By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, editor, YFile
Before crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, the second cohort of graduands from York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) were greeted with words of encouragement from honourary degree recipient Wes Hall during an Oct. 12 Fall Convocation ceremony.
A businessman, social justice advocate and philanthropist – and celebrity investor on the Canadian reality TV show “Dragons’ Den” – Hall was introduced by LA&PS Dean J.J. McMurtry as having an inspirational story of resilience and tenacity.
“Faced with many barriers to success, Mr. Hall found himself locked out of many boardrooms, inspiring him to create his own,” said McMurtry, noting that Hall was listed as number 18 on The Power List of influential Canadians in Maclean’s.
Born and raised in a tin shack in rural Jamaica by his grandmother who worked at a plantation, Hall was one of 14 kids and shared with graduands and their guests that he never thought his life would be anything but that. At 18 months old, he and two of his siblings – one four years old and the other six months old – were abandoned by their mother in that shack with nothing but a pot of porridge on the stove.
“She never came back,” recalled Hall. “Days later a neighbour heard us crying … and came to check on us and realized we were by ourselves. She went to the plantation where my grandmother was working … and said, ‘Your grandkids are abandoned in a shack.’ “
It was then his grandmother went to collect them and bring them back with her to raise alongside the seven other grandkids already in her care, in addition to her own special needs daughter. After completing primary school, he and his siblings all had “one choice” – to work at the plantation because there was no money to pay for school beyond that.
“I was saved because my dad, who left when I was one year old from Jamaica to make a better life for himself in Canada, rescued me from that life. I came to Canada Sept. 27, 1985. I was 16 years old. That was 38 years ago that I came here. And people say that you can’t change things overnight.”
Access to free education in Canada, he said, completely changed his life. “I am humbled and honoured to accept this prestigious institution’s honorary doctor of laws. The future wasn’t meant for me that I have today. And I thank all the people that paved the way for me to be here today. I am forever grateful and will continue to work hard to pay back that debt of gratitude that I owe to them,” he said, noting his grandmother as a source of inspiration.
However, it wasn’t always easy. Having to overcome society’s labels and discrimination was part of the uphill climb, and is a barrier he works to create awareness around through social justice efforts. Defined as underserved, underpriveledged or underrepresented imprisons a person’s potential, he said, and can make those labelled feel they don’t belong.
“Several of you are here today despite being labeled underserved, underrepresented, underprivileged – you fought hard and you ought to be commended for that,” he said, urging those graduands to enter the workforce and approach it like a running back in football: if you fumble and fall down, get right back up and find the “positive blockers” around you.
Hall started his own career in the mailroom of a law firm on Bay Street in Toronto – and after being educated at George Brown College as a law clerk, is now a successful businessman, entrepreneur, the founder of the BlackNorth Initiative – which works to combat racism in business – and is an author, with the publication of his autobiography No Bootstraps When You’re Barefoot.
And to those with privilege, he urged them to change the world by using their privilege.
“Many of you are graduating with big dreams. The beauty of dreaming is that we add no restrictions when we dream. We dream as if ‘anything’ is possible,” he said. “Remember, you are all starting from the same place, right here, and it’s up to you to create a just and fair world. Do not relax in your privilege. When you see injustice, you must act decisively. When you see inequality, you must eradicate it. You must never become complacent or complicit.”
With his parting words, Hall shared his formula for success: have a curious mind, work hard and smart and be a changemaker. Don’t take “no” for an answer, and, when you are knocked down, get right back up.
“See the opportunities others do not see. Do what others don’t dare to do,” he said. “Congratulations again – and now go change the world.”