Pamela Culpepper has become the first Black woman to sit on the board of iconic fashion giant Prada in the company’s 109-year history.
Culpepper is the co-founder of the culture consultancy Have Her Back, which takes a holistic approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The brand’s parent company, Prada S.p.A., appointed Culpepper to the board in January. Culpepper was hired alongside Anna Maria Rugarli, sustainability and responsibility senior director at global apparel and footwear company VF Corporation, as one of two independent non-executive directors.
In her new role, Culpepper will add her voice to the Board of Directors in their sustainability assessments and decisions regarding Prada’s ESG strategy of people, environment and culture.
“People who know me and know what Prada stands for quickly see what connects us – status quo is simply not an option. I’m proud to be a part of that challenge. One of Prada’s principles is to go where the risk is. Prada has stepped out front to lead the industry in ESG,” Culpepper told Essence.
ESG stands for “environmental, social, and corporate governance.” It is an approach to evaluating the extent to which a corporation works on behalf of social goals that go beyond the role of a corporation to maximize profits on behalf of the corporation’s shareholders.
Culpepper continued, “It would be easier to fast follow, but that would be counter to both of our instincts. Prada is at the intersection of authentically connecting its values and purpose with the needs and will of its key stakeholders. My role is to help strategically navigate that intersection.”
“We are extremely fortunate that Pamela Culpepper has joined Prada Group’s board of directors,” Lorenzo Bertelli, Prada Group’s head of corporate social responsibility, told WWD. “Her diverse experience — which spans senior positions in human resources and people management, sustainability, as well as change management and culture building — will make her instrumental as we continue to strengthen Prada Group and further advance upon our ESG strategy.”
Culpepper told WWD she wants the fashion world to truly take action on equity and not just profess to do so.
“Stop hiding behind equality to avoid the hard work of equity,” she said. “I think equitable solutions are in service to equality, not the other way around. Treating everyone, in my opinion, the same, which is equality, before you close the equity gaps is only perpetuating the gap.”
Culpepper said she feels companies hold off on making changes to increase equity out of “fear.”
“It’s fear of loss, whether that’s loss of control, loss of power, loss of status. It’s fear of scarcity, so if you have more, that means I have less of all those things I just mentioned. It’s fear of being exposed,” she told WWD. “Once you give a group of people or a person equal footing and leverage, the exposure becomes, wow, they are as smart and as thoughtful and as fill-in-the-blank as I am. I lose leverage because I now have started to share a platform that I’ve never had to share before.”
One of the first steps of promoting diversity is to make sure corporate boards are inclusive, said Culpepper.
“Once you open up your boardroom to people who are different, with the expectation that they’re going to come with new thinking and new experiences and new ideas, the question is, ‘Do I really want that, are we ready for it as a board, will we do something with what we hear?’ And if the answers to those questions are, ‘I’m not sure and no,’ then I think people will continue to push around the idea of ‘we can’t find them’ until they can’t use that excuse anymore,” she said.
When asked why she feels she will be successful in the Prada board role, Culpepper said, “There’s two things, really. If I can help them create demonstrable ways for an organization to create equity with their employees, with their consumers, with their store leaders, if I could help them create some demonstrable actions in that way, so much so that other organizations are looking to us as the leader in that space.”
She added, “Prada has been the only organization that I’ve seen where they’ve dedicated an actual board committee to this work [of ESG and diversity] and all board committees, for all intents and purposes, they get equal time and space, there’s an expectation that they’re delivering, and so I would like for Prada to be able to influence not just the fashion industry, but other industries. There is something to give the time and space to this work.”
She continued, “I would also love to see the employees — not just the consumers but the employees — say, ‘wow, I’m proud to work for a company that is putting this kind of work into something that affects me personally as a part of this community.’ If I could get those two things, that would make me feel successful.”
Read: “Black Women Hold Only 4 Percent of S&P 500 Board Seats. A New Program Wants to Get More Black Women on Corporate Boards”