Wes Hall’s Journey: An Entrepreneur Addresses Systemic Racism
On May 25, 2020, as COVID-19 death tolls headlined the news, a 46-year-old African American man died in the early evening on a busy street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This one death stood out because George Floyd was killed on a public street after police stopped him for allegedly committing a petty crime. Two onlookers recorded the horrifying incident from their cell phones. Instantly, news of his brutal death spread around the globe. Wes Hall, who founded Kingsdale Advisors—a leading shareholder services and advisory firm based in Toronto—had not seen the video when it came out. As a business leader, he had been immersed in COVID-related meetings of the many non-profit and civic organizations that struggled with the challenges of a new reality. When friends shared the video, it changed his life.
Over the next few days, he wrote down his thoughts in an essay he titled, “My Experience as a Privileged Black Man in Canada.” Hall knew that speaking up on the issue meant taking a financial and reputational risk with his clients—many of whom were CEOs of prestigious leading companies in Canada. Others, like Colin Kapernick—the quarterback who knelt during the national anthem before N.F.L. games in 2016 to peacefully protest social injustices—braved consequences and backlash by speaking out. Hall saw no similar risks taken by business leaders on the topic of systemic racism. He felt that, given his position of influence, he had an obligation to bring focused attention to the problem. He sent the essay to the Toronto Globe and Mail which published it as an op-ed titled, “When I Look in the Mirror, I See George Floyd—and So Do Others.” He waited for reactions. The first came from the CEO of one of Canada’s largest banks who simply said, “How can I help?” Others asked in surprise, ”How could something like that happen to you? You are one of us.”
After the initial flurry of activity, Hall was left with the questions that confront every entrepreneur who embarks on a journey into the unknown: What problem am I addressing? What solution should I pursue? Am I the right person to take on this challenge? In Hall’s case, how could he create an enterprise that will endure after the momentum and outrage around the murder of George Floyd fades?
Childhood and Early Influences
Hall was born in a tiny agrarian town in Saint Thomas, Jamaica. He, three of his brothers and sisters, and several cousins were raised by his grandmother in one small dwelling referred to as a “tin shack.” When Hall was an infant, his father—a well-known cricket player—had left Jamaica for Canada. His mother, who had been raising four young children alone, abandoned them when Hall was under two. The scared and hungry children were found by a neighbor and, from that point on, lived with their grandmother. Hall affectionately remembers, “she was an incredibly industrious person who just sacrificed her entire life” for her family.
When Hall turned eleven, his mother resurfaced and brought him to live with her in the city. He recalls, “it was a crazy time because I didn’t really know this person and she was incredibly abusive.” In less than two years, Hall’s mother threw him out of the house. Alone and underage, he lived “at the mercy of friends” and eventually was taken in by a foster family. Shortly after he turned sixteen, he got in touch with his father who invited him to Canada to live with his new family.
Moving to Canada shaped his future. Within a decade, Hall would become an influential businessman and privileged leader on Bay Street—Toronto’s equivalent of Wall Street. Looking back, however, he can identify subtle instances of systemic racism. For instance, in high school, because of his thick accent, he was placed into an ESL program. Upon learning that Hall was a native English speaker, teachers removed him from ESL. But, following the Canadian practice of “streaming”—a discriminatory practice under which students’ socio-economic background determined their course of study—Hall was placed in “applied” programs. Following that vocational track would not have qualified him to pursue higher education. Eventually, Hall’s father persuaded the school that his son should be placed within the normal track.
Adjusting to life in Canada was challenging and Hall left his father’s home during his senior year of high school. Lacking the funds to put himself through college right away, and unable to secure his dad’s support to get a student loan, he began doing various odd jobs to save money. He recalls, “my first job was as a dishwasher at Hurley’s restaurant. It was one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had.” After that, he worked on a chicken farm and performed other general labor tasks. But Hall aspired to more. A friend informed him of a courier position opening at a law firm on Bay Street, and, though he knew nothing about the corporate world, he applied. He bought a suit from Goodwill and shared, “I wore that suit to work. My colleagues in the mailroom laughed at me. But I kept it because that was the environment I wanted to be in.” Being at the firm sparked his drive to succeed and he completed classes to become a law clerk.
