Published on June 1, 2020
I sat down several times to write this letter, but stopped each time. My eyes welling up with tears. This is personal. Over this weekend, over this last week, over a lifetime punctuated by sweltering summers of discontent.
I think back to my early twenties. Having finished my final exams at business school, I boarded a flight to apartheid South Africa. This was three years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I went to join with a labor research group, hoping to bring my business training to the work of labor unions. I thought I could help them carve out a larger share of the economic pie for disenfranchised African workers, largely miners. A week after leaving Harvard’s beautifully manicured campus, I found myself in a church in Khayelitsha, a black township on the outskirts of Cape Town, where most homes were flimsy sheets of plastic stretched across stray pipes and drift wood. What began as a political gathering quickly changed when the church was surrounded by armored vehicles, manned by teenage conscripts who in Afrikaans ordered us to break up. The orders, over bullhorns, turned into tear gas and eventually rubber bullets. The lessons learned that summer have remained with me for a lifetime.
This weekend I received reports that listed stores across the United States. Our stores, damaged by protesters. Bellevue. Charleston. New York City. San Francisco. Scottsdale. Washington DC... My first thought was to our people. Thankfully all of our teams are safe. I then thought about those that had smashed our windows and taken handbags, and shoes, and dresses. What was going through their minds as they acted? Has our society truly left them with little to lose and few other ways to force the rest of us to come to the negotiating table? We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter.
I have traveled to Minneapolis for decades and think of it as an outpost of progressivism. Minneapolis is not Alabama or Mississippi. Neither is birdwatching in Central Park. The fact that Minnesota and New York are part of a recurring American narrative underlines the systemic causes of this discontent. The coronavirus pandemic is a contributing factor, but it is not the cause. It has placed a light on differences in health that likely are tied to economic inequality and social insecurity.
This weekend, I re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Written in April 1963 it is as vibrant and relevant as if it had been written today. Almost 60 years have passed, yet America is still struggling to solve a 400-year-old problem. We cannot leave this task to others. Some of you, especially those sitting outside the United States, may ask, “what does this have to do with me?” Everything. In King’s words, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Asians cannot be discriminated against because of coronavirus. Neither can Africans in China. There are numerous examples why what is playing out on the streets of America is in fact universal.
Our three brands—Coach, Kate Spade, Stuart Weitzman—were each founded in New York City. They were formed in part by this city’s diversity. By the creativity that is sparked by deliberate and random intertwining of divergent people and ideas. Emboldened by the role that positive tension plays in driving growth. We understand that we are better together when different life experiences and perspectives allow us to develop ideas and products that none of us could have come up with on our own. What I’ve heard very clearly from so many of you is the visceral importance of inclusion to you. The belief that inclusion makes you better by allowing you to fully show up at work as yourself. And that inclusion makes us better as we tap into a greater depth of your experience and perspectives.
At a moment such as this, it is important to understand our roots and nurture our aspirations. Over this past week, leaders across our organization came together to think through how we can contribute to change. We are working through a plan that we look forward to sharing with you. We want to convene a number of social justice, legal, and corporate entities to formulate a longer-term plan for addressing systemic inequality. Inequality in health, economic opportunity, public safety, and other sectors. We hope to join with government, but events of this past week make it clear that we cannot wait.
As brands whose core values are powerfully informed by the creative tension that cannot exist without diversity and inclusion, we cannot succeed if the ideal that is America does not succeed, including in different and diverse ways globally. We cannot attract and engage talented colleagues. We cannot design beautiful and functional products. We cannot authentically engage with consumers around the world.