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Understanding the Black Experience and Becoming an Ally with Lekan Olawoye

Understanding the Black Experience and Becoming an Ally with Lekan Olawoye

Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN) founder and CEO Lekan Olawoye joined us for our latest Virtual Speaker Series session to discuss why it’s important to understand the experiences of Black people in the professional sphere, how working to hire and retain more Black talent is good for business, and what organizations can do to be better allies to the Black community.

The Black Experience

Before reviewing the concrete strategies that Lekan offered during his presentation, it’s important to establish a baseline understanding of how the day-to-day experiences of Black people differ from others. There is substantial evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, that Black people face obstacles, unfair judgement, bias, and distractions while at work and simply while existing in the world at large. Whether it’s direct open racism, passive negative bias or systemic issues, Black people often find themselves modulating their behaviour and adapting to negative biases to get by.

Lekan spoke about these distinctions and the inherent unearned privilege (specifically white privilege) that many non-Black people have. He used examples of his own life in terms of how he adjusts his behaviour and guides his children to do the same—such as only jogging at certain times of day, not wearing a hoodie, etc.—to avoid confrontations, undue attention, and scrutiny. Lekan connected the commonly known social idea of “driving while Black” to the similar idea of “working while Black”, and the various implications these stereotypes and biases have in the professional realm.

It’s a matter of fact that Black people are underrepresented in almost all professional spaces, and even those few Black professionals that are hired often find themselves facing systemic hurdles and little internal support. To remedy this, Lekan offered several actions organizations can take to remedy these issues.

Hiring and retaining Black professionals

Lekan provided a few key strategies to establish more inclusive hire practices, ensure you’re hiring top Black talent, and then retain those employees once they join your organization.

When setting goals and establishing hiring strategies, decouple Black from other visible minorities

Proactive hiring practices have been part of mainstream business practice for some time, but Lekan said it’s important to differentiate between Black professionals and the broad idea of visible minority groups. He said that the broader criteria can make for blindspots when assessing the diversity and representation of an organization, and, more importantly, the strategies that work to hire more women, for example, won’t necessarily work when trying to hire Black people. Context matters.

Demystify your hiring process

Lekan suggested doing as much as possible to make the hiring/application process clear and accessible. Try to remove any barriers that could prevent someone from outside your background or social network from applying successfully. Lekan said this is broadly useful when trying to find the best talent possible, not just the talent that you know best.

Establish a Black Employee Resource Group

It’s important to offer as much support as possible in the effort to retain quality Black professionals, Lekan said. We can’t simply hire more Black people and expect them to thrive naturally in an organization that has traditionally had few, if any, Black people in it. Connect Black hires with internal mentors, and create an explicit resource group where they can share knowledge and have a platform to raise issues.

How to Be a Real Ally

As the conversation about racism and discrimination has resurfaced and developed over the past few months, Lekan said he has seen many organizations take different actions in an effort to engage with this moment. Critically, he said that it’s been all too common that an organization will make a statement of support to Black Lives Matter and make a one-time donation to the cause. While this is better than nothing, he said that in many ways this is lip service to the actual progressive movement. As we know, this is a structural, cultural issue that will require serious, thoughtful efforts from all of us to make real change.

Lekan said that organizations should look at what they can do within their sphere of influence to be true allies. It’s not about expecting one company to change the world by itself, but to recognize that they are part of the professional ecosystem and do have the power to take the steps outlined above to hire Black talent and to help them to succeed. Take stock, make actionable plans, and follow through. That’s the path to true allyship.

In the end, Lekan said it’s important to remember that the reason why we make these efforts is not just because it’s progressive minded and morally right. Doing this work broadens and diversifies the talent pool that’s available to your organization, and that’s simply good business. Meaningful, long-lasting inclusion strengthens our communities and moves us all towards a stronger, more prosperous, and more fair society.

A passionate advocate for organizational change and lasting progress, Lekan Olawoye is a leader who is equally comfortable offering high-level business advice as he is passionately speaking about how to be an effective ally. His organization, the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN), is the largest of its kind in Canada and the third largest in the US with an organization spanning over 10,000 members. Lekan’s cross-sector experience gives him the skills to foster transformational change and provide critical guidance on harnessing the power of meaningful diversity.

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