprise taught me what is needed to be successful. 

In the years between Black Enterprise Magazine and 15 Percent Pledge, can you share a little bit about the roles you held?

I was at Black Enterprise for a few years. As I learned the functions of the magazine, I realized I had a great interest in business. I left Black Enterprise, and I went to an international marketing firm, which, interestingly enough, was the polar opposite of the experience I had at Black Enterprise. At the firm, I might have been one of five people of color. Still, during my time there, I was growing into myself. I was in my early 20s and testing a lot of theories. I looked at my colleagues doing work that supported under-resourced communities and began to understand that I didn't want to follow a traditional business path. I wanted to do passion-driven work.

I was able to pivot my career and go into the nonprofit advocacy space. One of my mentors took on a prominent position at the United Way of New York City. She told me about a role that could bring together my experience and my passion for helping under-resourced populations gain equal opportunity and access. That role was my first foray into the nonprofit advocacy sector, and the service bug bit me. Since then, I've worked in organizations that support LGBTQ youth, veterans, and young adults fighting for equal opportunities.

I began to understand that I didn't want to follow a traditional business path. I realized I wanted to do passion-driven work.

How did you get involved with the 15 Percent Pledge?

As I grew into leadership roles, I would be one of the very few people of color in the room. When you're serving majority Brown and Black populations, it is imperative to understand what's on the line when doing this type of work. When the killing of George Floyd happened in 2020, the world experienced a radical shift, and there was an opportunity to do meaningful work.

I'm the mother of two Black boys, and I wanted to make sure I was participatory in something that could shift how the world will meet them as Black men. I was asking myself questions like, What should I be doing? What do sustainable solutions look like at this moment? 

I was immediately drawn to the model when I learned what Aurora James was doing with the 15 Percent Pledge because it succinctly answered those questions. I was lucky enough to meet with Aurora, and her passion was contagious. Since I had many years of experience in leadership roles at big and small nonprofit organizations, I felt like I could be a good partner. I also felt like she built a sustainable model that was applicable across industries and could be a solution to closing this economic gap.

15 Percent Pledge has been instrumental in a lot of the change we’ve seen over the last year. What are you most proud of accomplishing?

I'm proud of everything. I'm proud of the 28 major corporations who have stepped up and said: "We've been complacent. We've been a part of the problem. We acknowledge that and are going to reshift our business proposition." I'm incredibly proud of the team that Aurora and I have built. When I started with Aurora, she had a core team of volunteers and her executive assistant. Now, we've been able to make a team of ten people. I'm proud of the initial impact the organization has had in one year. We've been able to shift $10 billion in revenue to Black-owned businesses in the middle of a global pandemic. We've been able to place 385 Black-owned companies on the shelves of corporations, and 4500 Black-owned businesses have had access to increased exposure through Yelp and our other media partners.

As someone who is leading a rapidly growing company and movement, how do you practice self-care?

Self-care is a struggle, especially in this remote environment. I try to be super intentional and prioritize small moments. I take time throughout the day to step away from my desk and take a walk down the block. I try to carve out time for lunch or to call friends and family. When my kids come home from school, I schedule 30 minutes to sit with them and talk about their day. My husband keeps saying I should get a hobby, and that's something I'm interested in trying. In the meantime, I am just focused on the daily little things. They've been keeping me energized.

What do you want your legacy to represent? 

I hope that I'm blessed to do this work for many more years to come. I'm just a girl from the Bronx that was lucky enough to grow up in a city as diverse as New York City. I've met many people, but ultimately, a lot of them were fighting to better themselves, their families, and their communities. I'm lucky to serve people who are fighting for what they deserve. My hope is by the time my sons become adults, they will be part of a society that values equity. I am a fighter for folks who want equal opportunity, and I hope that remains a core part of my legacy. 

I'm lucky to serve people who are fighting for what they deserve.

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