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Black History, Black Futures with Mervyn Allen and Dennis Mitchell

Feb 17, 2023 Podcasts 19 minute read

McMillan LLP is pleased to present our podcast series “Black History, Black Futures,” as part of our Black History Month commemoration. Each episode features an interview with a McMillan lawyer and a trailblazing Black leader in Canada’s business world.

In this episode, Mervyn Allen, Partner and Co-Chair of our Commercial Real Estate Group and Chair of our Commercial Leasing Group speaks with Dennis Mitchell, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment Officer at Starlight Capital, an independent asset management subsidiary of Starlight Investments, on leadership and diversity as a results driver for businesses.


Transcript

Mervyn Allen: Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to our second installment of our Black History Month podcast – a number of fireside chats, if you will, featuring prominent trailblazing black Canadian business leaders. I want to thank you all for tuning in today. My name is Merv Allen and I’m a partner in McMillan’s Commercial Real Estate Department.As one of Canada’s leading business law firms, we’re privileged to work with a number of forward looking corporations and businesses across the country who align with McMillan’s values and our commitment to fostering diverse and inclusive spaces. On behalf of the firm and my colleagues here in the Black Lawyers Affinity Group, let me say how gratified we are to have as our guest today, Dennis Mitchell, the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment Officer of Starlight Capital. Starlight Capital is a recognized force in the world of Canadian real estate investment and asset management.

Dennis, welcome and thank you for joining us today for what I expect to be a very informative discussion.

Dennis Mitchell: Okay. Well, thank you for having me, Merv.

Mervyn Allen: So let’s get right into it. You have served as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Information Officer Starlight Capital since 2018. Is that right?

Dennis Mitchell: Yeah, Chief Investment Officer. We started the firm in March of 2018, and we are a subsidiary of the much larger Starlight Investments, which is a $28 billion real estate asset management firm across North America. And what makes Starlight Capital unique within sort of the asset management landscape, but also within Starlight Investments, is our focus is on both public and private assets and along three verticals: real estate, infrastructure and diversified equities. And as I said, both public and private. And, you know, I have the great honor and pleasure of working with some people that I’ve known for forty years; a lot of people that I had the pleasure of building another asset manager for ten plus years. And this is really a labor of love. I love managing assets. I love building businesses and the team that we have assembled is a fantastic diverse team of people who just enjoy building things and seeing the fruits of their labor come to fruition.

Mervyn Allen: You know, my parents and particularly my dad, determined long ago what schools I would go to and indeed what profession I would wind up in.

Can you tell us what initially drew you into building a career in finance and in asset management in particular?

Dennis Mitchell: Sure. And just as an aside, I’m doing the exact same thing with my children so they don’t have a choice. (laughter) But I grew up knowing with 100% certainty that I was going to play professional football for a living. And six knee surgeries later, I had to find something else to do. And I remember distinctly the Toronto, well, one of the national newspapers publishing the salaries of bank CEOs. And at the time I thought, this is the way to riches and this is the way to the lifestyle that I want. So I was always curious about financial services, but it wasn’t really until I read a book called Buffetology that it really locked in and confirmed for me that this is what I want to do. This is the path within finance or financial services that I wanted to pursue.

Mervyn Allen: Warren Buffett.

Dennis Mitchell: Absolutely. Warren Buffett is – I can’t really call him a mentor since we haven’t really met. He won’t return my calls. (laughter) But he is certainly someone who’s inspired a lot of my professional career. And, you know, over the years, you know, going, you know, having a chance to go down to Omaha and attend the Annual General Meeting; and a lot of people said it’s kind of like going to church. Bear with me. You know, you go there and you know all the stories and the stories really don’t change, but it really reaffirms your faith and your belief in what it is that you’re doing. And so the example he set, and some of the people I’ve had the chance to work with, there’s a lot of similarities in professional sports and asset management if you will. There is the competitive aspect. There is the being able to come up with systems or structures that separate you from the pack. It really really appealed to me. And the chance to make a difference in the lives of everyday Canadians was also something that kind of appealed to me. So it’s been a great run for twenty plus years and you know, we’re just getting started.

Mervyn Allen: And what led you down the path to Starlight? Can you talk about that for a little bit?

