A&S alum Robert Davis hopes the new Black Excellence Award will help level the playing field

March 7, 2024 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

When it comes to succeeding in corporate Canada as a young, Black professional, seeing is often believing.

That simple concept is the inspiration for a recent generous gift from Arts & Science alum Robert Davis to create the Robert Davis Black Excellence Award, scholarships that will be awarded to students with financial need.

“I'll give you a real life, personal example of why representation really matters,” says Davis, who earned his bachelor of commerce degree in 1989 as a member of New College.

By the late 1990s, Davis had already been with KPMG in Canada for a few years and had been promoted to senior manager. He remembers being told by senior leadership that he had what it takes to be partner; all he had to do was keep doing the great work he was already doing.

“But in 1999, when I looked around, I didn’t see a lot of role models on Bay Street and in accounting firms. Our partnership was predominantly white men, no Black partners, only a handful of partners of colour and few female partners. They're telling me it's possible, but I couldn’t see it. Until young Black professionals see more Black people in senior positions, they're not going to believe it's possible.”

Though Davis felt he was doing interesting work and worked in Amsterdam on a secondment, he left to work in-house for a client, a tech company Algorithmics Inc., and then did stints at three other companies before returning to KPMG in 2005, becoming a partner in 2008.

“If you don’t think it’s possible to advance, you’re going to do what I did and start looking elsewhere for opportunities,” says Davis, KPMG’s chief inclusion, diversity and equity officer since 2021. “And I see this today; if talented Black professionals don't see the opportunities open to them, they will leave. They’re not going to stick with it.”

Davis points to a recently released KPMG survey that found 76 per cent of Black Canadians say their company now has a Black person in a senior executive role or on the board of directors, and 83 per cent see visible progress being made to build a pipeline of Black talent within their company.

“This is good news, and will only help to inspire and motivate Black youth to fulfill their potential in their chosen careers,” he says. “But, it doesn’t mean companies can rest on their laurels. The KPMG survey showed around eight in 10 Black Canadians experienced racism or microaggression at work and seven in 10 had their career track or promotion prospects shelved due to their employer’s concerns about the slowing economy. It’s absolutely critical that companies double down on diversity and inclusion not only in their hiring, but also in their retention and promotion policies and programs.”

The Robert Davis Black Excellence Award is aimed at helping to level the playing field to ensure every student has the same opportunities — especially today, when students face a high cost of living in Toronto, an expensive city. By providing Black students with the scholarships they need to concentrate on their studies, Davis hopes to help improve Black representation in leadership roles.

It’s the same motivation behind the Robert Davis and Joseph Chen Access and Diversity Bursary, the scholarship he created with his life partner in May 2019 at Arts & Science.

Advancing in the corporate world is never easy but Davis has three pieces of advice for young people just starting out:

Differentiate yourself.
“From a performance, talent and capabilities point of view, you’ve got to be unique,” he says.

Put your hand up.
“Volunteer for the projects nobody else wants to do — those projects might not be sexy but you’ll learn, gain experience and get exposure,” he says.

And get out of your comfort zone.
“If everything is comfortable throughout your professional life, you're not stretching yourself and you're not going to attain the best things for yourself. Do things that make you uncomfortable,” he urges.