Claudette McGowan: Celebrating Black History Month through #BAIE2020


Ahead of Black History Month, we sat down with Claudette McGowan, Founder of The Black Arts and Innovation Expo (BAIE), and Chief Information Officer, Enterprise Technology Employee Experience at BMO.

BAIE is now celebrating its sixth year and defines a new way of celebrating Black History Month by focusing attention on the outstanding achievements of tomorrow’s legends. This year’s expo takes place on Saturday, 29 February from 2pm – 8pm.

Read on to find out what inspired Claudette to set up this event and how you can be involved.

Having an event that focuses on promoting diversity and excellence in STEAM is hugely important for this city. Where did the idea for this event spark from?

I’ve been in tech for over 20 years, and in many rooms I found myself to be the only woman, and one of the few persons of colour. As I moved forward in my career and started recruiting, I didn’t see a lot of change in the type of candidates.

We started having good conversations around the tables about the potential reasons for the lack of ethnic diversity. In some cases, people didn’t know these opportunities existed, or they didn’t think they could get hired by leading organizations.

I thought: “Why not find a way to bring people in the community and leading tech companies together, and show them what opportunities exist, and how they can easily obtain them?”

Often the arts are excluded in events and conversations around STEM, what was your thinking behind including this area in the BAIE?

What stood out to me is the artistic piece, the part that thinks about the human element and the human value. The “A” [in STEAM] is so critical to me, you won’t get high levels of adoption if you don’t think about how technology will be used to make things easier, faster or better.

Something really special about the event is that there are business grants and scholarships. How important are investments like these to create real change in people’s lives?

Oh yeah! First of all, if you don’t see it, you don’t think you can be it. There are other barriers, like I know for instance in the Black community there were very few kids getting into medical school.

When this was unpacked, they realized there was a financial barrier for the application, there was the “know-how” and support structure missing. It’s not enough to say “Hey these jobs exist, here’s what you need to do.”

We also need to provide other types of means, that’s where the scholarships came in. It’s not just an academic scholarship, it’s a holistic scholarship. Academics matter but we also want to look at what are you doing in the community, what are you doing to move the dial in different ways?

Can you share any stories of how past recipients have been impacted by the scholarship?

We had one gentleman named Abraham who came to tell us he had got a job in Microsoft and was going to go and work in Seattle. He said: “I was frustrated, I was starting to lose hope, there was too much pressure. The $5,000 scholarship changed everything.”

What was beautiful to me was Abraham then came to me and said: “I would like to sponsor a scholarship to help somebody else.” I think hearing from young people and understanding what that money can do. It’s not a tonne of money but it is enough to make a difference to somebody on their path.

Who should attend this event and what can people look forward to on the day?

It is called the Black Innovation and Arts Expo but it is open to everybody, of every nationality, colour, race, creed, you name it! This is because big change needs everybody at the table. We love having our allies there from all the different communities to support. We welcome students of all ages and from a business perspective for the pitch competition, anybody with a business idea – no matter where they’re starting from – is welcome.

It’s definitely a family event. It’s on a Saturday, we encourage you to bring the kids out, there is learning and a play zone there for them. This is to show everybody of every age what is possible.

Come out for the networking! We’re going to have major tech firms on-site, and people who work in those companies who can tell you what it’s like to experience it. It’s great for people to come out to see the art of what is possible. There is also going to be a great panel discussion where people share their wisdom, and being able to talk about some of the things that didn’t work well and the lessons learned.

How have your partners, including Jodi and #movethedial helped support the event?

We’ve always had partnership with companies like Microsoft, Lexmark, and CompuCom who have been there from the start. We appreciate Jodi for tapping into her network and helping us with new partners in the public and private sectors. Jodi really helped move the dial for us! This enables us to award more scholarships and support young companies in the pitch competition. It’s remarkable that #movethedial is reaching into other communities beyond women in tech to lend your impact, we’re going to have a much bigger event and reach way more people, because of the support we got from #movethedial.

#BAIE2020 tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. You can also click here to apply for a Scholarship or Business Grant as part of the event. Applications close on February 15th.

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