When I was young, all I wanted to be when I grew up was white. As a new Canadian living in Windsor, Ontario, I didn’t want to be seen as the “Filipino” kid. I wanted to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of adobo chicken on rice for lunch. I wanted to belong, like everyone else.
As I charged through youth and into adolescence, I realized that it wasn’t necessarily white that I wanted to be – I just wanted to be successful. But I never had a professional role model who looked like me. Sure, Filipino people are considered hard workers (something my parents never let me forget), but the positions I would see them occupy were low-skilled and service work – janitors, customer service, labourers. Always the nurse, but never the doctor. To be clear, these are honourable professions: my partner is a nurse, and in my humble opinion, she is the best that humanity has to offer. These are, after all, the workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
I learned early on that education would be the tool I needed to forge a better life. I leveraged my thirst for knowledge into a PhD at the University of Toronto, where I had the luck to be mentored by professor Ted Sargent – one of the most ambitious, effective and successful people I’ve ever known. Suddenly, I was publishing in the world’s best scientific journals, travelling the world, summer interning at IBM in New York or UC Berkeley in California, and competing in the finals of the Carbon XPRIZE. Today, I run a seven-year, $57 million collaborative research program at the National Research Council to develop transformative technologies to decarbonize Canada’s economy.
At 28, I’m the youngest-ever director of the NRC. I sit on the board of directors for CMC Research Institutes, a non-profit focused on industrial decarbonization. I am a mentor for Creative Destructive Lab, an accelerator that brings science-based start-ups to life. I can proudly say I clawed my way to the decision-making table. I owe a lot of this success to the mentors in my life – all of whom were white. As they say, it’s all about who you know. Unfortunately, many visible minorities don’t know many leaders.
It’s not hard to see why, as a child, I would conflate being white with being successful. Leaders in Canada are overwhelmingly white. Only 10% of top executives at Canada’s Big Six banks and two large life insurers are visible minorities. Earlier this year, disclosures under the Canada Business Corporations Act showed that of 255 directors in S&P/TSX 60 companies, only 14 identified as a visible minority. The gap between whites and visible minorities is only set to widen, as 30% of the national population could identify as a visible minority by 2031. Canada’s workforce is becoming more diverse, but its bosses are not.
A diverse leadership team is not only more representative of the workforce and general population; it’s also good business. A recent report by McKinsey and Company shows that more ethnically diverse executive teams outperformed less diverse teams on profitability by 36%. Diverse perspectives lead to more creative solutions, greater understanding, and trust across gender, ethnic and cultural lines.
Diversity in leadership is necessary; to get there we need to mentor the visible minorities within our organizations.
First, we need to ensure that a robust candidate pool exists, with greater representation of visible minorities. Simple steps like blocking out the names on resumés can be effective in removing bias against non-Anglo-sounding names. Once we establish a pool of talented individuals, we need to match them up with leaders (yes, especially white ones) who can help them develop and grow. While there may not be many leaders who look like me today, there certainly won’t be any tomorrow if we place the burden of visible minority mentorship on the few visible minority leaders we do have.
Lastly, we need to be open and empathetic to each other. While it sounds cliché, communication really is the most important thing.
I no longer want to be white when I grow up. I want to realize myself fully in all the complexities of character that entails as an innovator and change-maker, beyond just a visible minority. I also want to be an example to other young Filipinos who dream of something bigger but aren’t quite sure what that is. However, there aren’t yet enough leaders who look like me – so white mentors, please apply.
Phil De Luna is a carbontech innovator and program director at the National Research Council of Canada, where he develops disruptive technologies to decarbonize Canada.