Molara Awosedo and Vernette Eugene work in different divisions of Scotiabank at the managerial level. A year ago they co-founded a Black Employee Resource Group, advancing diversity and inclusion and developing high-performing Black employees.
By Shelley White
For Molara Awosedo and Vernette Eugene, Black History Month is a time for reflection and celebration.
It’s about recognizing the accomplishments of Black leaders in the past while keeping an eye towards the future, says Molara, Communications Manager within Global Finance at Scotiabank.
“It’s about seeing representation,” she says. “For me, growing up, I didn’t see a lot of Black leaders. Black History Month is a time to see that there are strong, powerful, Black leaders in the community.”
Adds Vernette, Senior Manager, Enterprise Productivity at Scotiabank: “Black History Month is a time to be reminded of the great things men and women have done and how that has created a space and an opportunity for me today. But as much as it’s about history, I think it’s really important to highlight the work that’s currently underway and the work that’s still to be done.”
“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of Black leaders. Black History Month is a time to see that there are strong, powerful, Black leaders in the community.”
One of the ways Vernette and Molara have been continuing that important work is by co-founding Scotiabank’s Black Employee Resource Group (ERG) a year ago. The group, which is headquartered in Toronto, aims to advance diversity and inclusion within Scotiabank, plus help to grow and develop the base of high-performing Black employees working at the organization.
“The Bank has done an awesome job in championing diversity and inclusion,” says Vernette. And we think, as employees, we can help advance those goals.”
To celebrate Black History Month, the ERG will host an internal event at Toronto’s Scotiabank Centre on February 21. A panel of speakers will discuss their experiences as Black people in corporate Canada and celebrate the recent federal initiative that put Viola Desmond on the $10 bill. If you don’t know her story, you should: Viola Desmond was a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who, in 1946, refused to leave a “whites-only” section of a cinema in New Glasgow, N.S. Her actions helped spark the modern civil rights movement in Canada.
“We want to recognize the work that she’s done and why it’s important to have a black woman on an instrument like that,” says Vernette.
Another aim of Scotiabank’s Black Employee Resource Group is to foster a sense of belonging amongst Black employees, notes Molara.
A lifelong extrovert who spent most of her childhood in Brampton, Ontario, Molara says she “fell in love” with communications as a student at Montreal’s McGill University. She graduated in 2012, and says that throughout her blossoming career in the banking and insurance industries, she’s often found herself one of the few Black employees in the office.
She’s also experienced challenges. At a previous employer, Molara remembers being promoted into a management position after a year with the organization, an impressive accomplishment she should have been able to relish.
“A colleague said to me, ‘You only got the role because you’re Black,’” recalls Molara. “I thought, ‘Wow, you really have some gall to say this out loud to my face.’ And it was like, are we not going to acknowledge the good work that I’ve done on the team? Even though I showed you the work, it was still not good enough for you to say, ‘You’ve done a good job and that’s why you deserve it.’”
Vernette, who grew up on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and moved to Canada to attend university, says she’s also experienced challenges in the workplace, but in subtler ways. Instances of unconscious bias against people of colour can be hard to pinpoint, she notes, but can also be keenly felt.
“Viola Desmond was a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who, in 1946, refused to leave a “whites-only” section of a cinema in New Glasgow, N.S. Her actions helped spark the modern civil rights movement in Canada.”
It’s critical that organizations create inclusive environments so that all employees can bring their “true selves” to work, says Vernette. “Because if you’re coming into the workplace and you’re always on guard, you’re not being as productive as you can be.”
Both Molara and Vernette say the support of their personal and professional networks has been important. They plan to introduce a mentoring component to their ERG to both develop supportive networks and help talented Black employees excel.
As someone who has benefited from mentoring relationships, Vernette says she feels compelled to pass that along to the next generation. To that end, she’s taken part in the Confident Leader Conference in Toronto, a leadership development program for African-Canadian kids in elementary school, as well as Imani, an initiative based at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Through Imani, Black professionals mentor Black university students who, in turn, mentor Black high school students.
“We have that circle of encouragement and that circle of inspiration,” says Vernette of the Imani program. “I jump at any opportunity to share my journey of self-confidence as a leader.”
When it comes to young women of colour hoping to emulate her success, Molara has this advice: Take control of your career.
“I think a lot of times women — Black women and women in general — we kind of wait to be tapped on the shoulder for the next promotion,” says Molara. “But I just kind of ask for what I want. I think when you show that you have the ability to recognize your strengths and bring those strengths to the organization, the sky’s the limit.” She also encourages women to “Challenge yourself. Step out of your comfort zone and do something that scares you every day.”
Vernette notes that when it comes to confidence in the workplace, resilience starts from within. “Having allies and having training for our leaders and promoting inclusion is important,” she says. “But I can honestly say that the work starts with the individual and being okay in your skin, because no one else can do that for you.”