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Photo courtesy of Serena Sajan

Spill the Chai: On surviving the corporate world

By Aymen Sherwani, April 2 2020 —

For many people of colour, moving out of the comfort of a diverse campus setting and into a white-dominated workforce is anxiety-inducing. This is especially true if you don’t have proper support systems that keep your sanity intact. South Asians are definitely not victims of racially charged discrimination and are often controversially considered to be “model minorities.” Despite this, the subtle microaggressions of otherism continue to persist and impact us negatively. Being a model minority insinuates that you are seen as someone who is highly educated and is essentially good enough for the standards of white people. What does that mean, you say? Usually, it starts with having a Bachelor’s degree, but all of a sudden you’re at a private work party and everyone is congratulating Basic Brent for getting the promotion that you were also competing for. He gives a speech about working hard and being sick of people asking for handouts, even though his family connections helped him get the job. The ugly truth is that although we’re labelled as “hard-working” and “highly-educated,” we still have to bend over backwards and do double the work to get a position that comes easily to white coworkers because of the spaces we occupy, or the lack thereof. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Serena Sajan, who is a fourth-year Finance student at the Haskayne School of Business, shares her experiences interning at both white male-dominated workplaces and workplaces which she felt made diversity a priority. She stresses the importance of staying authentic to yourself and choosing one’s peace of mind over a toxic work environment because microaggressions go a long way to damage your drive to succeed. 

“I’m an Ismaili Muslim, and staying authentic to my faith in corporate environments is hard because everybody else is drinking during networking events and often question why I’m not,” she said.” I try to stay true to my roots unapologetically and if that means that I have to be left out of certain situations, like drinking during networking, then so be it, because I’m not someone to compromise my ethics and morals. I’ve learned that workplace culture is everything and good coworkers don’t peer pressure you.”

Sajan details two very different experiences, both large organizations in the corporate world. When detailing her interning experience at the first company, Sajan said that it was almost as if she “was invisible and forgotten about, despite the company not being that large to begin with,” adding that, “I didn’t really like that experience because I want to be someone who is valued and feel like I belong because I’m giving my time to be there to learn and work under professionals, whereas I did not feel like I belonged at all in that company”. 

Feelings of being invisible, or feeling like your ideas are being dismissed and are going unrecognized, are afflicting people of colour, especially women, everywhere. Being a little brown dot in a sea of white makes it easy for your ideas to be swept away in the currents unless you know how to swim with the sharks. According to Sajan, the lack of a female presence in business is because “as a woman, you are given small expendable positions from the jump because male employers think you’re going to cost the company by eventually getting married, having children, and going on maternity leave.”

In addressing being a person of colour above being a woman, she adds that she “saw that toxic environment firsthand and the lack of representation for South Asian women which particularly put me at more of a disadvantage. We definitely have to work ten times harder but it didn’t dissuade me from pursuing a career in finance, because I’m a naturally ambitious person”. 

Changing corporate culture to be more inclusive of minorities is a feat that takes generations to accomplish, and one of the best remedies for this is to actually hire more people of colour, especially women, in leadership roles so that the corporate world isn’t just one big Boys’ Club that boxes out those it feels don’t belong. A greater degree of representation fosters a healthier work environment, especially if you see someone who looks like you and you look up to them as someone who can guide you to get to where they are eventually. In comparison to her experiences at at the first company, Serena says that her time as an intern at the second company was a positive one because she “was surrounded by women of colour, female leads, and was given a higher degree of responsibility, like actually dealing with clients rather than just being sent to print documents”. This is why it’s important that all young brown women, who are entering the corporate world, never settle for less when it comes to working in a diversity-positive environment that values your ideas and respects your identity. That being said, somebody should tell the guys at Wall Street that real diversity starts with actual numbers and not just saying you love multiculturalism because you had shawarma for lunch.   

Spill the Chai is a weekly column that seeks to showcase the talents and achievements of the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities at the University of Calgary campus, but also “spills the chai” on the issues they face on a daily basis, by speaking power into the narratives of the many students of colour on campus. This column is a part of our Voices section.

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