BR Q&A: Color Proud Council Co-Founder Bahja Johnson on True Hues
The Color Proud Council is Gap Inc.’s first product inclusion initiative—with the mission of bringing diversity and inclusivity to the forefront of every step of the process. The Council played a key role in bringing True Hues to life, so we went straight to the source. To get the scoop on the making of True Hues, we sat down with Color Proud Council co-founder Bahja Johnson.
BR: Color Proud began as your personal mission. What was the process of bringing your vision to life?
Bahja: I have been with the company now for seven and a half years. For me, I had always been in merchandising roles and felt like in those product spaces, there were very few people of color. As a woman of color myself, you recognize that right away—but you just move through. Only further along in my career when I started to find my voice in the space did I recognize that there were certain patterns of behavior that just weren’t always represented when there wasn’t a representative voice in the room. It’s one thing to have diversity, but it’s another to have inclusion. You could be there all day, but do you feel empowered to stay and have a voice? That’s another conversation. For me, that was the mentality I had in 2017, when I emailed the brand president, Mark [Breitbard] directly to talk about diversity holistically. From there, he had a very honest conversation with me about my experience. You go into the brand president’s office and you expect to bring spreadsheets, data. It’s all I had known. When you go talk to a leader, you bring your data. This time, I didn’t have data. I just had my experience and what I had seen happening in the space in retail. Sometimes you just have the raw emotion, and the data will come later. You just have to believe that it will work. So we were chatting, and finally at the end, I said to him, “So what do you want to do? Should we start a council to start to tackle what inclusion can mean for all of us?” And he was like, “What do I want to do? What do you want to do? I will support you. I’ll put you in contact with our Head of HR and our Head of Diversity.”
What a good feeling.
You know what I mean? He could have been like “Yeah, sure.” But he said to me, “I support you. Get after it. Let me know what you need.” What originally started as a conversation ended up being the mission of Color Proud: if you’re going to bring diversity to the bottom line of the business, you have to tackle both sides. First, product education and pipeline. How are you training teams to make product? What is the actual pipeline itself to make sure inclusion doesn’t fall through the cracks? The other side, talent acquisition and retention, is the question of whether you have diversity of voices on your product teams. It’s not just about color. It’s experiences, thought, race, age, size, sex, shape, ability. We talk a lot about ability as well. It’s diversity in every sense of the word.
If you have diverse people on your team, that’s one thing. But if they do not feel empowered to stay and have their voices heard, that’s another.
And where on the team they sit.
Exactly. If they’re all entry level, there are no leaders who look like you, it’s a no go. Color Proud is trying to tackle this on all sides.
From every step of the process, all the way through the end.
Exactly. And I love that you said on every level, too. For me, it’s like—you can’t be what you can’t see. That’s what my mom always told me. It was like a guiding principle for me. As a kid you don’t realize that, but as I got older, I realized that she was living by example as a woman in business, a woman in retail. I found that the mentors that she placed around me—she wanted me to see what success looked like as a black woman.
Very strategic. How does Color Proud Council work? Do you have designated meetings? Are you always in contact?
We do. We realized one thing right away. If you have just top down support from a brand president, and nobody doing the work on the ground floor—or if you just have people doing the work on the ground floor without people at the top to help steer you and support you, things don’t work. The Council itself is made up of two governing bodies: the executive sponsors, VPs and above, who help steer the work. We meet with them every quarter. The granular work really happens with what we call the leadership team. That’s technically the part of the team that I sit on—senior directors and below who work in the brands. If you’re going to tackle product education and pipeline, talent acquisition and retention, you need functional experts doing all of those things. We meet every month as a leadership team. We have people who are focused on product pipeline, marketing integration, updating Gap Inc. coursework, disability inclusion and talent acquisition and retention. It's based on their role.
And then those five mini-teams, have people from Banana, Gap...
All brands, all functions. That’s the beauty of it. Every single brand, every single function is represented on both the executive sponsor side and the leadership team.
Amazing. All kinds of people.
My co-founder, who is no longer with the company, is my best friend in life. We started here together. She’s a black woman also. We spent a lot of time together talking about our own experiences. I felt like if we were going to make this a company-wide movement, I needed to pull in somebody else. There’s power in that story. That’s why when I talk about co-founder it’s important for people to know, we are both black women. We did this for anybody who felt like an other.
Regardless of how you identify.
Exactly. So now I have a co-lead, Jermaine Younger, Senior Director of Merchandising at Gap—he was one of my first un-official mentors at Gap. He sits in New York. He’s a black man—his intersection looks different than mine—but the way we talk about this is very similar. All of us now, in the second wave of our career, we are like, “We are black. We have to bring that perspective to the room.” So that our voices are heard, but also our customers’ voices are heard! But then hopefully also, other intersections can speak up too. Like “As a Hispanic woman, I don’t see myself represented in that.” or “As an Asian man, I don’t see myself.” The goal is to utilize my personal experience to encourage others to bring their whole selves to work.
And to pave the way for other girls, for younger girls.
One of the best pieces of this work is that I think I now have access to people as they’re coming in. If there is a manager, who is like, “My employee heard about your diversity work and has experience or insight—or just wants to talk to you about their experience.” Now I get to do that.
Absolutely. And realizing that we’re not alone in what we’re doing.
Yeah! And learning and growing. Color Proud is like a conduit.
Ok, let’s talk True Hues. What was Color Proud’s role in the development of the line?
To me, True Hues is the best example of how when you have a group like Color Proud, present at every stage of the pipeline, you make better product decisions that help enable and empower your customer. True Hues was truly a collaboration between Color Proud and Banana. There are amazing designers who really drove this home, like Ra’mon-Lawrence Radeke, Design Director of Women’s Knits. He wasn’t a part of Color Proud. But by being able to work with people who were on the Color Proud team, there was more confidence—an awakening in people. That to me is the best part.