Dennis Mitchell: Absolutely. One of the best most inspiring people that I had the pleasure of meeting in my financial services career was Daniel Dreamer, who is the CEO of our parent company Starlight Investments. And we met in 2010 and consummated some very, very successful business together. We’ve stayed in touch and, you know, I was at a crossroads in my career where I said, you know, I’m going to sit down and I’m going to make a list of the smartest, wealthiest people I know, and I’m going to pitch them the idea of what is now Starlight Capital. And Daniel was at the top of that list and I pitched it to him. And, you know, I’d love to say that he got it right away, but it wasn’t so much that he got it right away. It’s that he saw the potential of our idea and expanded upon it. And so it’s been an extremely fruitful partnership. He’s a great mentor and someone to learn from. And he’s really given us, and I say us, because we’re a team of twenty seven people now. A lot of us who have worked together for more than a decade. But he’s given us the chance to realize on our long term career ambition. So, you know, a little bit of our personal ambition and where we were collectively as a team in our careers, and a lot of Daniel recognizing another opportunity to build on the existing asset manager that he’d already created.

Mervyn Allen: That’s absolutely fascinating. I didn’t know any of that.

How do you think your early career experiences have influenced and shaped your approach as a leader today?

Dennis Mitchell: Yeah, and to kind of, you know, encapsulate my approach as a leader, I’m that guy who was always trying to figure out the things that people take for granted, right? So when you talk about starting a business, you know, there’s the table stakes. You know, you need good performance. You know, you need decent client service or better than decent client service. And you need a vision, right? And, you know, as you start talking about what makes a great business and, you know, whether it’s publicly traded or the private business, that is Starlight Capital, leadership always comes to the fore. And so for me, if you’re distilling leadership down to its base instincts, it’s you know, people who are willing to do the things that they expect of others, right? They set that example. They set that tone and they demonstrate through their actions and their deeds that they are willing to do all of the things that they ask of you. And I think that really separates high quality leaders from people who are in that position, but not really demonstrating leadership capabilities. And so for myself, you know, and a lot of this comes from professional sports. You’ve got to lead by example. You’ve got to demonstrate to people that not just that you are in that position as a leader, but that you’re worthy of it and that you’re someone they should rally behind. You know, and again, if you look at professional sports, you know, let’s take football as an example. Every quarterback is the captain of their team and it’s almost a mandatory thing. And to be a successful football team, you’ve got to have the most important position on the field. Be a bonafide genuine leader. Someone who can inspire the rest of the team and someone that the team can look to at those times where, you know, the game is literally on the line or the season is on the line. That person who you know will deliver and will do everything in their power to lift the team towards their goals.

You know, scale it back a little bit. You know, it’s not quite as exciting or as dramatic in the world of financial services. But at the same time, your team looks to you for leadership and tone. And if you’re asking things of them, they expect you to demonstrate it yourself. And so that for me distills the essence of leadership, and I’ve always tried to embody that. I’ve always looked to different business leaders and sports leaders and entertainment leaders as examples of how to get it done properly in my particular field.

Mervyn Allen: And I presume that if things don’t go well, you also need leadership to deal with that aspect of things because things are not always successful.

Dennis Mitchell: Well, yeah, I mean, over my twenty years in financial services, you know, I’ve managed money through the financial crisis, through Brexit, through COVID. And so very rarely do things go as planned. In fact, if you want to have a good laugh, always go back one year and read people’s outlooks for the markets and interest rates. And you know, it’s always humorous because it never pans out the way the other experts say that it will. But that, you know, that’s part of the fun because if life was just a paved path laid out in front of us with no deviations and no forks, we probably get bored walking it. And so in the world of business where you have these deviations and where you have these detours and these events that come up that are unforeseen and demand your attention. And in a solution, that’s what kind of separates the people who love to talk about being in business but aren’t really there to solve problems, get things done and advance the business and actually grow and create something. And that’s what excites me.

So I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the next pandemic or the next financial crisis, but I like to think that Starlight Capital has been built in such a manner that will weather it and come through on the other side.

Mervyn Allen:  Excellent. So this being a Black History Month podcast, I suppose now I should ask a few more pointed questions. So while many large companies, particularly in the United States, have attempted through various means and with varying degrees of success to diversify their management teams and to seek inclusivity in their professional advisors, what is your experience being with diversity and in particular black diversity in the financial sector? And do you think it’s changed over time?

