From #OscarSoWhite to the realisation that the tech and creative industries are a white man’s playing field, the issue of diversity has exploded into our social consciousness like never before. Ian Hsieh talks with Walker & Company CEO, and Code2040 co-founder, Tristan Walker to find out if change is, at it seems, really gonna come.
It’s December 2013, and Tristan Walker has just rolled the dice on his new venture: Walker & Company. It’s a startup based in Silicon Valley, backed by Silicon Valley money, with Silicon Valley values like good design, creativity and outside-the-box thinking coursing through its veins. It’s all, well, pretty standard if you run in tech startup circles.
But look a little closer, and you’ll realise that this startup doesn’t deal in apps or social media – it doesn’t even operate in the technology space. Instead, it makes single-blade razors for black men. And its founder is a young African American from Queens, New York, in an overwhelmingly white industry. Outside Walker & Company’s offices, the neighbourhood is, in terms of diversity, bleak: just 2% of Google’s 46,000 employees are black. And Facebook? A paltry 1%.
Fast forward to 2018, and it’s safe to say that for the last four-and-a-bit years, Tristan Walker has been unravelling Silicon Valley norms and gleefully using them as deluxe toilet paper. In its short existence, Walker & Company – and its hyper-diverse team – has come a long way. Bevel (the Walker & Co. brand that started it all off) has added a competition-killing trimmer endorsed by hip-hop icon Nas to its original line-up of razors, priming oils, shaving cream and balms. It boasts an adoring fan base (including Barack Obama’s personal barber) that’s evangelical about its products – which are now sold in Target and Amazon. And if that wasn’t enough for Walker, last year he launched FORM under the Walker & Co. umbrella – a personalised, high-end collection of hair care products designed to work for women, no matter what their hair type.
2018 is also the year that a film with a nearly all-black cast became the highest-grossing superhero movie in the US. Marvel Studios’ Black Panther has taken over $667 million, sailing past Titanic to become the third highest grossing domestic release of all-time. And with a soundtrack executive-produced by Kendrick Lamar – featuring the likes of The Weeknd, James Blake, Future, Travis Scott and SZA – it’s the most tweeted about
“Congrats to the entire #blackpanther team!” tweeted Michelle Obama. “Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories.”
Of course, Black Panther stands on the shoulders of those that came before it – Selma, Hidden Figures, Get Out, Moonlight. And the influence of these films, along with the growing awareness of the lack of diversity in tech, business and the creative industries, has rocketed the issue to the top of the agenda.
Last year, the UK government revealed that in 2016, black, Asian and minority ethnic workers made up just 11% of the 32,422 people working in the creative industries. And when it comes to marketing and advertising, brands like Pepsi, Heineken and Dove are (infamously) falling flat on their faces to embrace diversity. But what’s straight up bandwagon jumping, and what’s authentic?
We speak with Tristan Walker just as he lands in New York for a slew of meetings. Apologetic about moving our chat forward an hour to accommodate his packed schedule, the 33-year-old CEO is affable and gracious with a dry wit. And it’s clear he takes zero shit when it comes to business. We discuss the rise of diversity, the importance of values to a company, and why if you embrace diversity for the wrong reasons, you better be prepared to kiss goodbye to your brand.
Why is diversity such a huge part of our consciousness right now?
I think it’s a couple of things: people are forcing the conversation, whether that be citizens who’re just fed up about not feeling like they’re treated fairly, consumers who feel like they want to see representation, or founders who see an opportunity that’s been neglected for a long period of time. It’s just coming to a head. We’ve been talking about this stuff our entire lives, and we just finally welcomed the conversation.
Millennials are the most diverse generation in the US yet – with 44% coming from an ethnic minority background compared to just 28% of baby boomers. Do you think that has a big part
Well I mean look, over half the world are people of colour [laughs]. You know I’m amazed by how many times folks look at what we’re doing and say it’s a niche opportunity, but we’re targeting the majority of the world. This country will be majority minority in about 20 years. It’s a seismic shift.
So do you think embracing diversity can boost a brand’s business and identity?
I don’t even take the subjective view of this. Objectively, more diverse companies perform better. The world is more diverse, so for these public companies that want to drive growth for shareholders, to not embrace diversity is not maximising value. I don’t know what else to say if folks aren’t willing to listen to that – that’s table stakes.
So why is there still a lack of diversity within these big brands? At the moment there are only three black CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies, and 24 women CEOs – two of whom are women
There are a number of reasons. The people funding these companies, and the people within these large companies, are lazy. Too lazy to really understand the difference or the differences. Too lazy to understand the problems that folks have when you live your entire life assuming things to be one way, and someone introduces something that kind of changes your world view, but you’re less receptive to it. And too lazy to figure out, “How do I change my world view?”
Quite frankly, I think there’s a naivety. Even when I think about our company and our first brand Bevel, you know, you wonder, ‘Why hasn’t anyone really targeted this audience before?’ And the large companies will say, “Well the market is too small. All Bevel is doing is shaving for black men.” Which is completely false. But let’s take that line of thinking; once they come to that conclusion they’ll read a research report, and that will say the market for black men shaving in the US is $200 million – or something like that. And then those large companies will say, “Even if we get 100% market share, that opportunity’s too small.”
But I ask the different question, I ask why is the market size so small? Maybe the market size is so small because the things you’re selling to them, they can’t use? And folks aren’t willing to think this, because they think they have solutions when they don’t. And that’s why it takes companies like us, and consumers like the ones we have, to push people in a new direction.
