Blending Personal with Professional

Schulich Pride Alliance gets a makeover
By Anna-Liza Badaloo
The Schulich Pride Alliance (SPA) supports 2SLGBTQIA+ students at York University’s Schulich School of Business and helps them prosper by providing an inclusive space, professional development, and networking and career opportunities.
But in 2022, the SPA found themselves at a crossroads. Although the SPA had been around for about 10 years, not many Schulich students knew the group existed. This didn’t sit well with 2021/2022 SPA Chair Jemin Patel. On the cusp of graduation in April 2022, Patel decided that he wanted to leave a legacy.
Patel’s strong commitment to the SPA was rooted in his own experiences. In 2021, the SPA collaborated with Schulich’s Undergraduate Business Society to present Schulich’s very first Pride celebration: SPECTRUM Week. For one week in late June 2021, both groups hosted virtual events, workshops and entertainment for 2SLGBTQIA+ Schulich students, staff, faculty and allies. The events were very well received, and Patel saw just how much they were needed in the community. “Business schools are focused on associations to help students land jobs, not on clubs that have a community element,” notes Patel.
But for students exploring their sexual and gender identity, community support can make all the difference. In his first two years at Schulich, Patel fell in with the wrong crowd. His subsequent mental health challenges led to his admission to a mental health ward in his second year. “I was trying to find myself and who I was as a queer person. I had a lot of internalized racism and homophobia from Indian culture, because I’m an international student who came to Canada in 2018,” Patel recalls. “I didn’t want to admit that I was gay. That internalized battle led me to a hospital bed.”
By the end of his fourth year, Patel realized that he could have landed a great job years earlier, if only he had known the right people. “The queer community is happy, vibrant and full of colour. But there’s also a very dark side: substance abuse, mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts, which I personally went through,” says Patel. “I don’t want any students to go through that. My personal story kept me motivated to make [a change] happen.”
Patel wasn’t the only Schulich student with a strong desire to reinvigorate the SPA. Alongside 2021/2022 SPA VP of Operations Michael Olkhovski (now the SPA’s Undergraduate President) and their dedicated student team, they pulled together the SPA’s flagship conference – SPECTRUM 2022, the Pride in Business Conference – in a mere two months.
The SPA didn’t want SPECTRUM to be a conventional business conference with keynotes, panels and frequent use of buzzwords like inclusion and diversity. They truly integrated queer community issues with those of business students. They held a drag show and involved charities that create queer community impact, including Rainbow Railroad and the Get REAL Movement. The SPA put their business skills to use and invited charities and other stakeholders to participate in a Case Competition panel, judging student-created solutions to real-world stakeholder problems. As a result, the competition sponsor (Get REAL Movement) has implemented an Ambassador Program where Schulich students provide pro bono consulting. “As students, we’re broke. But we can give you our time, knowledge and a fresh perspective,” Patel says. “That’s what the student delegates at SPECTRUM 2022 offered. As the SPA, we brought it all together.”
They didn’t shy away from sexual health issues. To raise awareness of HIV and PrEP medication, and to combat stigma, they invited organizations including LetsStopAIDS and Freddie (an online PrEP clinic), and had a nurse on hand to answer student questions about HIV. They even gave out conversationstarting condoms and vibrators in the delegate bags! Patel recalls how these items sparked a conversation at the event with a straight peer. “It started a conversation that was very uncomfortable but very intriguing,” Patel laughs. “Conversations about intimacy don’t happen at business conferences.”
Jemin Patel
Michael Olkhovski
By all accounts, the event was a huge success. Attended by 130 delegates with representation from eight universities and involving 33 corporate partners, the event raised nearly $25,000. Even better was the positive delegate feedback – 2SLGBTQIA+ students felt very seen in the business world. The conference helped them better understand their own identities and how to progress in their careers. In other words, the SPA’s goal of blending personal and professional student support came through loud and clear for attendees.
Current SPA Undergraduate President Olkhovski learned a great deal from SPECTRUM 2022, which inspired him to organize the March 2023 Eclipse event. Eclipse was held in collaboration with two other student clubs involving women in leadership and Black students. Appropriately enough, the event focused on intersectionality as a workplace superpower. Attendees learned from a Black woman keynote speaker who spoke about balancing motherhood with her career. They also spoke with Pride groups from different companies. “They learned how Pride groups function and how they take diversity and inclusion into account in the recruitment cycle,” Olkhovski notes. Building on the success of last year, SPECTRUM 2023 is happening from June 16 to June 17. Day 1 will focus on student networking and connections, while Day 2 is a full day of corporate networking sessions. They will expand last year’s drag show into a full drag brunch featuring a diversity of drag kings and queens. “Drag is very important to society, especially given what’s going on in the world right now,” Olkhovski explains. “That conversation is really important for the conference.”
Patel now works as an accountant at EY, but still acts as Alumni Advisor to the SPA team. Now that he’s in the corporate world, he has a different lens on the importance of the SPA’s work. “The people who get to the top levels don’t necessarily get there because of hard work. They know who the important people are and get invited to special events outside of the 9-5 job,” Patel notes. “Do you fit in based on the way that you look, talk or how you value things? Traditionally, it is a very white, heteronormative space. It’s hard for us to get our foot in the door.”
Olkhovski is grateful for the continued opportunity as Undergraduate President to empower other queer students and provide both personal and professional development opportunities. Now, the club is much better known throughout Schulich, and the SPA is just as credible and legitimate as other school clubs. “We are a business school, and we are there to set students up for the working world,” says Olkhovski. “But as a club, we ensure that there is more than professional development. We want to connect people on a human level.”