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Diversity in the Boardroom Starts in the Classroom

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Representation among leaders — whether politicians, journalists, corporate CEOs, or high school principals — is important because it signals who belongs.

Leaders who reflect the diversity of the population, bring different perspectives that shape everything from how products and services are designed and delivered to who is hired and who is retained. For more than a decade, research by the Diversity Institute (DI) at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Toronto Metropolitan University, showed clearly that there were gaps in representation at the top.

While more than four percent of Canadians are Black, a review of 1600 corporate board members found only four Black women and nine Black men. Other research had revealed the ways in which anti-Black racism permeated systems at every level. In collaboration with the Future Skills Centre, DI has explored evidence-based solutions to advance diversity in corporate leadership, employment across sectors, entrepreneurship, post-secondary education, trades, and high school graduation.


Dr. Mohamed Elmi

Executive Director, Diversity Institute

One resounding conclusion is the need to work upstream. “If you want change in the boardroom, you have to start with the classroom,” says Dr. Mohamed Elmi, Executive Director at DI. “We know that education is one of the strongest drivers of social mobility. And, seeing a lack of role models and opportunities, many Black youth still feel discouraged from pursuing higher education and employment in specific fields.”

“Collaborating with partners like the Lifelong Leadership Institute, the Jean Augustine Centre and many others, we have paid particular attention to the impact of the pandemic on Black youth. Building on the success of the Study Buddy free tutoring program, the Advanced Digital and Professional Training Program (ADaPT) and our entrepreneurship training programs, we recently developed and launched customized programming for the Peel District School Board. With the help of the Government of Ontario Black Youth Action Plan (BYAP), we are laser focused on ensuring Black Youth have the skills they need to be part of the future of work,” said Elmi.

The ADaPT for Black Youth program is designed to rapidly upskill senior students and recent graduates with a combination of in demand technology and business courses, communication skills for job success and wraparound supports including career counselling and work integrated learning.

The success of the ADaPT program rests on active engagement with employers. Large employers such as RBC, Adecco, Moneris, government departments and SMEs quickly realized its benefits. With placement rates exceeding 90 per cent, even during the pandemic, the program struck a responsive chord. “We were searching for bright, hard-working students for our operations specialist position and turned to the ADaPT program to help us fill this role,” says Hussein Fazal, CEO and Founder of Super. “Within days, we were introduced to several high quality candidates. We were impressed by the drive and determination that these students displayed. We ended up finding the right fit and making a hire from the ADaPT program within two weeks.”

ADaPT’s innovative design provides new pathways for youth into jobs in business. Kanal Variawa, a university graduate in Toronto with a BA in criminology and a minor in geography, heard about ADaPT from a friend who had been through the ADaPT program. “ADaPT offers those hands-on cutting-edge skills that we need to be successful in the workplace,” says Variawa. “ADaPT made sure that we had the best resumes, preparation and skills that were needed in order to go into those (job) interviews and conquer them.”

“Racism, anti-Black racism and any other forms of discrimination carries a huge social and economic cost to Canada,” adds Elmi. “In the current environment, employers need access to talent, access to diverse markets and new ways of thinking. If we want to crack glass ceilings we have to first open the doors.”

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