Black Futures: Financial services executive, chef, and accessible education advocate Ray Williams dedicated to creating opportunities for others

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Throughout February, George Brown College celebrates Black Futures Month. We're highlighting GBC graduates who make meaningful changes today with an eye on the future. 

Financial services executive and George Brown College graduate Ray Williams started the first Canadian chapter of an organization for Black finance professionals two decades ago to create networking and advancement opportunities. Today, he's proud to see more diversity in senior leadership positions, but there's still much work to be done. 

Williams is the Vice-Chairman and Managing Director – Financial Markets at National Bank Financial and a member of the George Brown College Foundation Board of Directors. Throughout his career, he's worked to foster Black talent, support Black organizations and entrepreneurs, and highlight the gap when it comes to leaders from Black and other diverse communities in finance and the federal public service. 

"When I talk about being a quiet activist and a social justice warrior, I'm talking about creating equity within all spaces," he said. 

"I understand what it looks like because I happen to be a Black man working in an area where, more generally speaking, I am a minority, and quite often, there is a missing piece. The missing piece is the lack of understanding that I have the same ambitions as my peers, yet I'm looked at differently." 

Creating networking and advancement opportunities for Black financial services professionals 

Shortly after transferring from the U.K. and London's financial district to Toronto's Bay Street, Williams co-founded the Canadian chapter of the U.S.-based National Association of Urban Bankers (NAUB) in 1996. The monthly meetings provided members with a "sense of comfort in knowing there were others like them on Bay Street." 

The group changed its name to the Urban Financial Services Coalition (UFSC) to reflect shifting demographics and take a more inclusive approach when Williams became president in 2000. Today it is known as the Canadian Association of Urban Financial Professionals (CAUFP), which recently celebrated its silver anniversary. 

"I'm proud to say that I helped create something that is now 25 years old. I'm also proud to say that when I look around today, there are so many more people of colour in senior management positions, myself included," he said.  

"There is still a lot of work to do because there are many people who are extremely capable but don't necessarily always get the opportunities they deserve, based on their particular brilliance, because too often that's discounted." 

Williams has also addressed the issue of lack of opportunity for Black people within the executive level of the federal public service as a member of a committee assembled to advise the federal government in 2000. 

Addressing underinvestment in Black businesses and communities 

Williams is the Chair and Co-Founder of the Black Opportunity Fund, launched in 2020 to address underinvestment in Black communities. The group supports Black entrepreneurs, businesses, and community organizations.  

"We're talking about how we can change the economic environment for Black people in Canada," Williams said. "And the idea here for the Black Opportunity Fund is that we want to create something sustainable and address some of the inequities, whether within business, where quite often minorities are rejected at a much greater rate." 

Financial services leader and a culinary arts graduate 

Pursuing a culinary arts education at George Brown College's School of Continuing Education helped Williams get through the stress of the 2008 financial crisis. 

"It provided a wonderful escape that represented joy around the focus of a topic that I adored, which is food and cooking," he said. "It gave me something to look forward to during a grim time in the markets. Cooking is my meditation." 

He completed the Culinary Skills program in 2011. As a chef, lifelong learner and an "evangelist and advocate for accessible education," Williams deepened his connection to George Brown College by supporting and volunteering for the Food Court Social (Check out the video above to learn more). The annual event featuring top Toronto chefs raises funds for the Augmented Education program that provides training and support for students with mental health and addiction challenges. 

"I think George Brown, from a wider community standpoint, does and undertakes so much," he said. "The Food Court Social is just one component, but the outreach it creates is extraordinary and impacts the community." 

In 2021, Williams became a member of the George Brown College Foundation's Board of Directors. And he was nominated for a a 2022 Premier's Award in the Business category.