Dennis Mitchell: Yes. Well, I’ll answer the second part. Absolutely it has changed over time. The trajectory and the trend is that we are getting better. We are getting more diverse. And it’s the inclusion part that we’ve got to work on, right? So incremental progress is being made. And it’s easy to point out the times where we stumble or where we make mistakes or where things, you know, check back noticeably or materially. But I think the trajectory is headed in the right direction.

And then coming back to your first question, I always, again, try to bring things back to brass tacks. Why are we doing this? And the answer is twofold. One, it’s the right thing to do. If we truly are a just and democratic society, then everybody should have a chance to contribute. Everyone should have that opportunity to push forward and achieve their potential.

But for those who need a more simple or basic answer, you know, there’s tons of research that demonstrates that diverse workforces generate better economic returns for businesses, right? Whether it’s gender diversity, whether it’s ethnic or racial diversity, there is tons of data out there that definitively and empirically demonstrates that those businesses generate better results. And, you know, I look at it from a portfolio management angle. We all understand the concept of diversification when we’re talking about, you know, listed securities, right? To a certain degree, the more diversity you have the more return you can generate with a similar level of risk and volatility. And so when you look at your workforce, the more diverse sort of walks of life people come from, the more diversity of lived experience, and probably most importantly, as a result of those things, the more diversity of cognitive ability or cognitive path, the more likely you’re going to generate optimal solutions, right? If all of your solutions come from one small subset of people with one lived experience and one set of experience, I just don’t see how that team would outperform a team with greater diversity in lived experience and cognitive sort of solution in decision making. So I think it makes sense from an economic standpoint. It makes sense from a moral standpoint. And at the end of the day, if those two arguments don’t sway you, then really what are you trying to generate or what are you trying to create or build?

Mervyn Allen: So in some ways we preach to the converted. Do you think corporations have a role to play in moving societal perceptions in this regard?

Dennis Mitchell: Absolutely, because when we say corporations, I think people have in mind sort of this nameless cast of characters. But corporations are collections of people. And so do I think corporations and the people behind them that have, you know, resources and capacity and platforms – do I think they have a responsibility? Absolutely. Many of them have benefited tremendously from not just the work of others in the world of business to sort of advance corporate agendas, if you will. But just all of us who have contributed to building the society that we enjoy in Canada and as a global portfolio manager, have the opportunity to travel, you know, pretty much the entire world – certainly the developed world. And I will tell you, every time I come home, it’s hammered home for me that this is the best place in the world to live. And people will talk about the United States being the mightiest country on the planet. I’m happy to concede that to them, right? People will talk about the quality of life in the Nordic region of the Scandinavian countries, happy to yield back to them. But when I look at the total sort of sum total of everything, right – opportunity, safety, security, right – even geographically, where we’re located, you know, nobody can walk here. That’s a huge challenge that the United States struggles with every day. I just look at the sum total and Canada is a fantastic place to live. I couldn’t think of a place that I want to live other than here. And so as a result, corporations and the people who run them have benefited from that. And as a result, if you’re truly, you know, focused on, you know, not just your economic bottom line, but also your contribution to society as a whole and advancing the ball down the field and making this a better place to be? Then yes, you do have an obligation to pursue whether it’s diversity and diversity and inclusion. You do have an obligation – I think a positive obligation to get involved and to be a positive force for driving more change and more inclusivity.

Mervyn Allen: So a follow up question to that, how do you see the industry itself, our industry, evolving in terms of opportunities in recruitment of black professionals? Well, let’s start with that.

