Black in business: chatting with the award-winning Black Rotman Commerce

Emerging student group discusses community, visibility, mentorship
Jeffrey Fasegha, Zainab Hamid, Jasmine Ali, Ayesha Mohammed, and Judson Asiruwa. SRIVINDHYA KOLLURU/THE VARSITY
Jeffrey Fasegha, Zainab Hamid, Jasmine Ali, Ayesha Mohammed, and Judson Asiruwa. SRIVINDHYA KOLLURU/THE VARSITY

Despite being only one year into its existence, Black Rotman Commerce (BRC) has emerged as a major player in serving its student community at the intersection of Blackness and business. 

The BRC focuses on organizing networking events, hosting socials, and supporting peers as they navigate university courses and career opportunities. 

In January, its founding members — Jasmine Ali, Judson Asiruwa, Jeffrey Fasegha, Zainab Hamid, and Ayesha Mohammed — organized the second annual Black Career Conference in collaboration with the Black Students’ Association and the National Society of Black Engineers. 

Earlier this month, the BRC’s work was recognized by the Arts and Science Students’ Union, which awarded the student organization with the Terry Buckland Award for Diversity & Equity in Education. In addition to the five current members, the award was also presented to graduate Dunsin Adebise, whom Fasegha credits for initiating the idea for BRC last year. 

The Varsity sat down with the BRC to discuss their origin and raison d’être as a community space for Black students — both Rotman and non-Rotman — who are interested in business.

Tackling isolation, forming community 

Fasegha, a third-year Rotman Commerce student, spoke to the isolating experience of being a Black student at Rotman and U of T in general. “When you have such few Black students in the program, you don’t really see anybody you can directly relate with.” Asiruwa, a fourth-year Rotman Commerce student, described the BRC as a formalized product of the community that had been forming between Black Rotman students. 

Fasegha and Asiruwa also spoke about their realization that their community is much larger than they had initially imagined — especially when they consider Black students outside the Rotman Commerce program or on other campuses who take an interest in the BRC. 

Addressing the “confidence barrier”

While Rotman, in general, already provides many opportunities and resources, Asiruwa noted that accessing them can be challenging — thus justifying groups like the BRC. “Sometimes it can be a bit of a confidence barrier.”

Fasegha also described how accessing the resources provided by BRC peers, who share similar lived experiences with them, can be more intimate and less intimidating compared to general Rotman resources.

More broadly, on getting Black students to reach programs like Rotman Commerce, Asiruwa similarly noted that “just getting people to apply can sometimes be the barrier… if you know that a program is for you, you would feel more inclined to apply to that.” 

Fasegha added, “When you see somebody represent you, then you’re more likely to go there. So Rotman hasn’t historically been a place where Black students go to, and so that’s what we’re trying to change.” 

Fasegha said that BRC is working to encourage more Black high school students to apply to Rotman and U of T, acknowledging that visibility is part of the issue. 

“Having these specific communities and programs kind of lowers that barrier,” Asiruwa said. Accordingly, the key to inclusion is to make more accessible spaces, not to “to lower standards or change programs entirely for diverse sets of people.”

The importance of visibility

Ali, a third-year Rotman Commerce student, further discussed the importance of visibility and representation on campus. “Just seeing yourself reflected in leadership positions is what’s encouraging a lot of our younger years to actually go out and get involved.” 

She continued, “You have incredibly talented and qualified Black students who don’t go for these leadership positions because they just don’t see themselves represented there.”

The same issue of representation applies to startups, according to Fasegha and Asiruwa. Fasegha noted that there are venture capital funding gaps, and despite the achievements of diverse entrepreneurs, they aren’t as recognized in the media. “Less [media] coverage means lower multiples, which means lower valuation, which means lower money,” added Asiruwa.

Mentorship: paying it forward 

Appreciating the BRC’s initiative to foster genuine Black community and mentorship, Ali praised her seniors: “Rotman actually doesn’t know how many Black students there are technically in the program. So going that extra mile to first find us, and then actually cultivate organic relationships with us… mentorship blossomed at the same time as friendships.”

She emphasized the need to treat the next cohort of BRC students in a similar manner. “We feel a need to pay it forward,” she reflected. Helping one another out comes from “a common understanding amongst us that we all pitch in and we all take at the same time.” 

With files from Srivindhya Kolluru and Alex Law

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