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As told to Alex Mlynek

Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

Jennifer R. Jackson is president of Capital One Canada.

"I grew up in Philadelphia, in an all-Black neighbourhood. There were generally good people on the block, but there was a fair amount of joblessness and violence. When I was 12, we moved to a predominantly white suburb. And by predominantly, I mean almost exclusively. While there were some challenges from some students and teachers, overwhelmingly it was a good experience. It was safer there. More importantly, it got me ready for being the only Black person during much of my educational and corporate journey.

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Most of the discrimination I’ve faced in my career can be attributed to my being underestimated based on my race and sex. I’ve been passed over for opportunities despite having the same qualifications and pedigree as the other person. In team settings, I’ve been looked over as “less than.” Once, at a global meeting, a colleague went to introduce me to someone from a different company. As I was approaching, the person ordered drinks from me—they assumed I was the wait staff.

Staying true to who I am has helped me deal with discrimination and bias. There were times when I tried to be different based on feedback that was probably biased itself, and that took away from my natural strengths and ability to deliver in the workplace. Knowing I belong has been an important part of my journey, but it’s something many underrepresented minorities and Blacks struggle with when we face so many barriers and biases. It’s easy to play into that ourselves. But because so many of us have succeeded despite these barriers, we have more than earned a seat at the table.

The murder of George Floyd was just off the back of several other deaths of Black people in the United States. I felt helpless, like I always do. What surprised me, in a good way, was the global protests that followed and how diverse they were. There was an acknowledgement of systemic racism that didn’t seem to exist before, and non-Blacks seemed to be listening in a different way. That’s encouraging. We need to leverage this moment, where so many individuals are inspired to do something. And many companies, similarly, are being inspired and pushed by their employees and customers to do more.

Systemic racism isn’t just an American problem; it exists globally, and it definitely exists in Canada. As a Canadian business community, there is more we can do to effect meaningful change. This begins with acknowledging the biases and systemic challenges that exist overall, but specifically in the work environment. Leaders must also acknowledge that representation is not only critical, but better for business. They should set this as a business priority, and ensure they bring a diversity lens and mindfulness of bias to the recruiting process. And once you’ve got employees through the door, it’s important that they stay, and that’s where creating an inclusive environment comes into play.

Leaders can play a critical role in fostering empathy within an organization, along with a genuine appreciation for the challenges faced by underrepresented groups. They should also be purposeful in their advocacy of those employees—helping to influence and create opportunities that will help them advance, such as learning experiences, promotions and new roles. These are just a few ways leaders can begin to dismantle systemic challenges for people of colour and women.

I’m sure I will still have some days where I’m disheartened, but I’ve always been hopeful, because I’ve had the benefit, blessing and pleasure of interacting with a lot of different people in my life. And more so than not, people are good. We want the same things. And that helps me smile every morning and get through challenging moments. So I am absolutely optimistic—but there’s a lot of work for the corporate community to do."

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