Breaking up Bay Street's old boys club, one hire at a time

As Black History Month comes to a close, Dennis Mitchell sat down to talk about his path into the finance industry, and what he’s doing to open the door to others.

Starlight Capital CEO Dennis Mitchell on opening the door to diversity in the finance world

Starlight Capital's Dennis Mitchell will speak at a panel on equity in the finance industry this week. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Dennis Mitchell knows that some people who meet him will see him as a rarity.

For one thing, he's in his early 40s, young to be the CEO and chief investment officer at an asset management company like his. 

And, Mitchell says, as a black person who has risen high in the finance industry — he stands out.

"I came into this industry knowing I was going to be unique and different for being a black man on Bay Street," he said.

As Black History Month comes to a close, Mitchell sat down with CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond to talk about his path to the finance industry, and what he's doing to bring in others.

"There are tons of people out there just like me," he told Drummond. "All that separates them from achieving the things I have is just the opportunity."

On Thursday, he'll speak at the Albany Club as part of panel called "Capitalism, Diversity & Inclusion; Black on Bay," talking about why equity and diversity should be a priority in his field. 

The value of diverse workplaces — and the slowness of firms to get on board — has been borne out in reports and studies in recent years.

Far from being limited to the world of finance, the issue of hidden barriers for people of colour crops up in fields as diverse as law, public service and medicine.

"We're not given the information needed to realize that these are viable career paths," said Mitchell. "A lot of the time we aren't given the opportunity."

'Hard work, repeat'

Mitchell grew up in a "hardworking family" where education was a core value.

A football player, he saw professional athletics as a possible career path, until injury closed the door.

"Six knee surgeries later, I knew my path lies in the financial sphere," he said.

After attending Wilfrid Laurier University for his undergraduate degree and York University for his Master's of Business Administration, Mitchell made a point of seeking out people who were doing well and asking their advice.

"And then it's just the the old recipe: hard work, repeat." he said.

Entering the world of finance, he knew he would face second glances and strange questions.

"People ask you lots of questions, like what's it like to be black, or how did you get here," he said.

He says he does his best to see those questions as an opportunity to educate the person who is asking. 

Opening the door

Last year, Mitchell and a group of others started Starlight Capital, a asset management firm with a focus on real estate and infrastructure investing. 

Since then, he's made a point of building a diverse team that shakes off Bay Street's reputation for hiring exclusively from a pool of elite schools and social circles.

"I think it begins with recruiting away from the normal paths," he said. "Open up your recruiting to different areas, different schools. Communicate opportunities more widely."

Mitchell says he thinks drawing more diversity into fields like his could be kickstarted in schools.

"There are sponsored career days, and oftentimes, the professionals who come and present are all of the same ethnic persuasion. So let's open it up," he said.

Hiring from a wider pool has major benefits for his business, he says. 

I don't want to hire people in a role like this, that's so challenging and so humbling, if they have never had to fight through something."