By Patricia Coulter
Philadelphia Business Journal
There is much to admire about Urban Outfitters, the trendy clothing giant that has retained its Philadelphia roots.
Like everyone at the Mayor’s Luncheon last week, I applauded when founder and CEO Richard A. Hayne accepted the prestigious Edward Powell Award and pledged to donate the $100,000 that accompanies the award with a matching sum to Drexel University.
But the founder’s generosity and the company’s popular apparel cannot obscure the fact that the board of directors that runs Urban Outfitters Inc. (NASDAQ:URBN) — which owns Free People, Anthropologie, and BHLDN — is composed totally of white men. Before their May board meeting, women’s groups called on the company to diversify their board. In response, Urban Outfitters stated, “We do not have a diversity problem.”
And that seems to be true: They are happy to remain an all-white-boys club. They have no problem.
It is we who have the problem.
Urban Outfitters is not the only company in America with an all-white, all-male board. The difference is, Urban Outfitters makes its money by selling clothing to women and urban teens — the kind of people not deemed worthy of sitting around their board table. And when challenged to change, this hip, young company gave the women and minorities the brush-off.
In May, women’s groups pleaded with the company, pointing out that a woman’s point of view might be valuable in the fashion business. Even Forbes Women columnist Janice Reals Ellig added her voice to the cause. They were rebuffed.
And while the company has suffered some ups and downs recently because of a shake-up at the upper echelon, it has not suffered financially. The stock is still strong, the clothing and jewelry is still moving off the shelves.
As women and minority consumers, we have to look at what is wrong with this picture. Why are we continuing to use our hard-earned dollars to purchase merchandise from a company that does not have our interests at heart? Surely, there are other, diverse companies that sell equally fashionable outfits.
On Feb. 20, The Urban League of Philadelphia co-sponsored a book signing for Maggie Anderson, author of “Our Black Year.” The book is an account of a year spent by Anderson, a Chicago business executive, and her husband purchasing goods and services exclusively from black-owned businesses. While the book goes into depth about a variety of social and business issues, the point is that Anderson and her family did what the black community should be doing as a unit — supporting one another with our consumer dollars. We should not stop at demanding that government agencies hire minority vendors. We need to hire them ourselves when we need a plumber or a painter.
Urban Outfitters is a for-profit company. Mr. Hayne can invite anyone he likes to join his board. He can donate his profits any way he chooses.
But we, women and minorities, can also choose. While only buying from woman-owned and black-owned businesses is not a practical strategy, we can use the power of our consumer dollars to support companies that reflect the diversity of our world.
Patricia Coulter is president and CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia.