How SBBA approaches advocacy & community building

‘We’re working really hard to make sure people know it’s not a Commerce club, it’s a Queen’s club’

The Journal spoke with four members of the SBBA executive board.
Credit: 
Supplied by SBBA

In Spring 2020, Julius Adu, Comm ’24, was a high school senior contemplating where to go for university. Queen’s Commerce was one of his top choices, but looking into the program raised questions.

“When I was researching Queen’s, they talk about extracurriculars and being involved,” Adu said.

Queen’s prides itself on offering ample extracurriculars that students can explore alongside academics. For many students, the opportunities that happen outside of the classroom are a big draw to the university.

The Smith School of Business is no exception. Smith houses dozens of student-run clubs, competitions, and conferences that allow folks to build connections with others who are passionate about similar topics while building professional networks.

Unfortunately, when Adu was first looking through organizations at Smith, he found it difficult to see any Black representation within them.

“I literally went through every single club in the Commerce Society to try and find a Black person, and I just couldn’t find one.”

Eventually, Adu found Victoria Chukwuma, Comm ’23, listed as a first-year intern on one club’s executive. Wanting to know more about the culture and community for Black students at Smith, Adu reached out to her.

Soon after, the two joined Chinni Kanu, Comm ’24, in founding the Smith Black Business Association (SBBA). Even as the pandemic limited in-person social interaction, Adu, Chukwuma, and Kanu were able to gather a team and launch the club by the summer of 2020.

“In my opinion, the pandemic helped jumpstart and give people availability,” Adu said. “Quite honestly, it would have been tough to [form the SBBA executive] if everyone was outside during summer or going on vacation.”

Once Adu enrolled at Smith, he used his time in quarantine to bring SBBA to life.

“When I was originally starting, coming in as a high school student, that summer I wasn’t really doing much,” he said. “It’s the pandemic, I’m inside, I have opportunities to work on this passion project, be able to talk with others and work through this with Chinni and Victoria. That was a unique opportunity.”

To Adu, the creation of SBBA was a benchmark for representation at Smith. But he noticed other undergraduate business programs had already seen a similar shift before Queen’s.

“Ivey [Business School] for example, although I didn’t apply, it had the Black Student at Ivey Collective. Rotman [School of Management], under their business school had Black Rotman Commerce, and I felt like Queen’s didn’t have that.” Adu said.

Before the founding of SBBA, Black applicants to Smith would likely have a hard time seeing themselves represented in Queen’s Commerce.

“In terms of high school, a lot of stigmatizations about Queen’s and the Commerce program in general, we’re trying to break those barriers down and really try increase the Black population specifically at Smith.”

SBBA has always hoped to fill this representation gap, and the club’s impact was immediate.

Adam Trotman, Comm ’24, is one of this year’s SBBA co-chairs. Like Adu, Trotman was deciding what university to attend in the fall of 2020. The existence of SBBA helped make that choice easier.

“I took two years off before I came to university and was making the decision between playing hockey in the States or coming to Queen’s. A big factor in that decision was the founding of this club,” Trotman said.

“I think it would be to my honest and full understanding that if SBBA didn’t exist, I would have those questions like ‘where’s the representation within Smith?’ And that’s obviously a very isolating view.”

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Louise Nandoh, ArtSci ’23 and SBBA director of diversity and inclusion, chose to join SBBA because it provided a space where she could both connect with peers and expand her network.

“The main goals of the club are to provide a safe space for Black students where they can connect in ways where they can also develop professionally,” Nandoh said.

Like other Commerce clubs at Queen’s, SBBA is committed to helping its members with career-building and networking.

“We want to have professional development for Black students both in the Commerce program and other Black students interested in business. We want to provide those professional development opportunities,” Adu said.

In Commerce, networking can be a defining factor in building a successful career. Clubs like SBBA make building those networks easier for their members by connecting them with alumni and industry professionals who have working experience in their field of interest.

For students without personal or family connections in the business world, making these connections while at school is a necessity.

“A lot of us, like many Canadians, our parents are immigrants or we are immigrants ourselves. So, we really don’t have the best foot in the door,” Trotman said.

“The club is trying to serve as that pathway to build those connections, build that network. Not get you the job but provide you with the opportunity to get the job.”

Through running small- and large-scale events, SBBA can provide these opportunities not only for their members, but for a larger community.

As SBBA has functioned entirely within COVID-19, nearly all of these initiatives have taken place online. Using virtual platforms exclusively, while challenging, has allowed the club to attract students from outside of the Commerce program and even Queen’s.

“With the pandemic, almost every single one of our initiatives was online, so that contributed to social media growth because everyone was focused on what was happening digitally,” Nandoh said.

“We had to do everything online. In a way, it was beneficial because we developed new strategies to connect with prospective and current students, and we developed new strategies to have a healthy presence online.”

One of the most popular online events SBBA has run is their annual Case Competition.

“We just wrapped up our second year of Case Competition, sponsored by a bunch of industry leaders in different fields of business,” Trotman said.

“The case competition had eight or nine different schools across 60 or so competitors. As negative as the pandemic has been for a lot of us, [engagement] is one bright spot we’ve had as a club.”

While the pandemic has partly driven online growth, it’s the hard work of the executive team that has given SBBA a large audience and community that transcends the university.