What was your strategy to engage your target audience when you first founded Bevel?
I don’t have to engage my target audience, because I am my target audience [laughs]. So it’s easy, I solve my own problem, and I know it’s a problem that 80% of people who look like me have. It’s very easy at that point, the rest is cake. It’s just making folks feel like they’re treated like a first-class citizen. Doing it with great design, great educational experience, speaking the same language. These are simple things, and it worked out for us.
So let’s say you wanted to start attracting other cultures to your brand, does that mean you’d have to try and authentically reach those other people?
I see exactly what you’re saying, but that’s not my decision – that’s the consumer’s decision. One thing I learned is that the brand isn’t what I say it is, it’s what they say it is. That means whenever I do a campaign I’m staffing it with diverse people, right, those diverse people who are participating. I’m not telling their stories, they’re telling their stories themselves. So it’s not like, hey, let’s target the Indian market and culture in a specific way right now – because we don’t have to.
We started with this philosophy that global culture is led by American culture, which is led by black culture. So it’s a big reason why some 70% of our customers online are black men, but over 50% of our customers at retail are white men. We haven’t taken a view of having to target folks in a non-authentic way, that’s what other brands have done for decades and it hasn’t worked.
You’ve got a new campaign out: Mirrors. What was the inspiration and thinking behind it?
Very simple, very simple. I’ll ask you a question: have you ever seen a black man shave in an ad or on television?
I guess the last time would have been Tiger Woods in an old Gillette advert.
That’s what people say, and if you look at those commercials it’s actually quite funny – you have to go all the way back to 2001 to get something even remotely close. Let me ask you another question: when was the last time you saw a white man in an ad shaving [laughs]?
There was a lack of representation of folks telling me on screen, educating me about the right things to use. So Mirrors was really started out of, let’s show that you can shave. That there are people who actually look like you, who shave. Have them share the same shaving struggles that resonate with you, that you’ve experienced yourself. These are all customers who’ve been customers for three-plus years. We didn’t give them a script, we just asked them questions and they spoke to us.
Why did you go the unscripted route?
I’d ask the question why go the scripted route?
I suppose there’s an argument that if you have a key message and you go scripted, you know you’re going to absolutely deliver that key message.
But this goes back to what I said earlier – the brand’s not what I say it is, it’s what they say it is. I know we have a brand that works if their message is consistent. And if you look at those videos, they’re very consistent.
“Isn’t that the goal? To have customers giving you the pitch that you set out to start the company with? Unscripted?”
Completely. Were they briefed?
No, they got into the room, they didn’t even ask what it was going to be – we told them when they got into the room. And they did it.
I think about it this way: it takes a lot more work to do something inauthentic, so why waste that time? And isn’t this the goal? Don’t you want customers giving you the pitch that you set out to start the company with? Unscripted? Why try anything else?
In terms of brands trying to embrace diversity, there have been some pretty big fuckups lately – like Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad, Heineken’s ‘lighter is better’ campaign, and H&M’s use of a black child model wearing a ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie. Where did they go wrong?
It goes back to why are you doing this? What is the reason? Our reason for being is that people didn’t feel confident after they shaved. People deserve a better experience than that, so everything we do and make is about fixing that experience for people. So when all these companies have these ads that go awry, always ask the question: why did you do this in the first place? What was the goal? What was the outcome? And look, many times it doesn’t necessarily require having a black person in your ad.
What advice would you give to brands that want to embrace diversity in their marketing the right way?
The first thing I’d ask before I give them advice, is why are you embracing diversity? Why do you want to? I know why it’s the right thing to do, but I want to know from the people why they feel it’s the case. And if it doesn’t come from a place of genuineness, they've already failed. That’s super, super critical.
The advice I’d give after that is – and this has helped us in our diversity – think about the values you’re trying to promulgate. We have six values at our company: courage, inspiration, respect, judgement, wellness and loyalty. Now those values aren’t masculine or feminine, they’re not black, they’re not white, they’re not Asian, right? They’re universal. And if we make every decision – product decision, hiring decision – in line with those values, diversity naturally creeps in because people identify with those values.
I think all too often a lot of companies don’t reflect on the values that they’re trying to purport. You could have the most diverse group of people in your ad, but if you have the wrong values behind it, what’s the point?
Core values attract diversity then.
I think so. Core values that embrace diversity. The nuance is important because you could have values that are completely devoid of anything nice. It really operates no differently in my life. I want to be around courageous, inspiring, respectful people with good judgement who are loyal. In none of that does it say I want be around white people, black people, Latino people, Asian people.
At the end of the day, is diversity just another buzzword that brands will forget about eventually? Or are people really taking it to heart?
If people were really taking it to heart, you’d see a lot of these diversity numbers change. They’re not. I think as long as diversity is equated with charity, people will always fail. Diversity needs to be the default state of every company, every business, every organisation. And if they’re gonna be lazy about it, that’s fine, we won’t.
What’s next for Walker & Company?
We have two brands that we’re very proud of. Now we just want to continue to increase our product offering. So with Bevel we’re gonna launch a bunch of products this year, which we’re very excited about. People are gonna see us in more retailers, in more places - knock on wood - but we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Ian Hsieh is a Cornwall-based journalist specialising in music, technology and visual arts. He writes words for global brands and publications, including Audi, Kodak, Highsnobiety, Bandcamp and Dazed & Confused.