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
After applying for roles as a law clerk at various firms, he landed an interview at Canwest Global, one of the largest broadcasters in the country. After the standard interview with the hiring manager, he was invited to meet with the General Counsel to discuss the job over a drink. Instead of posing traditional interview questions, Hall recalled, “he asked about my lived experiences. “Where are you from? How did you get to Canada? Tell me about your family.” He remembered, “I was so enamored by this guy—this dynamic young man from Quebec who wanted to be the CEO” and he thought, “it would be amazing to work for him.”
So I talked about my life in Jamaica. I talked about my life in Canada. I talked about my mailroom job. I talked about all the different things that made me the person that I am—that brought me to him. And those things really impressed him.
Hall got the job and entered a new phase in his professional life. Shortly before that, other significant changes began in his personal life. As he was studying to become a Jehovah’s Witness, he met Christine, a nineteen-year-old white woman from a tiny Canadian town. After dating for six months, Hall—who was then 21 years old—proposed and the two married. A few months later, Hall brought his brothers, sisters, and mother from Jamaica to Canada, in hopes of helping them discover opportunities that would lead to a better life. The entire group shared a two-bedroom apartment with the newlyweds.
Working Through Personal Crisis
After Hall landed the job at Canwest Global and began to focus on building a career, tragedy struck. He reflected, “my brothers didn’t have the same appreciation I had.” One became involved with the wrong crowd and was deported back to Jamaica. His other brother was murdered. When he received the call that he needed to identify the body, he shared, “I was at the office. And I left to do that and buried my brother.”
Hall worked diligently through the loss and contemplated going to law school which he saw that as a necessary step to advancement at Canwest. Instead, he and Christine decided to have a child and he embarked on a new career path. He applied for a professional position at CIBC Mellon and, within a short time, distinguished himself and began supervising a team of eleven. After working at CIBC Mellon for three years, Georgeson, a global provider of strategic shareholder engagement, recruited him. The company was based in the US and had recently opened an office in Canada, hoping to expand its service of proxy solicitation. Hall recalled, “I knew nothing about proxy solicitation, other than the fact that some of our clients at CIBC would use it to get their shareholders to vote their proxy.”
When Georgeson offered Hall the role of director of business development, part of him felt tempted to accept. He reflected, “my wife and I lived in this small house. And we had not a lot of money. We had two kids at the time.” But he took a calculated risk and turned the offer down, explaining that he wanted his next role to be a vice president position. Ultimately, the risk paid off and, two weeks later, Georgeson offered him the VP role.
Professional Growth and Founding Kingsdale
As Hall immersed himself in the new role, he devised innovative ways in which Georgeson could move forward. The company, he believed, should offer a broader set of advisory services to its clients. He reasoned that Canadian clients would need the same services that U.S. clients needed, even though Canadian clients hadn’t yet experienced the difficulties dealing with proxy solicitation services.
Unable to convince Georgeson to act quickly, Hall decided to leave the firm. He had the idea to found a company that could quickly adapt to market needs. After doing a number of potential customer interviews and writing a business plan, he attempted to secure financing. But the banks doubted his vision. He recalled being challenged, “You’re a 34 year-old-black man. You think you’re going to go into the board rooms in Canada—which are white and male—and advise them on how to deal with their investors on issues that they may face?”
After being turned down several times, he found a Black loan officer who took the time to listen to his aspirations used his discretion to get him a loan to start the business. Hall built Kingsdale Advisors from the ground up. After landing his first big deal—the merger between Wheaton River Minerals and IAMGOLD, he attracted some of the most prestigious companies in Canada. He shared, “I developed a reputation in this market as the go-to and the trusted advisor.”
