When the BlackNorth Initiative launched in June 2020, it was amidst a worldwide cry for justice for Black people and police reform. Like it or not, it was time to start the long overdue conversation about diversity and racial inequality. The initiative set out to improve the lives of millions of Black Canadians and BIPOC individuals. Now, nearly one year later, we have seen tremendous strides in our efforts to level the playing field for people of colour starting in the corporate world.
Some may say it is time to move on from the diversity discussion; that many companies have made many statements denouncing anti-Black racism and the doors of corporate Canada are now open. But making a one-time statement and fixing a system that facilitates continued racism are two very different things. Now is not the time to pause and pat ourselves on the back. Now is the time to redouble our efforts and move out of our comfort zone to challenge the status quo, especially in our boardrooms and executive suites.
I know this because I sit on and advise many boards with many people who still look nothing like me. Often the conversation about BIPOC diversity in the boardroom is avoided because too many leaders still find the conversation difficult. Some even consider it “off limits.”
Some may argue this hesitance is simply due to the polite nature of Canadians, like avoiding discussions on politics and religion. I see it as another example of how those at the top have been conditioned to maintain a system that is inherently racist, that separates us not based on abilities, but by race. The best way to maintain a system that disadvantages some is to ensure that none feel the freedom to discuss and challenge that system.
The topic of diversity reform is only uncomfortable if we approach it from an adversarial perspective — that to improve the lives of the BIPOC community we must take something away from someone else. The reality is that diversity in the boardroom and executive suite is an opportunity, and that is proven with pure arithmetic. McKinsey has found that companies with the most ethnically and culturally diverse boards worldwide are 43 per cent more likely to experience higher profits. They are also better equipped to make stronger decisions, anticipate challenges, assess risks and identify opportunities.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time for leaders to get comfortable with addressing inequality. In many ways racial disparity is accelerating: The third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately impacting the BIPOC community; there’s continuing evidence of police brutality and discrimination; and pay inequality for BIPOC people in the corporate world is an ongoing issue. We are in a race against time. If we do not get comfortable with this discussion now, we will be sentencing the next generation of Blacks and other BIPOC individuals to decades more of discrimination.
We need to shift the paradigm so corporate leaders are excited and proud to engage in a discussion about how diversity can improve the performance of their companies, not treat it as an issue to be managed. We need leadership by example where companies recruit and welcome Black and BIPOC nominees to serve with them, not behave as if there is a selective, colour coded turnstile at the boardroom door.
The BlackNorth Initiative has been leading the paradigm shift I am calling for, one company at a time. More than 500 companies have already answered the call by signing a pledge that acknowledges the existence of anti-Black systemic racism and the need to create opportunities within their companies for Black Canadians. These companies do not view this as the elephant in the room, but as corporate impediment that must be addressed head on.
I want major corporations, leaders and managers to know that they control the conversations in the boardrooms, and there is tremendous power in that. As with politics, religion and sexual orientation, which were once viewed as taboo topics, race, diversity and inclusion do not need to be shunned, but rather encouraged. I believe that once companies make a habit of having these conversations — not in secret, but with openness and candour — they’ll soon see how fruitful and informative they can be.
Take Telus. Last year the company had to manage the high-profile exit of a director after insensitive statements. Since then, Telus has led the type of change I am calling for. While it has historically lacked diversity and visible minority representation in leadership positions, it has recently signed the BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO pledge and has put action behind its words. It had set a target to have at least two board members who represent a visible minority or Indigenous group by the 2023 annual meeting. Next month, Telus expects to surpass that target — two years early — at its upcoming annual meeting.
To my fellow corporate leaders who are still sitting on the fence: I call on you to get comfortable with the conversation. Be bold and remove the elephant from the room. You can start by signing the BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO pledge, where you will be taking immediate action by acknowledging the unfair disadvantages faced by BIPOC individuals. Then, get ahead of the rapidly evolving expectations placed on corporations by evaluating all aspects your business and asking critical questions on diversity to allow for progressive conversations. Lastly, turn those conversations into accountable business actions by setting diversity policies and targets around leadership recruitment, corporate partnerships, employee engagement and supply chain management. Be like other leaders in this space and align your executive compensation to achieving these objectives. What gets managed gets done.
Diversity and race should no longer be seen as bad words. They need to be seen as words of opportunity.