Dennis Mitchell:
It is very challenging because what I hear back from companies is that we don’t know where to find black professionals. And, you know, I think we’re going to talk about the Black Opportunity Fund in a bit, so I won’t front run myself too much. But the challenge isn’t finding black people who are talented, motivated, wanting the opportunity. It’s that a lot of these companies have sort of this dogma of, “We only recruit from the best schools,” and those, you know, same four or five schools have less or more sort of homogenous populations. And you get into this cycle of, “I only recruit from these schools,” and everyone from those schools then refers other people who went to those schools. And so it’s a very narrow pond that people fish from. And so when they then say, “We like to hire more black professionals, but I don’t know where to find them.” You start with the manner in which you recruit and bring people in. And I find that if you kind of eschew the traditional four or five schools that everyone wants to recruit from, and you open up sort of your aperture to whether it’s different schools or different channels for finding candidates, the diversity piece of it kind of takes care of itself. You know, at Starlight Capital, we’re immensely diverse. I mean, there’s twenty seven people, but the intersectionality and the diversity of our team is remarkable. And I can’t say that there was a conscious effort to say like, “Oh, we need representation here or representation here.” We simply just said, “We’re going to mine our network. We’re going to open up the floodgates and say, ‘Who are the people that we know or who are the people that we’ve had experiences with that we would like to bring in to Starlight Capital?’” And lo and behold, it turned out to be a very diverse group of people. And now we’re in the stage where they recommend more and more people. And, you know, the richness of our diversity just continues to grow.

Mervyn Allen: So maybe this is something you can help us with as that sounds like it’s working very well at Starlight. Having got, you know, good black professionals in the door, how do we deal with retention and then promotion?

Dennis Mitchell: Yeah, people stay in places where they feel valued and where they see potential in a future.

So beginning with your company, and I think if you were enlightened and self-aware enough to embrace diversity and inclusion as a concept and bring it in to your firm. Then, you know, you’re probably enlightened enough and self-aware and forward thinking enough to have a strategy for your business beyond simply just diversity and product and pricing and, you know, geography and so on and so forth. So I find that people who make sound decisions and have a plan and a strategy for moving their business forward are equally receptive to good ideas when it comes to managing their workforce and their team. So again, what I’ve seen is, people are interested in companies that have got a future where there’s a path and there’s growth. You start there and then people want to stay places where they feel valued. So making a genuine attempt at not just having a diverse workforce, but also creating inclusive spaces where people can, you know, I don’t want to get into too many buzzwords. But when you say bring your authentic self, it means that I don’t have to constantly be aware of the fact that I’m the only black person in the room and I have to represent for the entire sort of race. It doesn’t matter if, you know, my heritage is Jamaican and I was born in Canada; I have to represent for Haitian born people who are in, you know, Montreal and are francophone. I have to represent for people who were born in the Congo and live in, you know, Edmonton. Like, it’s kind of ridiculous, right? We would never ask that of any race, you know. But, you know, having sort of that inclusive space means that I am free to just be Dennis as opposed to having to represent an entire race and an entire group of people who are not monolithic at all.

It means that in addition to recognizing the traditional holidays that you recognize, some that I might recognize, make me feel like I can actually bring forth some of the things from my heritage, my culture, me as a person into the workplace. And that means that, you know, I’m more interested in going to the workplace, right? People have asked me a number of times, “What’s it like being black on Bay Street?” and I kind of roll my eyes, but less so now. And I simply just tell them it’s exhausting, right? It’s exhausting because you constantly have to be aware of the fact that because there’s so few of us, you’re representing all of us all the time. You know, I can hear my mother saying, you know, admonishing me to make sure that, you know, I’m a good representative and a good example. Yeah, and it’s not just of your family. You know, when you get to Bay Street, it’s all black people. So it’s exhausting. But you also have to recognize that, you know, very few people have got a free pass, right? Everyone has challenges. Everyone has adversity. Everyone has, you know, things that they have to overcome. When it comes to me personally, one of the things that creates more obstacles and challenges is the fact that I’m black. But there are tons of white people out there who will say to you, “Look, I didn’t get a free pass just because I’m white here are all the things that I have to deal with, right?” So it’s recognizing that at times it may feel personal, but the world is not a personal place. The world is, if anything, a very impersonal place. And the challenges that you face and the obstacles you have to overcome may seem personal, but it’s really just life. And for me, as a black professional, one of the things that I have to deal with is the fact that as a black man, I am unique on Bay Street and there are some challenges with that. But the more we network and talk, the easier the burden becomes to carry. And the more we embrace true inclusivity, the lighter the burden becomes. When you get to the point where you know, everyone feels like they’ve got an equal shot and an opportunity at the brass ring, well that’s nirvana. And maybe we don’t get there. But the journey and the incremental progress – that’s worth it.

