A Seat at the Table: BIPOC Leaders in the Boardroom

A Seat at the Table: BIPOC Leaders in the Boardroom

When I was growing up I was always curious about why my grandpa (who raised me) would often go to something called a “board meeting.” All I knew was that one day, I wanted to be part of one too.

It wasn’t until university when I realized the significance of my identity in relation to the various leadership roles I was filling. When I was elected the president of my university’s student council, I had a sudden realization that I was most likely the first openly gay and First Nations student council president. This self realization was happening as Canada was waking up to the realities brought forward by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, active in Canada from 2007 to 2015.

In the later years of my life, I began to notice systemic racism, how it affected me, the importance of BIPOC individuals stepping up to lead, and the increasing importance of Diversity & Inclusion in organizations – and I’m not the only one. In June 2020, in his position cas the founder and CEO of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian stepped down from his own spot on the Reddit board and asked for that spot to be filled by a black member. 

As I’ve begun to fill leadership roles in my professional life, I’ve started to realize that I have something to contribute. As a communications professional and a volunteer leader in various organizations, I know I can bring my own story and perspective to organizations and their boardrooms as a BIPOC individual.

Now, as a co-founder of an Indigenous-owned communications consultancy and an active volunteer in my own community, I invite BIPOC individuals and organizations alike to respond to the calls of diversity and inclusion, and truth and reconciliation. But I often get asked, how? So here are some hot tips:

For members of the BIPOC community:

  1. Use LinkedIn. I advertise board positions on LinkedIn when I am recruiting and I know others do too. Check for those listings, reach out to the person who put the posting up and state your interest – especially if it’s something you’re passionate about.

  2. Check in with your local United Way. The United Way has many non-profit connections and they might be able to connect you with people who are seeking board leaders and volunteers.

  3. Connect with a professional association. I am a proud member and former leader of the International Association of Business Communicators Saskatoon chapter. Look for a local chapter of your favourite professional association and get involved as a volunteer and ask to get involved in leadership. These groups crave volunteers.

  4. Make investments in yourself. Look to further your education, especially in the areas of board governance. The Chartered Director Program and The Institute of Corporate Directors provide excellent opportunities to learn about corporate governance. Once you’re involved with these organizations, you’ll be able leverage the certifications to find board opportunities provided through them.

Unfortunately, we’re in a position where we still have to self-advocate. However, organizations are hungry for our talent and our perspective. They just need to be able to find us and ensure that you are a qualified candidate to lead.

For the corporations out there seeking BIPOC leaders to fill a seat at the table:

  1. Don’t do it for tokenism, do it for perspective. I think one of the perceptions that I often experience when looking at board roles is that I am being invited to be the token coloured face at the table. It’s important that in your recruitment messaging you are clear on your goals and intentions for having diversity around the table. Don’t be afraid to tell your story and be sincere about it. If you recognize that you need a more diverse board table and this is where you’re failing – be honest about it. Make diversity a whole-hearted promise to include BIPOC individuals for their perspective and not for tokenism.

  2. Make board work accessible. The concept of diversity and inclusion and BIPOC leaders sitting at the boardroom table feels as young as I am. I yearn to have and offer a voice at the boardroom table, however, it often feels like there are barriers to involvement for BIPOC leaders. Some of us are still growing our careers, and we require additional support to bring our skills up to speed. I would love to see scholarships for BIPOC leaders to gain the appropriate certifications to sit on governance boards. This might be part of your promise for diversity around the table.

  3. Be prepared to embrace cultural shifts. One of the words we often hear in the discourse around truth and reconciliation in Canada is “decolonization.” This word can feel threatening – but it isn’t. I view decolonization as an invitation to partner with Indigenous people to re-think and negotiate new systems of cultural organization. In the context of a board of directors, that might mean not being afraid to reframe governance structures that better reflect the various cultural influences, including but not limited to challenging the euro-centric structures that organizations often embrace. This of course, is limited by non-profit law and legal charitable requirements, but it might mean thinking about ways to advocate to regulators on how we can best create organizational systems and policies that better incorporate various cultural perspectives at the table.

All in all, there’s a lot of work to be done and a lot to discuss. I hope that I’ve been able to give you some food for thought, which in turn will provide you with tangible action items to boost your participation in boardrooms now and into the future.

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