If you just have Color Proud doing the work, you’re never going to get anything done in here. It has to be collaborative with the brands. Having somebody who was part of Color Proud at every stage of the game helped call attention to the facts. I credit Kierra Lofton, on site merchandising, for having the confidence to speak up, as a Color Proud member and as a black woman. That to me, is utilizing your voice and influence and the power of conviction. To have the conversation that says, we need to have something that calls attention to this. If she hadn’t had that gumption, we might not be where we are now in February 2020. I can name somebody at literally every stage of the game. From Anouar Alami, part of our team in New York, he was part of the original concept in trend, partnering with women’s design. I got to help match one of the shades to my foot. The merchant for shoes was my first boss at Banana. He texted me and I was like absolutely! That’s what we’re here for. Yes, please match with me.
I think when you’re trying things you’ve never done before, and you’re trying things in a space that has cultural significance, that double check is always worth it. For us, Color Proud was able to be that double check.
Color Proud does not have all the answers, but we’re committed to asking the questions so that we can find the experts who do know. We want to commit to thinking differently. And we promise to help people do that.
And you don’t have to be the only different voices in the room, but you’re creating space for more voices to join.
Exactly. You can’t always see everybody’s other. Mine is incredibly apparent. I’m a woman and I’m black so here you go. There are people on our team who you wouldn’t know they are half black, or you wouldn’t know that they are disabled because it might be a sight or hearing impairment. Your other isn’t always super visible, but it’s how you utilize it. Also, I always say that just because you’re not an other doesn’t mean you have no business in this space. If we just had people of color, or just had plus-sized men and women, or just had people who identified with a certain gender on our team, we would be wrong. There is no business case for a homogenous culture. When you look at the Color Proud team, the thing that I am most proud of is that we all look different. The leadership team, the executive sponsors, we all look different. We all come from different backgrounds, not just brands, but races, sizes, sexual orientation, ability. We challenge each other. We can do that because we have perspective in that room.
What are the moments where Color Proud was involved with True Hues?
Every stage of the game. At the initial concept, you had Anouar Alami, Senior Trend of Concept and Third-Party. He worked with the designers to put the concept together. He sits on Color Proud—all these people do. In the design and assorting process, Delonte Hailstock, Design Manager for Women’s Dresses, sits with design. I know that his presence helped. I was lucky enough to be a part of the assorting process. One of the shades is matched to my foot. Then marketing, Kierra—her role in this to me is the most impactful. It exemplifies another thing that makes me proud of Color Proud: you can drive from any seat. You can have impact at any seat. At the time, I believe she was Assistant Site Merchandiser. She wasn’t a “leader” title-wise, but she was a leader from that seat. She put together an entire task force and was critical about making sure all functions were represented.
You’re fighting the good fight!
I think that having the conversations and reiterating why it’s important and bringing in facts. Like pulling in the hindsights from the first time was awesome.
It did so well.
And the customer sentiment warmed my heart.
Did the True Hues collection inspire or impact future Color Proud work?
Yes! The beauty of the Council being cross-brand is that we share everything. The entire Color Proud team is a part of everything because every month we talked about updates. Like hey, guys here’s things that worked and didn’t. Here’s the things that we learned post-shoot, around range of skin tones and body types. If people are going to go after this, we want them to learn from what we did...BR Factory is going to launch True Hues this spring too!
As for the regular line, we sketch with more skin tones than we did previously. The trend boards themselves look incredibly diverse. If you have that image in your mind before you even start to sketch of who you’re sketching for, game changer. Talent. I know we’re talking a lot about product. But what schools are we talking to? Do you target different groups on campus than who you’ve been targeting in the past? You get a wider array of people. You have specialized moments where you go and chat about Color Proud work.
Anything else on True Hues?
Again, the differentiator for me with bringing this product to life was having somebody from Color Proud at every stage of the game to help figure out a new process, what’s working. You change the process by changing the people in the room. You inspire conversations that move you forward. The goal would be for Color Proud to never exist. In an ideal state, we’d all just be thinking this way. But until we train ourselves to think this way, until we have a solid method, it’s going to be a lot of trial and error. But again, we promise to be part of it as long as we’re all learning and doing things differently.
For those who may not have a resource like Color Proud within their own company, how can one create change on a personal level?
I think the first thing you do is find your advocates. Whether you’re a minority or not, everybody needs advocates. You need somebody in your corner who knows more than you do. Having that person gives you perspective and can help teach you lessons about how you move through a space. After that, if you have the conviction to start something like this, then go find your advocates who will help you do this work. I say find your HR lead that can just talk to you about what resources you need. First and foremost, start with your advocates. They’re going to be the ones who help you move.
Why is diversity and inclusion important to you? Why was starting Color Proud important to you?
I always tell people Color Proud was incredibly personal. I felt as though I didn’t tap into the best versions of myself—as a merchant, as a leader, as a teammate—until I brought my whole self to work. Color Proud has allowed me to do that. It’s a little scary. It forces me to be more vulnerable and throw myself into spaces that I never thought I’d be in. It forces me to be better, to think differently and to open my aperture for learning. I think if I hadn’t had this space, I would not be the leader and the merchant that I am today. I also think that it’s important for me to inspire the next generation of leaders here. There are people on my team that are smarter than me, they push boundaries more than I do, but I hope that me doing this allows them to feel comfortable doing so. Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.
I know that thanks to the genuine connections that I made here at the company, I feel supported. I feel like I’m doing it for a purpose.
Explore the True Hues collection, our inclusive range of nude necessities, proudly designed for every skin tone.