“Shout out to the marketing team,” Adu said. “I’ll say I need a Zoom background […] I’ll say I need it in three days, and I’ll have it 15 minutes later. I literally cannot articulate how good our marketing team is.”

Some of the early events run by SBBA were educational, advocating for diversity and inclusion. In August of 2020, SBBA held their first online event, “Exploring Allyship: The Power of Change.”

“We had some professors and some [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] professionals talk about being an ally to the Black community,” Trotman said.

Since August of 2020, SBBA has held panels and events discussing a range of topics from diversity in sports to financial literacy. Partnering with corporations like CIBC, Rogers, and Proctor & Gamble, SBBA has been able to thrive even as students learn from home.

SBBA also runs internal events for its members. Executives and other members can connect with Black professionals and upper-year students, hopefully in a way that may help them navigate the extremely white-world of Canadian business.

“We had internal events with a Commerce alumnus, Colin Lynch, about essentially being Black in the business world, or in life, just some of the challenges we face,” Trotman said.

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Creating safe spaces for marginalized students on campus is essential to well-being and academic achievement.

Anti-Black racism, microaggressions, police brutality, and unsafe classroom spaces can result in consistent trauma, emotional exhaustion, and stress for Black students. It’s essential that academic institutions like Queen’s work to create safe spaces where Black students can breathe and connect to others.

As a student club contributing to this important work, the community building being done by SBBA has made all the difference for its members.

Tia Gayle, Comm ’23, is one of SBBA’s Policy and Advocacy Coordinators. After transferring into the Commerce program in her second year, Gayle got involved with SBBA.

“As a biracial, visibly Black woman at Smith, I would go to most of my classes, and […] I would be the only Black girl in my class,” Gayle said. “[SBBA] has helped my overall experience because I have a community of people who are not only like-minded but can relate to the struggles I’ve experienced at Queen’s.”

SBBA also targets first and second-year students specifically, who may have trouble forming relationships as they enter the Commerce program—especially during the pandemic.

“[SBBA] helped us form friendships and keep the community inclusive. It’s nice to see all the new first-years coming in who are also Black being able to integrate into our community,” Gayle said.

The community SBBA has fostered has made Smith, and Queen’s, a much safer, more comfortable space for a lot of Black students.

“It’s a little bit more about just having that community, and I hate to put it this way, of people who look like you,” Trotman said. “I am Italian, and I’m from the Caribbean. But I grew up Italian, I played hockey growing up my entire life, so I’ve never really had a community of people like this in my life.”

“Being able to have people to reach out to who understand things that other people can’t, as much as they might want to, it’s very comforting and makes a lot of things easier.”

For Adu, SBBA has become an integral part of his identity at Queen’s.

“My association with the club is my persona now,” Adu said. “I wouldn’t be where I am, the person I am, without this club.”

Adu, who now serves as SBBA operations director, works hard to make connections to other Black students on campus.

“When I see a Black person that I don’t already know it’s like ‘How did this one slip through the cracks?’ I’ll make a conscientious effort. I have to reach out,” Adu said.

“I just discovered that there’s a new Black first year in Commerce and I reached out right away. I was like, ‘It’s February, I never knew about you this whole time.’”

For so many Black students, SBBA has become a defining, central part of their time at Queen’s.

“I think it’s overall improved my university experience, and I think I’m going to graduate with really good memories because of this club,” Gayle said.

“SBBA has really been my experience. I think if I had to pick one thing across the two years that I’ve been here that has made me enjoy my experience, it’s been SBBA.” Trotman added. “It’s kind of been everything to me and I think it will continue to be everything.”

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Although SBBA was founded to address the need for community building among Black Smith students, the executive team recognizes the continued need for Black representation across all programs at Queen’s.

“From the first year to the second year, [our target] has shifted a lot from Commerce specifically to Queen’s wide. I think we’d all be lying to ourselves if we said Queen’s has the best history with these sorts of things,” Trotman said.

The team behind SBBA is adamant that being in Commerce isn’t a requirement to being involved with the organization. Although the club started at Smith, its events and initiatives are useful to students of every discipline.

“Everything we do is plainly for Black students who are interested in business, and business is really all-encompassing. Everything involves business to some extent or another,” Trotman said.

“We really want to reach a network of students larger than just the Commerce program, whether it’s on our exec or our membership program.”

The growth SBBA has had beyond Smith in under two years shows their commitment to making this expansion happen. In just over a year, the club has burst out of the Commerce bubble. The executive board has representation from Queen’s students in a wide array of programs.

“The executive for this year is half Commerce, half non-Commerce, so a very good ratio,” Trotman said.

Nandoh is one of the non-commence students serving on the SBBA executive.

“Being a part of SBBA has positively improved my experience at Queen’s, because as a political science student, I was able to meet a lot of people studying diverse things such as business and health science,” Nandoh said.

“I think that is very beneficial for me because I can learn a lot that I’m not necessarily learning in my program.”

Ultimately, SBBA should not be defined by the words “Smith”, or “business.” Every Black student at Queen’s is encouraged to join the community.

“The bottom line is it’s for Black students at Queen’s, whether you’re in the Commerce program or not,” Trotman said. “Meeting you is something that the entire club would love to see.”

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