Black History Month: Bringing Yourself into the Business World Recap

The importance of authenticity and allyship in the workplace

On Tuesday, February 22 the McGill Desautels Faculty of Management welcomed guests to a virtual panel event celebration of Black History Month. The event featured Dr. Patricia Faison Hewlin, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour, as well as Audrea Golding (BA’92), Partner at Fragomen, Martin Laguerre (BCom’95), Executive Vice-President and Head of Private Equity and Capital Solutions at the Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec, and Bertrand Cesvet (MBA’90), former Chairman and Senior Partner at Sid Lee.

Moderated by Lysie Salomon (BCom’17), the event featured a lively panel discussion on authenticity, leadership, and allyship in the workplace.

Dean and James McGill Professor, Yolande Chan, was on hand to kick off the evening and spoke to the importance of taking opportunities like this one to amplify Black perspectives at the Faculty.

“As a Black woman in academia, I have often been the only Black woman in fact, often the only Black person in the room,” she said. “I recall at a previous institution attending an event with the principal, where in a room with over 70 influential leaders there was only one other person who was Black. I recall feeling as I looked around the room as though the reputation of all Black people rested on my shoulders.”

“On other occasions when I have looked around a room and seen absolutely no one else like myself, I have felt isolated. I think it is vital that we [at the Faculty] and our community take time during this important Black History Month, and always, to uplift to support the Black members and the Black voices in our community and to encourage them to be their confident, authentic selves.”

To open the discussion, Hewlin gave a brief review of some of her research on authenticity. Setting the tone for the panelists, she offered the following definition of authenticity.

Authenticity: the antithesis of conformity

“Basically, authenticity is about walking the talk, the degree to which we live out our personal values and perspectives. And research continually shows that when we are able, and we feel that we are being authentic, that we are less likely to experience depression, and in the workplace, we’re more engaged in our work, we are more committed to the workplace, and we're less likely to leave.”

Salomon then asked the panelists for their own definitions of authenticity, starting with Audrea Golding.

“I think, you know, the word that Dr. Hewlin used was conformity. I think [authenticity] is the antithesis of conformity and it’s feeling most comfortable,” Golding started. “For me it’s being in a space where I feel more most comfortable because I'm seeing people who look like me and have many of the same background experiences as me and in my profession. I’m most comfortable talking about my work and the things that are happening my life with people who are similar to me, women lawyers, and in particular black women lawyers, and unfortunately in most large law firms, you don't have that on a consistent basis.”

In the case of Cesvet, he made a conscious effort to be authentically himself and embrace what made him different from others which he credits as the driving force behind him deciding to become an entrepreneur.

“I come from a biracial family and what made me different I think was really amazing as I always felt different and I always felt that I had a lot to offer,” he said. “For me it was a very clear decision at one point to say, unless I am my whole self, unless I relate back to the entirety of my upbringing of my Haitian origins, of the people that would come into my house and my family and everything, I was not myself. And not only had it felt not truthful or authentic, but I felt it ineffective. It left a lot of good stuff on the table unless I was capable of expressing that and being very overt about who I was and where I came from.”

For Laguerre, authenticity used to be a luxury as he described growing up in the 70s and 80s and conforming simply because he didn’t have a lot of people around who looked like him, and how he never thought about being Black but instead focused on surviving to be happy and finding happiness in order to survive.

“I think that sort of shapes you, as a person,” he said. “When we talk about authenticity today, in life, at work, outside of work, it's all about fitting in, but valuing diversity in terms of thinking differently. For me, it's been a journey from, from growing up, where I was the only one that looked like me in this environment. I was unique in that sense. Now, I think about race and diversity and ESG, and doing the right thing, being in a leadership position, and I think about it constantly in terms of how do I bring my team forward? How do I give people opportunities? How do I make sure that what happened to me, or how I felt when I was very young, doesn't happen to others?”

Leadership and allyship

From a leadership standpoint, as Cesvet explained, leadership in this day and age is all about managing diversity, which was not the case when he began his career over thirty years ago.

“There is a lot of pressure, if you're a diverse representative in leadership,” he said. “People expect us to be involved in the [equity, diversity and inclusion] initiatives of our organizations, and we’re the go to people there, and it puts pressure because on the other hand, there is tokenism that happens, where, you have an organization [with] 60 people, you have two Black people, and you go, ‘Okay, we'll give them [EDI],’ of course we'll do it.”

Golding echoed this sentiment and added that it is important for everyone to shoulder the burden of EDI efforts, and for allyship:

“It is a burden, because [as a Black person in a leadership role] you are now seen as the person who is the EDI advocate,” she said. “My view is, I'm not the only leader in our organization. Just because I look, the way I look, and because I am in this position, doesn't mean I'm the only person who should be talking about these issues with everyone else in the firm. Those things are not delegable, you shouldn't just be delegating uncomfortable subjects of EDI to certain people, everyone has to take their responsibility seriously as a leader.”

Following the panel discussion, attendees were split off into moderated breakout rooms to continue their own discussions about authenticity and allyship before returning to the main room where Dean Chan delivered her closing remarks.

“As I was preparing speaking notes for this evening, I was asked to reflect on a post George Floyd era, and what followed” she said. “I absolutely have to say that I challenge that we are in a post George Floyd era. Today in Canada and in the U. S., and in many parts of the world, we are still too far from a world where Black lives matter […]. The issues that face the Black community today are rooted in a long history of violence and oppression that will take decades, maybe centuries, to address.”

“So, what is my dream for what a post George Floyd Era could look like, if we ever get there? I imagine a situation where a Black person doesn't start from behind, where a Black stereotype is a positive stereotype, where there are many Black faces and individuals in positions of leadership and power. For me, it's a situation where the Black voice is not marginalized, it's part of the core fabric of important activities, and where being Black isn't dangerous,” she continued.

“So how do we get there? Something I feel we don't do often enough, when considering issues related to EDI is to start with ourselves, to pause for some self-reflection. So, as I leave you this evening, my challenge to you, to help create a post George Floyd era is to engage in self-reflection, to think about your own biases, and the way you might be benefiting from doing nothing. Will you question yourself? Will you hold yourself accountable? Will you be a courageous part of the change that's needed?”


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