Oftentimes in the workplace, we hear organizations using the buzzword “equality” and explaining how important the term is to them. Maybe you’ve heard phrases such as “we really strive for equality here,” or “equality is one of our founding principles.” And while equality is important, it’s equity that many companies need to focus on. Yes, there’s more than a two-letter difference between the two terms.
Equality means that everyone in the company is given the same resources and opportunities. Everyone gets the same support system, the same training and education, the same standing within departments. Equity, on the other hand, demonstrates that every employee has different circumstances, and understands that different resources might be needed for certain groups of people in order to reach an equal outcome. With equity, the playing field is leveled, and organizations are willing to be flexible and work with their employees to guarantee everyone has the opportunity for success. Equality without equity can actually lead to inequality, as treating everyone equally without supporting certain employees’ needs means the playing field isn’t level.
We talked with Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, founder of BrainTrust and BrainTrust Founders Studio, on the issues of equity and equality. BrainTrust is a social media and brand development agency focused on building and growing brands from organic communities. In the past 6 years, BrainTrust has partnered with more than 200 brands such as Halle Berry, Kelly Ripa Home, Dear Drew by Drew Barrymore, Revelations Entertainment by Morgan Freeman, Sally Beauty, and Under Armour to grow and accelerate brands’ online and offline presence. BrainTrust Founders Studio works to increase inclusive economic opportunities for Black beauty and wellness founders and connect them with resources, capital, and strategic guidance.
Why did you start The BrainTrust and more recently Founders Studio?
I started BrainTrust after helping build the Digital Practice group at Fleishman-Hillard and later becoming the first director of digital media at Ralph Lauren and co-founding Digital Brand Architects in 2009 —one of the first agencies to manage bloggers. When I sat out to create a new agency model, I started with the two most important things in business: working with smart people and people I trust. With my years of experience working in an agency and building a company, BrainTrust was a natural iteration of my career. At our core, my team members are digital natives that thrive off innovation and newness and challenge themselves to contribute to leveling the playing field towards equity and inclusion. Our expertise is rooted through my first clients back in 2002 when I dove into the original multicultural social media platforms including Black Planet, Mi Gente, and MySpace. To this day, we continue to drive innovation, find new ways of working with our clients as partners, grow our expertise and networks to stay relevant and current, and constantly hunt for futuristic opportunities.
BrainTrust Founders Studio was born out of our work partnering with companies to build their brands and tell their stories. It is truly a culmination of my career over the past two decades and provides a scalable way to create parity and equity by providing additional business, financial, marketing and technology brain power through a global ecosystem and community of founders. I know that Black-founded beauty and wellness brands will change the paradigm within the billion-dollar global beauty and wellness industry. As a Black female founder myself, I understand the myriad of unique challenges facing Black founders today. Only 4% of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. survive past the startup stage, even though 20% of Black Americans start businesses. More than 9 out of 10 Black founders lack investment/working capital, while 77% lack mentoring and business management support and 75% lack ways to distribution channels. Furthermore, more than half lack access to suppliers and marketing services support (source: BrainTrust Founders Studio).
My expertise lies in the beauty and wellness business, from brand ideation to development to consumer adoption. My deep experience gave me the perspective to recognize this urgent need within the industry.
Why is equity as a goal and concept crucial in business?
I understand that equity and equality stem from the same root. Our history of oppression, redlining, and marginalization continues to ration access to critical resources for certain groups, most notably women and people of color. We do not all have equal circumstances or access and the business sector might shed the brightest light on this inequity. Attempts to begin leveling the playing field begin with that acknowledgment and a commitment to true inclusion, resource sharing, and opportunities for true wealth building.
We need to get to a place where equity is not a concept but a pillar and inherent. Equity most certainly begins to repair our humanity. It is ethical. It is also good business. As we consider the results of our national census, which shows a coming shift from mostly “white” to mostly “non-white,” we cannot bypass the opportunity to increase market share through the inclusion and the servicing of the diverse groups that make up our communities.
What does an equitable business mean to you? What are some things you’re doing to make your organization equitable?
The BrainTrust Founders Studio is founded on four pillars: Community, Education, Mentorship, and Capital. We are an ecosystem of resources and a data repository for trends and industry intelligence where Black founders are centralized and supported by mentors, partners, and investors who will meet these founders wherever they are in their journey. We have three tiers of membership: Start, Grow, and Accelerate. Equitable business means filling the gaps — not just in theory but through action that creates long-lasting impact.
What kinds of problems with equity were you seeing in advertising and media that made you want to start BrainTrust?
For me, the biggest problem for Black beauty and wellness founders is the lack of access to resources, networks, and capital. In terms of advertising and media, which play a crucial role in how these founders gain awareness for the brands and compete at the global level, I am hopeful that we will continue to see an increase in the stories of women, Black and brown founders, and C-suite executives. These rich stories are filled with demonstrations of grit, cultural capital, and walking through roadblocks. They also capture the intersectionality — to use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term —of individuals who make a remarkable difference in our industry. We are nuanced in our identities, vision, and approach.
When was BrainTrust/Founder Studio founded? And why do you think now is its time to shine?
I founded BrainTrust, a hybrid brand development, social media, and experiential agency focused on building and growing brands from organic communities in 2016. We launched BrainTrust Founders Studio in October 2021 to assist fellow founders with reaching their goals and creating sustainable businesses. My personal motto is “carpe diem” so I wake up with gratitude and see every day as an opportunity to create new opportunities and pathways for success. The societal events of 2020 have opened more doors, particularly with initiatives like Aurora James’ 15% pledge, which asks the world’s largest retail brands for more (15%) Black representation on their shelves, since 15% of the U.S. population is Black. But we’ve also learned that walking through those doors does not suffice. What opportunities lie behind those doors? Are the needs of Black and brown founders and consumers met? Do these founders find guidance and the resources to scale that allow them to meet big business demands? These are some of the questions that we ask founders as we prepare to meet their needs.
As our industry evolves, we must diversify products with ingredients that serve the needs of our increasingly multicultural consumers. Inclusivity enriches our social fabric and also increases revenue.
What kind of success has Brain Trust seen so far?
Since our launch, we have partnered with more than 200 brands to help launch, grow, or accelerate their online and offline presence to generate awareness, show ROI, and drive revenue. We have worked with clients from Sally Beauty, Under Armour, Beautycon, to Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Drew Barrymore, and beyond. In 2020, we launched Business of the Beat, a beauty and wellness podcast to share insight from BIPOC leaders to ultimately help diversify the faces we see leading the industry. We also helped create a 6-month mentorship program through BeautyUnited, a nonprofit for Black and indigenous beauty and wellness founders.
If you could give other organizations some advice on becoming more equitable, what advice would you give? Ask people what they need; don’t assume. Go beyond speaking about equity as a concept, and move to activate organizational change that promotes equity across all levels of the organization. Prepare creative and productive individuals for leadership opportunities and, when they get there, offer what they need for success. Above all, lead with grace. This work does not always have a blueprint. Assume positive intent and outcome.