Kent State Fashion’s 'New York City Industry Insider Series' focuses on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Fashion Industry
Last month, Kent State University School of Fashion students, faculty and alumni gathered on Zoom for the first "New York City Industry Insider Series" discussion, hosted by the Kent State University New York City Fashion program. Viewers were treated to a powerful conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion in the fashion industry led by Terry Roberts, Vice President of Employment Law and Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at American Eagle Outfitters (AEO).
This was the first "New York City Industry Insider Series" discussion from Kent State University New York City Fashion. Formally known as the “NYC Studio,” the school’s New York-based fashion program has previously hosted panels on people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, discussing inclusion in the fashion industry and how their contributions impact the business. Previous discussions featured industry professionals speaking on the subject of diversity and how it has the potential to reshape culture and society.
“Our team is fully committed to creating an inclusive space for dialogue, learning and engagement among students, alumni and industry professionals on these important real-world topics,” expressed Ann Walter, director of the Kent State New York City Fashion program.
During last month’s candid discussion with Roberts, he touched on the experiences that inspired him to create the Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) Alliance at AEO, while also giving tips and advice to aspiring fashion designers and merchandisers hoping to break into the industry.
“Growing up, people didn’t look like me in my neighborhood, but I never let that get me down,” said Roberts. “I’m the type of person, where if I can see something that I can make a difference in, I’m going to do it.”
One morning in late December 2017, Roberts woke up and realized that he had to make a change. After returning from the holidays in January 2018, Roberts approached his boss about creating a diversity and inclusion team at AEO. “I wanted to make a change. You have to have the courage and take ownership and hold yourself accountable,” said Roberts.
He soon created a small support group to begin the initiative, but quickly realized they would need a larger community of help to support the group’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. This community has since morphed into the I&D Alliance which focuses on creating an environment at AEO where everyone feels respected and empowered. The I&D Alliance is structured around three key pillars of inclusion: hiring, culture, and development. The Alliance has helped create relationships with diverse and nonprofit organizations around the country, providing access to diverse populations.
“When I go on AEO’s website, I’m seeing a whole host of people and I can see myself in different ways,” expressed Roberts. “I don’t have to fit into a box that society or the media put me into. None of us do. Having a culture of inclusivity and diversity is going to give you a stronger connection to your customers and your products. It’s a perfect fit for the fashion industry. People feel it on an emotional level.”
During the conversation, students and alumni were free to ask Roberts questions. Many of the questions that came up asked about involvement in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities and how to become a better ally.
“To be honest, I struggle with the word ‘ally.’ When I hear it, I think of World War II. We all have to have a common mission and we have to be ready to put ourselves out there when needed. Being an ally entails courage and sacrifice. There has to be a feeling of ‘your loss is my loss’ for it to be effective,” expressed Roberts. “If you want to be an ally, come from a place of courage. Be authentic and real. Be all in.”
Roberts encouraged BIPOC students entering the fashion industry to take a moment to understand and define who they are and cautioned not letting any person or any job define them. “You will have uncomfortable moments. You will face racism and sexism. Will you let that define you? You control what you bring to the table. Again, be authentic and be yourself. Be the best you.”
Later in the conversation, Roberts provided tips and advice for students eager to break into the fashion industry. He expressed that research is the key to getting hired and standing out above the rest. He encouraged students to stay current in the fashion industry and recommended reading publications such as Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), Business of Fashion (BOF), Harvard Business Review, Ted Talks and more, many of which offer free or discounted subscriptions for students.
“It’s a tough market right now. You should be addicted to research,” stressed Roberts. “You need to find how the company makes money and to understand what they want and need, otherwise you can’t help them succeed. Focus on the areas of the company that may be struggling, or where there’s potential growth and show how you can help them. Doing so will show that you care, and you’re focused and invested. Employers are interested in how you can help them grow, not how getting the job will help you.”
The final questions of the evening focused on whether or not Roberts thought current events would lead to lasting change, and how brands can ensure the change and metamorphosis continues.
“There is reignited interest and passion that is happening all over the world. This recent spark is great, but as we can see from periods of history, it goes up and down. It’s the policies and procedures that we put in place now that will make the difference,” voiced Roberts. “Brands need to focus on the actual structure that can be put in place, not just rely on passion and emotion. What are you going to do when the passion inevitably dies down? It’s the behind the scenes work in equity and inclusion that allows the change to carry on and have a lasting, positive effect.”
More About Terry Roberts
Terry Roberts is the Vice President of Employment Law and Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer at AEO. As AEO’s primary attorney focused on employment law, Terry has been a consummate professional and trusted business partner since joining the organization in 2016. In his role, Terry provides guidance on all legal matters relating to AEO’s associates including immigration and employment law issues.
Terry spearheads the Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) efforts across AEO. This includes leading the I&D Alliance which is focused on creating an environment at AEO where everyone feels respected and empowered.
In 2019, Terry was pivotal in the creation and rollout of the AEO Sexual Harassment Training across the US and Canada. Terry designed comprehensive, innovative and interactive training materials to educate all of our corporate associates on how to prevent and recognize sexual harassment in the workplace. He coordinated logistics to train over 300 associates in more than 15 sessions across several states. He cleverly referred to the training as a “Terry Talks” and delivered the content in a manner that was comprehensible and relatable to participants.
Terry leads with authenticity –it’s his core value. He firmly believes that associates should have pride in who they are and not be afraid to say and live it. It’s that value that empowers him to drive change at AEO and to build relationships with associates at every level.
To learn more about Terry Roberts of AEO, please visit the AEO Inc website.
Marketing Associate, Kent State Fashion
Alex Diaz Cambeiro
Program Outreach, Kent State New York City Fashion