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On Being Black in Business

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

by Wanda Taylor

"There’s no question we’re living in a climate of growing cultural tensions and a racial reckoning about the treatment of Black people across the globe. Screams of 'Enough is enough!' and 'We want change!' have caused the world to pause and listen. But those cries are certainly not new. People like Lloyd Wilks, a legal professional and Black entrepreneur, have been out on the battlefield for most of their careers, trying to work under the systemic barriers that hindered their pathways to success.

Wilks is chief executive officer of CounselQuest Inc., a company that provides litigation support, corporate investigations, and other forensic technology services. He’s also an active member of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. As an executive and a Black man, Wilks not only had to navigate a difficult path,he had to find a way to form his own. That he has persevered isn’t a question of how but why. For Wilks, it was out of necessity, the need for survival, and for his family.

Wilks’ father left Jamaica in his youth and set out to build a successful life in the United Kingdom. But his dreams of progress and success were frustrated by attitudes about race and the negative treatment of Blacks in that country. Fast-forward to Wilks, who, as a Black Canadian, faced some of the same challenges that his father did decades earlier. How far have we really come as a global society?

“There is no free scholarship from failure, shame, or experience,” Wilks says when discussing his path and his advice to people from the Black, Indigenous, and people of colour communities experiencing racial barriers to moving ahead in their chosen field. Prior to the interview, Wilks had just dropped his children off at school. “They needed a little more TLC today,” he says, smiling as he mentions them. The juggling of family life and career, raising Black children, and how we can prepare youth for the future were all recurring themes throughout the discussion.

Another recurring theme was what Wilks faced over the course of his career. The “pass by” is an experience shared by many minority Canadians — knowing you’re just as qualified and capable as your colleague, but because you lack the connections, sit outside certain social circles, or your skin colour doesn’t represent the image a company wants to convey, many opportunities for advancement pass by you. For Wilks, those experiences became his cue to step out and create his own opportunities. Thus, CounselQuest became his vehicle to put his extensive skills in management, litigation, and forensic technology to work.

One important step toward shifting the negative experiences of being passed by is for those in power to first recognize the problem exists. But when those with the platform and an audience make statements that deny Canada’s own dark history of racism, or assert systemic discrimination doesn’t exist in this country, it can cause unnecessary damage. Recently, former Canadian politician Stockwell Day made controversial public statements regarding systemic discrimination, citing there was no race issue in Canada and comparing the pain of racism to incidents he experienced as a youth for wearing glasses. Others in power have made similar controversial statements at a time when society wants to look toward solutions.

Wilks says while people like Day deserve credit for their willingness to become public servants in an environment where that role isn’t easy, there are certain expectations of them.

“I expect that people like Stockwell Day, Doug Ford, François Legault, who made comments, and others would be able to recognize that there is a problem. But this may be a real failing. We will leave that to history to judge them, and they will be held to account.”

Society has held such people to account. After much backlash, Day stepped down from his role at the CBC and resigned from the Telus board of directors and other high-level positions. Wilks adds that Day and Ford may not be the people we need to preach to because although they ultimately may not change, they won’t always be running the country. He reiterates we need to focus on young people, as they’ll soon be the ones leading our country and shaping our policies. Wilks goes on to say there does need to be greater voices of diversity to challenge internal systems and thinking.

Wes Hall is one of the founders and chair of the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, as well as the founder and executive chairman of Kingsdale Advisors. The group established the BlackNorth Initiative, an organization dedicated to ending anti-Black systemic racism through a business-first model. The BNI has compelled businesses at the highest levels to take action to reform those embedded corporate structures that support and sustain systemic inequities against Black Canadians. The initiative has succeeded already; over 300 leaders at the nation’s top companies pledged to adopt several measures to end anti-Black systemic racism and create opportunities for under-represented groups.

“The legacy that Wes and the others have created, and what they are doing, is critically important and will be a great legacy in the arc of history,” Wilks says.

“Organizations are looking for competent professionals and need to start looking beyond the traditional places. Not everyone who has the talent has those connections or relationships that could help propel them forward,” he points out.

He’s confident this initiative will have long-term effects and when history looks back on the work of the BNI, they’ll see how its actions helped change the path for Black Canadians.

With regards to the need for programs that help enact change at all levels, Wilks makes it clear these resources shouldn’t be considered solely for the benefit of marginalized people; rather, they’re more for the benefit of those who need assistance putting their biases aside and, in the case of Indigenous people, for all Canadians who are reaping the benefits of Indigenous lands and cultures: “We’re doing that as part of our payback because as people we’re not very good at reaching into our own pockets and distributing to someone else.”

In keeping with his words of wisdom to young professionals, Wilks stresses the need to be tenacious. He says youth need to be prepared to fall down but be resolute in their desire to get back up. And no matter your circumstances, you’re not worth less than anyone else: “No one is worth less.”

Wilks has learned along his own career path the journey is tough. He tells young professionals there may be some, particularly those who may not look like them, who won’t want to see them succeed. He believes there’s a real fear in middle and upper management of which young people should be aware. He notes this fear, in many cases, is because some people in powerful positions are afraid of losing the power they have.

“You need to find something or someone who is going to push you and motivate you,” he says. It’s normally a more positive experience for a young person when they encounter a boss who is invested in them as a person and in their future.

Wilks explains there must be a culture in which the reality that you can find strong, competent Black candidates and competent people of colour to fill these senior management roles in companies is accepted.

“It cannot be that all the people occupying these positions on these boards, who are for the vast majority white — just as it could not have been in the early days when they were breaking the colour barrier in sports — that somehow these other people are just better,” he says. “Even from a statistical standpoint, it doesn’t hold water.”

After making a seat at the head of his own proverbial boardroom table, Wilks has invaluable final words of wisdom to pass along to others doing the same: “Few Black people have careers of choice; many are careers of necessity. And while there is no direct route, your hard work will eventually pay off. It’s about finding that enduring spirit of entrepreneurship.”

Wilks’ words come back full circle to his children and his legacy as a Black man in business. “In my situation, I had to find ways to build on my work — for my future and for the future of my family.”

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