When Bilal Habib looked around his cohort at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, he saw some disparities.
The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year prompted him to take a closer look at the make-up of the students in his program — and what he found wasn't promising.
"There weren't a lot of Black students in the program," Habib said he noticed.
Currently, Black students make up less than 2.5 per cent of Rotman's Morning and Evening MBA program — a three-year, part-time program that offers classes early and late in the day so that students can work during the middle. The program is an alternate to the school's two-year full-time MBA program.
Habib, along with a group of Rotman students, decided to try to change that — and successfully convinced the university to set up a scholarship for Black students.
"The overall goal is to remove the financial barriers for students in the Black community, so that doing an MBA is a viable option for them," he said.
Lack of representation 'a letdown'
The hope is that the proceeds will help break the cycle of Black students being ousted from higher education due to systemic barriers, setting up a better future for generations to come.
Nonso Molokwu is also part of the group spearheading this initiative. Born in Nigeria, he's one of the handful of Black students in his class.
"There's a certain level of disappointment when you finally come in and then don't see the representation, don't see people that look like you in class," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday.
"That was kind of disappointing and a letdown and is really one of the reasons why we started this."
The scholarship is meant to lower barriers, the most significant of which is the cost of higher education.
"It's definitely a huge financial commitment to pursue an MBA program. And this definitely deters people from wanting to go forward with that," Molokwu said.
On top of that, Molokwu said there is barely any representation in corporate boardrooms and a lack of Black individuals in senior executive positions. He says that starts all the way back in the classroom.
"When you think about the lack of Black students, the representation at this level of education, you start to see the impact of that going further down the line," Molokwu said. "The higher education that you have, the higher you can pursue a career, right?"
Initiative earns shout out from R&B singer Montell Jordan
The initiative has gained some attention in recent weeks, perhaps the most notable of which was a shout out from Montell Jordan, an American R&B singer best known for his 1995 single This Is How We Do It.
In a video, Jordan applauded the students that pushed for the scholarship, even going so far as to sing a portion of his hit song in praise.
"I am proud of you," Jordan said in a video Habib shared on Twitter. "We need more Black leaders. And initiatives like this one are super refreshing to see. I'm thankful for you. I'm grateful for you. I am extremely proud of the program because 'This is how we do it.'"
"It was really heartwarming," Habib said, adding that the message boosted morale for the group.
"I reached out to Montell and I told him what we were doing, and he was so excited to do it. He was so happy."
'Future leaders' need to be seen in classroom: professor
Nouman Ashraf, an associate professor at U of T and director of diversity and inclusion initiatives at Rotman, told CBC News, a lack of representation "says something" to students.
"If we don't see future leaders in our classroom, we're saying that leadership only comes in one particular form... And we need to address that. We need to challenge that and we need to change that."
"The old adage about 'You can't be what you can't see' applies to all of us," said Ashraf.
While the initiative is led by students, donations will be collected directly by the university.
All proceeds will go toward providing financial support for Black students applying to the morning and evening MBA program.
Along with the rest of the student group, Molokwu hopes the scholarship can help as many people as possible and lead to more diversity in his program.
"What success looks like right now? I couldn't really tell you. But I think what we're looking for is just representation," he said.
"What we want to see is walking outside in Toronto. We want to see the same thing walking on campus at the University of Toronto."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.