Navigating a Global Crisis
After several years, he sold part of his company to a New York-based firm and invested the capital in a number of different assets, including hotels, construction, and a private equity portfolio with seven companies. Hall began serving on a number of boards, including the SickKids Foundation, the Toronto International Film Festival, and Pathways to Education. Based on his reputation, the Ontario finance minister appointed Hall to serve on the Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce which was tasked with modernizing the capital markets in Ontario. He was in the midst of advising the task force and each of the companies when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in spring 2020. In a short time, Hall became an instrumental leader in helping the companies manage through the crisis. But the all-encompassing problems COVID caused could only be solved through collective effort. He shared, “as business leaders, we couldn’t work in isolation to solve the problem—we had to take collective action.”
As the pandemic escalated, Hall saw the George Floyd video. He realized that, just as COVID sparked an economic crisis that required collective action to solve, systemic racism was a pervasive social problem. Could he use his position, reputation, and life story to draw attention to the problem?
Over the next few days, he tried to capture why George Floyd’s death had affected him so deeply. He wrote an essay he titled, “My Experience as a Privileged Black Man in Canada.” He noted, “it’s not the fact that another Black man was killed in public but the way he was killed.”
It was the callousness of it. It was the fact that he was kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, like he was daring everybody around him — “I’m going to do this in public, and none of you can do anything about it. Not you white people, not you people of color watching this.”
After some hesitation, Hall consulted with friends and submitted the piece to the Globe and Mail. The newspaper published it as an op-ed under a new title: “When I Look in the Mirror, I See George Floyd—and So Do Others.” The piece quickly attracted attention. He wrote a follow-up piece, “I Saw No Examples of Black Corporate Leaders Talking about Systemic Racism. So I’m Speaking Up,” which was published by The Toronto Star. In it, Hall explained why CEOs and corporate leaders need to first, understand the pervasiveness of the problem and, second, take action to contribute to solving the problem.
Hall’s his colleagues on Bay Street expressed their support of his efforts. Inspired by the positive reactions, Hall thought, “why don’t we use a business approach to solving this social problem?” While he hadn’t fully worked out the logistics of how this would develop, he moved forward.
Translating Ideas to Action
The CEO has to be the one to make sure that the pledge is administered within the organization. It’s their responsibility to make it happen.
Signees agreed to adopt seven primary principles based around the concept the CEOs would make their workplaces a place “to have complex, and sometimes difficult conversations about anti-Black systemic racism and ensure that no barriers exist to prevent Black employees from advancing within the company.”
Hall received positive responses to the pledge. But, as he looked forward, he realized that the hard work of building the venture was still ahead. He still had to address core questions: Is anti-Black systemic racism a problem that can be meaningfully addressed using a corporate approach? Because the problem permeates all levels of society, which aspect should he prioritize? What range of solution should he consider? Is Wes Hall the right person to lead this?
The CEO Pledge was written by Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism. It asks for CEOs to pledge their willingness to combat anti-Black systemic racism. Read the full pledge by clicking the link. Those interested in pledging a commitment can print the pdf, sign, and email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When I Look in the Mirror, I See George Floyd—and So Do Others,” is an op-ed piece written by Wes Hall published by The Globe and Mail. In this piece, Hall shares his visceral reaction viral videos that bystanders recorded of George Floyd’s brutalization and death in police custody. He notes, “As Black leaders, we cannot rely on the same people who created this system to fix it. We must remake the system that entraps us and leads to dozens of cases like George Floyd’s every year.”
“I Saw No Examples of Black Corporate Leaders Talking about Systemic Racism. So I’m Speaking Up,” an opinion piece published by The Toronto Star, Hall explains why CEOs and corporate leaders need to first understand the pervasiveness of the problem and second, take action to contribute to solving the problem.
Wes, a documentary created and produced by Samuel Lehner in 2016, explores how the adversity Hall faced in his life contributed to his success as a prominent business leader in Toronto.