Photo: f11photo/shutterstock
Photo: f11photo/shutterstock

What is a changemaker? When the term started gaining traction, Ashoka, a social entrepreneurship network that’s been building ecosystems around the idea for four decades, tried to define it for Fast Company. Changemakers are tenacious about the greater good, it said, with a deep-rooted sense of empathy for others. They “leave the parachute at home” and personally connect with problems, then stay on to see them through. And they don’t go it alone, working within existing institutions to effect lasting change.

As corporations move to foster diversity and inclusion, Gucci, the Italian luxury fashion house, is backing changemakers to build sustainable social impact within the industry, and across cities and local communities in North America.

An industry-wide reckoning

Luxury fashion brands have faced a reckoning with diversity and inclusion ahead of many other industries. Notable missteps and misrepresentations have prompted pushback over the years, like a black turtleneck that read as blackface to some, off-the-cuff comments by a prominent designer disparaging Chinese culture, and a brand that characterized a Black child modeling its shirt as “the coolest monkey in the jungle.”

By 2019, the uproar had prompted brands like H&M, Chanel and Gucci to create new diversity and inclusion officer roles, while places like Prada created advisory councils to address concerns.

Gucci responds

Gucci adopted both of those tactics, and then went a step further. In 2019, the brand established the Gucci Changemakers Fund to help live up to its long-term diversity and inclusion action plan.

The global program built on the $5 million, five-year Changemakers Fund it launched internally a year earlier in North America, adding a $1.5 million scholarship program. A similar fund is in development for Asia.

In concept, the Changemakers Fund works to create lasting social impact on communities within the fashion industry. In practice, it centers on “building strong connections and opportunities within communities of color at large,” and the African-American community in particular. It sits within Equilibrium, a larger commitment to harness creativity and collaboration to generate positive change “for people and our planet.”

Now in its second year, here’s how the program works, and what the first two cohorts of winners say about Gucci’s definition of “changemaker.”

Using changemakers to find changemakers

To ensure “transparency, accountability and impact,” Gucci created a “Changemakers Council” comprising community and social change leaders, as well as its own leaders, to identify nonprofit partnerships across North America in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, New York, Toronto and San Francisco.

Inaugural members include the entertainer; fashion activist Bethann Hardison; poet and author Cleo Wade; professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA, Eric Avila; and the executive director of Equality Now, Yasmeen Hassan. Gucci’s internal diversity and inclusion chair and its North America president and CEO represent the company.

Funding cycles

Investments in tax-qualified community-based organizations range between $10,000 and $50,000, awarded in one-year funding cycles. Proceeds can be used to create new programs or scale existing ones. Gucci amplifies the relationships by providing employee volunteers, facilitating participation in town hall conversations with Gucci leadership, and carrying out programming with Gucci’s North America Brand and Culture Engagement team.

The latest cohort of 15 winners was selected from 250 applications. The next round of Changemaker Fund applications opens in fall 2021.

First cohort 

The first cohort of 16 community organizations represents a range of innovative approaches, including Braven, a citywide effort in Chicago to help talent reach its potential; the ACLU of Louisiana in New Orleans; The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth in Miami-Dade; Custom Collaborative, an entrepreneur and workforce development program for low-income women in New York; and the Black Aids Initiative in L.A., an organization that  describes itself as “the only uniquely and unapologetically Black HIV ‘think and do’ tank in America.”

Concrete outcomes include a report highlighting pretrial incarceration in Louisiana and a showcase for designers of color and commercial spaces via Design Core in Detroit.

Second cohort

The second round also features an interesting mix of 15 changemakers, some radical, some mainstream, some entrepreneurial. Well-known names like the Academy Foundation/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received funding alongside lesser-known groups like Radical Partners, a social impact accelerator in Miami, and Sista Afya, a community mental wellness support network for Black women in Chicago.

On the entrepreneurial side, Magpies & Peacocks in Houston identifies as the nation’s only NPO design house “dedicated to the collection and sustainable reuse of post-consumer items slated for landfill,” like clothing and scrap textiles. SoHarlem, a paid training program for unemployed or underemployed members of its community, produces artisanal accessories, fashion and home décor.

Partners also work from within to shatter gender stereotypes. For instance, Tools and Tiaras Inc. exposes women to the trades, like plumbing, architecture, electrical and carpentry.

Tools and Tiaras founder Judaline Cassidy said the support from Gucci Changemakers will allow it to expand programming, teaching women that jobs don’t have genders. “As a nonprofit started by an African American woman plumber teaching young girls about the trades and STEAM, we’re humbled that Gucci granted us this opportunity and aligns with our mission of empowering builders and leaders of tomorrow,” she said.

With the right tools, she said, “girls can build anything.”