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Ivey event looks at ways to cultivate Black excellence in business

Mar 1, 2023

Black History Month panel l-r: Sakariya Ahmed, Nicole Kaniki, Hayden Woodley, Natasha Abayomi.

L-r: Sakariya Ahmed, Nicole Kaniki, Hayden Woodley, Natasha Abayomi.

To close the systemic gap between Black talent and career opportunities, organizations and institutions must move beyond recruiting targets and create environments in which Black professionals and students can thrive, a prominent racial justice advocate says.

Speaking to Ivey faculty, staff, and students at a recent Black History Month event, Nicole Kaniki, Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in Research and Innovation at the University of Toronto, highlighted both the advancements and shortfalls in organizational and institutional anti-Black racism strategies to date. The event, entitled The Future We See: Black Excellence in Business, focused on ways to identify, value, and reward Black excellence and included a panel discussion with Ivey faculty, alumni, and student representatives moderated by Ladan Mowlid, Senior EDI Associate at Ivey.

Citing how some current anti-Black racism initiatives have barely moved the dial and might dwindle further if Canada heads into recession, Kaniki said anti-racism strategies should be viewed as an ongoing journey, not a one-and-done process.

“Where I find people are really stuck is with allyship … They've set goals, they have an EDI action plan … but it's the implementation part that’s really hard to do,” she said. “It's hard to make that sort of cultural shift where we see action and allyship.”

Creating inclusive organizations

Kaniki discussed how organizations and institutions can take a structural approach to EDI with a specific budget for resources to support Black talent. In addition to being transparent and objective about what they want in candidates, Kaniki said organizations and institutions should measure and benchmark their progress with EDI recruitment and report and reflect on results.

And while recruitment strategies can attract Black talent, ongoing support is critical for retention. Kaniki said training programs, professional development opportunities, mentorship, and particularly sponsorship programs can be effective in creating diverse representation at leadership levels.

“Don’t overburden others [your Black employees or Black students] with this work … Holding yourself and your organizations accountable is where we really need to be at,” she said.

Building allyship

Inclusion strategies should also include affinity groups, accommodations and flexibility, and a complaints process, said Kaniki.

“Understand that people’s experiences will be different being Black and believe them when they tell you it’s different,” she said. “We need allies to stand in the gap.”

Kaniki, who grew up in South Africa during apartheid, told of the obstacles she faced as a Black woman and how support, such as allies and role models, helped her to build resilience.

“I was always told your race does not define you … you can determine your path … I wouldn’t do anything differently because even the challenges and the barriers that I faced brought me to who I am today,” she said. “Black communities have been so resilient … and Black joy is something that truly exists despite the issues or the challenges and the environments that we find ourselves in … The joy that comes from being Black keeps me going.”

Her sentiments were shared by the panellists, who included Natasha Abayomi, an HBA/Medical Sciences '23 candidate; Sakariya Ahmed, HBA '19; and Hayden Woodley, an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour at Ivey. The panel discussed the importance of advocacy work, supports and resources, and building community. Here is a summary.

Don’t hide who you are: Natasha Abayomi

Natasha Abayomi said she always felt pressure to not stand out as a Black woman in predominantly non-Black environments, but worried that invisibility was limiting her opportunities. She soon found herself gravitating toward other Black women for support to step out of her comfort zone. Abayomi told how she joined the Black Students' Association at Western University and found that being with other Black students helped to build her confidence.

“It’s so important for Black students to look for community because you’ll experience things that only Black students can relate to,” she said.

Through support from those Black students as well as other mentors, Abayomi said she has discovered the importance of bringing her whole self to every experience.

“My advice is to be yourself. I definitely felt in a lot of situations that I had to hide parts of myself … I've learned the best thing that you can bring to a team is your own personal experience,” she said.

Advocate for change: Sakariya Ahmed

Part of Sakariya Ahmed’s Ivey experience included being inspired to create change for the Black students that came after him. In 2019, he co-founded the Black Students at Ivey Collective (BSIC) to both provide necessary programming to Black students and advocate on their behalf to administration.

He has since continued to do advocacy work and says it’s important to make time for that both to transform the experience for others and to refuel himself.

“I've been able to connect within my community, advocate for my community in different ways … and that helps to nurture a part of me,” he said. “The idea of working towards change and seeing change happen is something that excites me and helps me to keep going.”

The power of collaboration: Hayden Woodley

As the only Black student at his high school, Hayden Woodley said he had to break down barriers and stereotypes and was often asked why he wasn’t “like other Black people on TV.”

He said he, too, embraces opportunities to share his experiences and advice because doing so can help others to gain strength during those awkward moments of diversity.

Woodley, who became interested in group dynamics after witnessing the prevalence of racial/ethnic subgroups and even minority subgroups in society, calls for those groups to connect and support each other.

“Try to connect and create opportunities where people can have mentors and leaders that are Black, but don't limit it to that … There are other people you can connect with even though it might seem that it’s a different group,” he said.

Woodley also said every individual has a role to play in speaking up for change and supporting others.  

“[Civil rights leader] Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t march alone, so you have an opportunity now to be a follower and to follow in the steps of others,” he said. “It can be really hard to get motivated to deal with something … but it's not about your time, it's about the person that comes after you.”