I’ve spent the majority of my career as a public relations professional representing Black women in power roles. Many of the women I’ve worked with are the ‘”face of their brands,” and when consumers fall in love with the “face of the brand,” both the “face” and the brand tend to reap the rewards. On the downside, when something goes wrong within the brand, it’s “the face of the brand” who tends to get the blame. It’s an inherent risk that comes with being a public-facing business owner, however, the risk often weighs heavier on the crowns of the Black women who serve in these power roles.
Aisha “Pinky” Cole; the Atlanta-based entrepreneur who rose to prominence after founding Slutty Vegan, a popular vegan burger chain that both vegans and non-vegans alike wrap around blocks to dine in, has seemingly been on a high since she was formally introduced to the world. In fact, Cole has become a brand in and of herself, beloved for her infectious personality and most notably her commitment to empowering the Black community through her philanthropic work. So, for many of us who have followed and been inspired by her movement, it was a shock to learn that a former employee of one of Cole’s restaurants, Bar Vegan, has named Cole and her business partners in a lawsuit alleging that portions of their tips were withheld during their employment and that they were paid less than minimum wage. Court records show that attorneys for Cole have since filed a response to the lawsuit, explicitly denying the claims brought forth against Cole. Additionally, Cole has issued a response to the allegations in her defense via an Instagram post, after an appearance she was slated for on TODAY was abruptly canceled.
What’s most troubling to many of Cole’s supporters, however, is the dichotomy that exists between the allegations forged against her, and the person we “know” her to be. Last month, Black Is The Standard reported on the American Sesh or simply Sesh, a new initiative led by Cole that leverages the power of her network to provide a space for a select group of mostly Black creatives to build and connect with each other and her celebrity guests. For the past couple of weeks, Cole’s social media audience has been granted a front-row seat to the making of Sesh; many who have thrown their hats in for a seat at the table themselves. The overwhelming response from people who hoped to attend was so immense, that Sesh quickly grew from 1 planned event to 10 announced events and counting. Since the first Sesh on January 5th, attendees have shared nothing but praise, many forging valuable partnerships with other attendees, and some even receiving financial support on the spot for their ventures.
So, yesterday, when word began to spread across the internet that Cole is a co-defendant in a lawsuit alleging that her company withheld money from employees, it might as well have read as “Pinky Cole stole money from her employees,” because that’s how many would like us to read it– and that’s unfortunate. Never mind the fact that it is unlikely that Cole is directly involved in the day-to-day operations of her restaurants, because when it comes to Black women facing adversity, the world tends to be quicker to judge than to assert logic and await facts.
So, how does a woman who visibly pours so much of her heart and soul into the empowerment of others become entangled in a lawsuit that suggests the opposite of her character? I believe it has a lot do to with the risk that Black women take when they bare themselves to the world. There’s a certain level of vulnerability that comes with being successful– but for Black women in power roles, the level of vulnerability is heightened exponentially.
I recently posted about how as women entrepreneurs, we have to be vulnerable and put in uncomfortable situations to maintain success– but I’m not entirely sure it’s the same for non-Black women– at least to the same extent. The truth is, Black women must possess an extra je ne sais quoi when they embrace leadership roles– they must have a certain amount of boldness and bravery inside of them that enables them to be vulnerable in front of a world that would much rather see them disgraced than embraced.
I mean, we saw how it played out in the court of public opinion for Megan thee Stallion–how she was villainized instead of protected, as any victim of an attack should be. And let me be clear– I am not suggesting that the claims made against Cole’s business are unfounded or frivolous– I am simply considering that it is unlikely that Cole is personally responsible, and I am choosing to extend grace to a person who has given so much of herself out loud.
I am also aware that Black women who rise to prominence are required to constantly prove themselves worthy of the world’s respect, instead of the world holding space for them based on who they’ve shown themselves to be. So, when Black women who lead are faced with adversity– when obstacles threaten to knock them off kilter, how do they remain standing? I believe it comes down to a few things, but I think what’s most critical is the strength of the community they’ve built, and the integrity they’ve displayed to those around them.
I don’t know every fact and detail in this lawsuit that Pinky Cole is facing, but I do know that she deserves support from the same community that she has given so much of her time, effort, and money to over the years. Most importantly, she deserves grace; a grace that is rarely given to Black women but is almost always deserved.