Mentorship helps an African immigrant journey through the Canadian corporate maze

Now Chika Onwuekwe is working with BlackNorth Initiative to build a roster of mentors to help Black Canadians crack into executive jobs

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Somewhere out there is a soft-spoken woman of average height, name unknown, possibly living in Saskatoon, possibly elsewhere, who on Sept. 1, 2000, sat in a late-model vehicle at the airport waiting for an inbound flight from Lagos, Nigeria, that had been delayed by several hours.

Aboard that flight was Chika Onwuekwe, a young international tax lawyer, who had left behind a good job at KPMG and a comfortable life in Lagos to pursue a masters of law at the University of Saskatchewan. He would later receive a doctorate from the school as well, but on that September day he was just another weary traveller touching down in the Prairies for the first time, one who was overjoyed to be met by a smiling stranger.

“I have been looking for this lady forever, because I have wanted to thank her forever,” he said. “I arrived that day, but my luggage didn’t, and so she went back to the airport the next day and delivered my bags to my hotel.”


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The woman was a volunteer, and she was white, as was the guy who came around the hotel the following day in a pickup truck to take the jet-lagged newcomer apartment hunting.

Onwuekwe relates the story of his Canadian introduction not to paint his adopted home as a place without imperfection — he has witnessed his share of white people here retreat to the furthest corner of an elevator and tighten their grip on their bags upon seeing him step inside — but to make the point that there are plenty of strangers who want to help.

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It is something the vice-president and general counsel of Trican Well Service Ltd., a Calgary-based international oil services company, takes seriously, as a math and English tutor to new immigrants in years past and, importantly in the present, as a mentor to young Black, white and every-colour–in-between professionals seeking career guidance and help in building their networks.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to be qualified to get in, but it is who you know — you know, you know — and that’s still how it works,” he said.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to be qualified to get in, but it is who you know — you know, you know — and that’s still how it works

Chika Onwuekwe

Onwuekwe is a good person to know. An undeniable extrovert, he loves soccer and can talk hockey. He plays a mean game of tennis, likes to hunt and possesses a disarming sense of humour. He also believes that engagement is the most effective battering ram to bash through anti-Black systemic racism.

That is: encouraging people to get to know one another in order to see one another for who they truly are: colleague, confidante, young up-and-comer with an abundance of smarts who just needs a break, or a Black person in an elevator, wearing a nice suit, heading to a big office on the 29th floor with framed diplomas on the wall.


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“We still have a long way to go in Canada,” he said.

To help push things along, Onwuekwe has signed on as a volunteer co-chair of the mentorship and sponsorship committee at BlackNorth Initiative (BNI), which has issued a challenge to corporate Canada to open its doors, boardrooms, corner offices and junior positions to employees who are Black, Indigenous and other people of colour (BIPOC).

Mentorship is among the gateways to change, and Onwuekwe and others are resolved to build out a roster of committed mentors, up to 500 by year’s end, across all sectors of the economy to create a “pipeline” to help talented Black Canadians crack into those executive jobs where they remain woefully underrepresented.

The statistics are stark: for example, 7.5 per cent of Toronto’s residents are Black, but just 0.3 per cent of corporate board positions are held by Black people, according to a recent study by Ryerson University.

Studies show that women and minorities are more likely to take advantage of mentorship opportunities when offered, and that mentees gain career advancement, increased self-confidence, wider professional networks, higher salaries and more.

On the company side of the ledger, mentorship programs can boost employee retention rates, while exposing senior management to different points of views.

In sum, mentorship is a win for all its players, and Onwuekwe, and BNI, hope to ensure that BIPOC employees are more than just in the game.


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“Success isn’t just about me in this office,” he said one early February morning. “It’s about: how many people are you bringing with you?”

Onwuekwe moved to Alberta after wrapping up his studies in Saskatoon and was hired in 2006 by law firm MacPherson, Leslie & Tyerman LLP (now MLT Aikins LLP). The 100-year-old firm was a major player in Western Canada and the Nigerian expat was the first Black lawyer to work there.

Jim Kerby, the managing partner in Calgary, gave Onwuekwe his shot, and would refer to him as “the professor.” They had offices next to one another, put in long hours, joked around and developed a friendship.

“Jim saw something in me and thought I could go far,” he said.

Success isn’t just about me in this office. It’s about: how many people are you bringing with you?

Chika Onwuekwe

Kerby gave advice and Onwuekwe took it — not personally, but as professionally prudent to follow. Among the most insightful tips: he needed to write like a Canadian.

“Nigerians write like English people,” Onwuekwe said. “Canadians send an email and it is short, simple and sweet, and you can tell things by the email. The English are so formal and rigid, and that’s how I wrote, and Jim showed me that, and it was good advice and politely given.”

In the years since, Onwuekwe has played the adviser role, giving newer immigrants, and even a few Nigerian lawyers, a hand in figuring out how to navigate Canadian office culture.

Nigerians are taught that children are to be seen and not heard, and to respect their elders. That lesson often accompanies them into North American meeting rooms, where they will bite down on their tongue instead of speaking up to offer insightful comments if the person giving the presentation has grey hair.


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Going out for coffee is another potential minefield. To an immigrant, grabbing coffee can seem like a colossal waste of time and productivity, Onwuekwe said, but it is often crucial to building workplace relationships and discovering common points of interest with, say, the guy three cubicles over, who just so happens to love soccer as much as you do.

“I mingle with people in the rural areas, and we share our thoughts, and they will say, ‘Chika, you are different,’” he said. “But I am not different.”

Instead, he said, it is just a matter of exposure, opportunity, getting to know one another and understanding that the default image of the senior executive doesn’t always need to be rendered in white.

Twenty-plus years ago, BNI’s mentorship co-chair was a weary new student from a faraway place getting off a flight in Saskatoon to be greeted by a smiling young woman. It is a gesture he has never forgotten, and there is a lesson in it.

“The story I want to tell is of the people who have welcomed me,” Onwuekwe said. “I have been lucky.”

He is not the only one.

Financial Post

• Email: | Twitter: oconnorwrites


In-depth reporting on the innovation economy from The Logic, brought to you in partnership with the Financial Post.


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