Why aren’t there more Black executives on Bay Street?
A Q&A with BlackNorth Initiative founder and chairman Wes Hall
You’re the founder and chairman of the BlackNorth Initiative, a group of business leaders combatting systemic anti-Black racism through a business approach. What does that look like?
In the business world, we’re all about solutions. Unlike politicians, we don’t just throw money at problems; we’re motivated by results and the bottom line. At BNI, we’re saying businesses should be prioritizing diversity not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s good for business. If you have no Black people in your organization, you’re leaving money on the table. No businessperson wants to do that.
Has the business community been receptive?
So far, more than 300 CEOs have signed our pledge, which includes a commitment to having Black leaders in 3.5 per cent of executive and board roles by 2025. That includes many of the big law firms and the major banks—except for TD and RBC.
Is that a call-out?
I try not to call people out for not acting. But there are more than 1,400 companies on the TSX, so where are the other 80 per cent? Why aren’t they participating?
Some of these companies are saying they don’t want to single out one group, that it’s unfair to treat Black people differently. But our view is that we are already treated differently: we are excluded from the C-suites on Bay Street. There are barriers in place, and we need to get rid of them.
What are those barriers?
So much of it is cultural. There’s the person interviewing candidates, and let’s say they interview me and we don’t have much in common. And then after me comes Charlie, whose dad went to the same school as the interviewer, who lives in the same neighbourhood, is a member at the same club. And maybe Charlie’s transcript is a little bit more impressive because while he got a free ride, I worked two jobs to pay for school. Charlie gets the job and I get filtered out. This isn’t just theoretical; it happens all the time.
How should employers address those less explicit, cultural prejudices?
They need to educate their staff about unconscious biases. And to evaluate their practices through the lens of anti-Black racism. For example, if a law firm is looking at students from Queen’s, they should know that the school is on track to graduate only one Black student in 2021.
You’re the chairman of Kingsdale Advisors, an advisory firm. How did you get your start?
In the mailroom at Stikeman Elliott after high school. I grew up in Scarborough and didn’t even know what Bay Street was, but I saw the cars and the suits. I thought, I want to do what they do. I was lucky to have white people support me along the way. My company paid for me to go to night school, and I got my law clerk certificate. I also had experiences that were memorable in the opposite way. A senior executive once said, “In spite of the fact that Wes is Black, he has brought a lot to the company.” He thought it was a compliment.
Does being a wealthy executive with a home in Rosedale insulate you from the kind of prejudice we’re talking about?
I was out running the other day and I saw an older lady fall in the street. I wanted to help her, but then I thought, What if she’s disoriented and thinks I’m attacking her? And what if a neighbour looks out the window and sees me and calls the police and then they show up and I don’t have ID and I’m in handcuffs? I may live in Rosedale, but when a repair person comes to my house, they will often ask if Mr. Hall is in.
Isn’t that racism?
It is, but it’s also unconscious bias. People don’t see people who look like me in fancy houses or in boardrooms, so they assume I can’t live in a certain kind of home or have a certain kind of job.
Have you taken part in any BLM protests?
No. I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, which means I don’t participate in protests. I absolutely support what the protesters are doing, and I hope they support my approach.
How do you respond to someone who would look at your success and say you’re an example of why we don’t need any interventions?
I’d say show me 100 more of me. Until then, we have work to do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.