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Lekan Olawoye, the CEO and Founder of the Black Professional In Tech Network, on July 29 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN) is partnering with the Royal Bank of Canada for a $4.5-million program to strengthen Corporate Canada’s pipeline for young Black talent through mentorship and widespread hiring commitments.

The organizations plan to help more than 1,000 Black business and tech professionals under the age of 30 find work with Canadian companies over the next three years through what BPTN calls its “Champion’s Table.” The committee will be comprised of 12 to 15 Canadian executives, who will commit to hiring from BPTN’s growing network.

The funding, from RBC Future Launch youth job-preparation initiative, will also help BPTN expand its own community of young professionals and ramp up its mentorship program, called Cultivate, to pair 350 young Black professionals with executives annually. The initiative will be announced on Tuesday.

“We thought this relationship could be historic,” BPTN founder Lekan Olawoye said of the RBC partnership. “We can actually build the largest pipeline ever of early career Black tech in Canadian history. With our growth and them turbo-charging it, it creates an opportunity to do something incredibly special.”

Mr. Olawoye founded BPTN in 2018 after serving as the executive in charge of talent development with the MaRS Discovery District innovation centre. Funded through partnerships with various corporations, BPTN bills itself as the largest network of Black tech professionals in North America, with more than 20,000 members in Canada and the United States.

While at MaRS, Mr. Olawoye heard from executives who said they were struggling to find talent for corporate leadership positions – even though he knew talented Black professionals who were more than qualified for the jobs.

The pipeline initiative is an effort to correct this kind of network gap – by ensuring Canadian executives no longer overlook Black talent, and seeding young professionals into their companies so they can rise through the corporate ranks. “There have been a lot of people who have said they’re going to do something – but once they say it, they don’t know how to do it,” Mr. Olawoye said.

Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year sparked a resurgence in awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, some Canadian executives have begun to publicly acknowledge the presence of systemic racism in Corporate Canada, including barriers for Black candidates in hiring processes.

Mr. Olawoye said he is regularly approached by Canada’s top executives for partnerships, but is very specific about who BPTN will work with. He’s hesitant to partner with companies that see Black hiring as a “charitable” cause or an idea to throw money at – which he estimates still accounts for as much as 60 per cent of Corporate Canada.

So BPTN only works with the other 40 per cent or so of companies that want to hire Black talent because they value those employees and the wealth of perspective and experience they can bring. “Until you see it as a business need that’s also good for you, then we are not going to be working with you,” Mr. Olawoye said.

He praised RBC for understanding this from the jump. Mark Beckles, RBC’s vice-president of social impact and innovation, oversees the Future Launch initiative. He said the partnership, and particularly the Champion’s Table, “allows us to have ongoing conversations with industry partners to challenge ourselves around how to embed diversity and inclusion in a more equitable way across all of the work we’re doing.”

RBC had already committed to ensuring that 40 per cent of all summer-student positions hired by the bank would go to candidates who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour – roles that are expected to be a pipeline to full-time positions.

Although Mr. Beckles did not say how many new positions RBC would hire through BPTN’s new pipeline initiative, he said the bank “fully expects” to do so. “We’re building this talent and capability for the broader marketplace,” he said. “So we see this as a contribution to society.”

Although positions at the Champion’s Table have not all yet been filled, it will be co-chaired by Mike Serbinis, chief executive officer of the health-benefits tech company League Inc.

Last July, BPTN began to work with Bay Street stalwarts such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, telecoms Bell Canada and Rogers, and tech firms such as social-media company Hootsuite and clinical-care company PointClickCare to identify ways to remove racist biases from hiring and promotion practices.

Through the RBC partnership, BPTN will also contribute $200,000 a year to non-profits focusing on science and technology education for Black Canadian youth to develop what it calls a “junior pipeline” for the next generation of professionals. The network says it will put out a call for applications soon to encourage non-profits to apply.

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