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Third annual Black Career Conference empowers and connects Black students

Conference featured remote lectures, workshops, all-new pitch competition
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Aysha Mohammed, Jamar Norick, Jasmine Ali, and Kwaze Gayle were the principal organizers of the Black Career Conference. // Yamila Franco is co-founder of Nyoka Design Labs, which won first place in the Black Career Conference pitch competition. COURTESY OF BLACK ROTMAN COMMERCE
Aysha Mohammed, Jamar Norick, Jasmine Ali, and Kwaze Gayle were the principal organizers of the Black Career Conference. // Yamila Franco is co-founder of Nyoka Design Labs, which won first place in the Black Career Conference pitch competition. COURTESY OF BLACK ROTMAN COMMERCE

Despite COVID-19 making it impossible to host the Black Career Conference (BCC) in person this year, the event’s organizing team successfully held a two-day virtual conference from January 15–16 on Hopin, a virtual event platform, providing Black U of T students a space to gain exposure, connections, and a sense of community.

Since 2019, the annual conference has been organized by Black Rotman Commerce (BRC) students in partnership with the Black Students’ Association. Last year’s conference drew in more than 250 attendees. This year, the BCC saw 577 participants, including speakers and the organizing team.

Although it’s organized by BRC, the conference is oriented toward Black students in all fields of study. In 2020, only 37 per cent of attendants were business students, while 26 per cent hailed from STEM fields and another 18 per cent attended from the social sciences. Undergraduates comprised 65 per cent of participants, and many universities besides U of T were represented.

Connecting apart

In an interview with The Varsity, the BCC organizing team described the new and returning events they tailored to fit the needs of Black students in 2021.

In particular, the BCC team highlighted how COVID-19 has impacted small businesses and Black entrepreneurs — who were already encountering systemic barriers before the pandemic — more than their peers. To address this, they expanded the conference to include a new pitch competition for Black businesspeople and Black-led startups.

“We know that Black entrepreneurs do not have access to as much capital as our counterparts,” Aysha Mohammed, Co-President of BRC, said. “So we hope that through this competition we provide these opportunities for Black entrepreneurs.”

Beyond the pitch competition, the conference offered participants networking opportunities with professionals on 15 industry panels, including representatives from fields such as law, journalism, politics, engineering, medicine, entrepreneurship, and many more. During workshops, panellists shared their stories and answered questions from the audience. 

The workshops were followed by the networking session with conference sponsors — including the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Oliver Wyman, the Royal Bank of Canada, Deloitte Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank, and SSENSE — where attendees could learn about career opportunities within these organizations.

Throughout the whole process, the organizing team emphasized that teamwork was extremely important. “It was a daunting task… transitioning [to] a conference that had hundreds of attendees online,” Co-President of BRC Jasmine Ali said. “It was a lot of preparation, a lot of late-night meetings, and also just a lot of planning for worst-case scenarios.”

Creativity, competition, and community

Over 30 startups applied to the pitch competition, and the organizers had a difficult time choosing the finalists. They initially aimed to have five or six finalists, but as they went over the applications, they extended this number to eight due to the high quality of pitches.

The finalists competed for a total prize pool of $20,000 and a single placement with the League of Innovators’ LABS accelerator program.

First place — winning $10,000 and the accelerator placement — was won by Nyoka Design Labs for its efforts to reduce plastic waste. Its work focuses on creating a bioluminescent, non-toxic, and plastic-free light source.

Second place and $6,000 went to Clutch, a startup that pitched an online driver’s education and scheduling app. Third place and $4,000 went to Therapy Innovation Inc. for its portable vest that monitors musculoskeletal conditions with sensors and an accompanying app. Finally, Envly won audience pick and received $1,000 for its eco-friendly shopping app.

While the first day was dominated by the pitch competition, both days of the conference featured keynote speeches by filmmaker Julien Christian Lutz, Mercer Canada executive Angelita Graham, and Bank of Montreal executive Deland Kamanga. All three shared their experiences of becoming professionals in their fields and highlighted opportunities for the next generation of Black people.

“Juxtaposing today with 1990, and guys — it is a different world,” Kamanga told the audience. “You really do have tremendous opportunities.” He emphasized that this generation of Black businesspeople has greater access to capital and encouraged them to use it.

“I would like to see your generation make the lead where you are building businesses, and you are not employees,” Kamanga continued. 

Empowering Black people

While formal feedback is still being collected for this year’s conference, the pitch competition winners spoke with The Varsity about what attracted them to the BCC conference.

“A lot of times, it is really hard for us to become participants in other competitions just because we’re minorities,” Linda Boachie, one of Clutch’s co-founders, said.

“A lot of times, it does feel like we’re just checking off a box when we apply to other pitch competitions,” Dymika Harte, another co-founder of Clutch, added.

This idea also resonated with Yamilla Franco, a co-founder of Nyoka Design Labs. She said that she often felt unmotivated when participating in other places due to the lack of equity.

“I don’t come from a place of privilege, and I’m building everything from scratch,” she said. “So I personally feel like I get more opportunities to… pass on to the finals or to benefit from the competition when there’s a level playing field like [at the BCC].”

In addition to the monetary prizes, many of the teams underscored how helpful the judges’ feedback was. “Linda and I have pitched in a bunch of different competitions this year, and a lot of times, the feedback was really cut off,” Harte said. “But [at the BCC], we got a lot of insight from actual industry leaders that understood the space that we are in.”

Filling a pressing need

Career fairs in general have been scarce this past year, with physical distancing measures making many impossible. Adapting to an online platform allowed the BCC to attract many attendees, some of whom have been starved for this sort of experience.

Despite initial concerns by the executive team around technical difficulties, any problems that did occur didn’t ruin the experience for the participants. “We’ve been to other conferences, and this one was definitely well organized, even though there were some tech issues,” Harte said. “I think the team handled it really well, and it was still a really great turnout and the event overall.”

Of course, the BCC is not just a normal career fair. According to a 2016 Statistics Canada report, the unemployment rate for people aged 25–59 years who have postsecondary education and are not Black was 5.3 per cent. In contrast, the unemployment rate for Black people of the same age and education was 9.2 per cent.

This dichotomy is particularly glaring in the aftermath of 2020, a year of economic turmoil and equity-focused societal upheaval. Disparities between racialized people and the rest of the population have become even worse in recent months, with racialized people disproportionately at risk from COVID-19. With this context, events like the BCC are more important than ever.

“Our goal is really to help Black students regardless of their program… to help students academically, professionally, and socially,” Mohammed said. “[With] recruitment opportunities… interview prep, résumé building, and also for academics on the academic side. Our goal is to increase Black representation, and we’re open to any students regardless of their [academic] background.”

“We really aim to be a cornerstone in the Black community in Canada by providing a forum that supports the representation of Black excellence and Black professionals, thriving across industries,” Ali said.