Mervyn Allen: Absolutely. I thought that was well said. So the Black Opportunity Fund – something very dear to your heart. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Dennis Mitchell: Absolutely. And we tend to talk about things, you know, post George Floyd. And I just want to remind people and we won’t get the whole litany out there. But in a very short period of time George Floyd was brutally murdered. Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and murdered, and Breonna Taylor was slaughtered in her home.

Mervyn Allen: And Tyre Nichols just recently.

Dennis Mitchell: Tyre Nichols. Yes. And so I think what changed in that sort of short period of time was nobody could dispute the fact that these were horrific crimes that were committed on people who didn’t deserve the treatment they received. And it’s not you know, I think black people have realized that forever in North America, and in Europe and around the world. But I think it was the rest of the world. You remember there were protests around George Floyd’s murder all over Europe and across Asia. I think was the rest of the world. People who weren’t black, who stood up and said, “This is wrong. We can’t allow this to continue.” And that created if you will, a safe space for people who weren’t black to say, “What can we do to change this?” And so one of the things that I have always wanted to do and I can’t take all the credit because there were fifty one of us who stood up the Black Opportunity Fund back in 2020. We said, “Look, we have money. We have talent and expertise. We have motivation, and now we have the moment. We need to do something to change what is happening now.

Mervyn Allen: Never let a crisis go to waste.

Dennis Mitchell: Absolutely. And so we got together. We stood up the Black Opportunity Fund and we called it the Black Opportunity Fund because racism denies people the opportunity. And so we wanted to and I’ll be a little controversial here. We have no desire to end racism. And that sounds crazy, but racism is a concept that exists in the mind of people who are ignorant. And so good luck eradicating an idea. More importantly, we are action and outcome oriented. We want to deal with the opportunity that’s been denied to black people because of racism. And then over time, as the Black Opportunity Fund grows and has greater impact, we will push racism to the margins and we will do our best to eliminate almost all of its impact, right? And it’s that journey that matters. It’s that progress that matters.

So, you know, we stood the organization up a few years ago. The goal is to be a conduit between corporations and government and philanthropists to channel more money into the black community so that we can disburse it in the form of loans to black businesses – the investments in black businesses and grants to charities and not for profits so that they can continue their mission. There are lots of black organizations out there that are trying to do good in the community. And the problem is, is that they are locked in an endless fundraising cycle that prevents them from actually achieving their actual mission. So it’s my hope that in partnership with the Black Opportunity Fund, they can focus on impact and results and we can take some of the burden of providing strategic capital to them.

And last thing I’ll say is, is that the benefits accrued all Canadians, right? Like imagine a world where Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and Elon Musk had been channeled into careers outside of technology because they were straight white cisgendered men, right? The loss of standard of living for everyone everywhere would be immense, right? So the benefits that they created, the technologies, the businesses, didn’t just accrue to straight white cisgendered men, it accrued to everyone. So if we can then turn around and create a world where black people have similar opportunity, the benefits don’t just accrue to the black community. They accrue to all Canadians and all humans who benefit from whatever it is that we’re on the cusp of creating or building or leading. And so that’s an important point to make because I think a lot of people say, like, “Well, you know, I’m this or I’m that, and where’s my fund? Where’s my opportunity fund?” You know, I can only do so much and the fifty one of us who stood up Black Opportunity Fund can only do so much. But the important thing is, is that we are doing, and there is a tangible impact and we’ll keep doing. And it’s my fervent hope and wish that, you know, twenty or thirty years from now, my grandchildren take the Black Opportunity Fund for granted because it’s always been there and they’ve always known that it’s a resource they could tap into to get where they need to be. That’s the ultimate.

Mervyn Allen: We should talk about this another time.

Dennis Mitchell: Happy to come back and talk about.

Mervyn Allen: Absolutely. I think we should do something about that. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in your life and did you take it? (laughter)

Dennis Mitchell: I would say I’ve been given lots and lots of advice over the years. I’m not sure if there’s any one piece of advice, but I will say this. One of the adages that I live my life by is this – have a plan. Because you’re either working your own plan or you’re part of someone else’s plan and you may not like the role they have you playing in their plan. So have a plan. Revisit that plan. It’s not to say that the plan you had when you were twelve years old is the plan that you’re working when you’re sixty, right? I certainly am not working the same plan that I set for myself when I was a kid. But you got to have a plan and, you know, you get one life and everyone ages in the same direction, right? I’ve yet to meet the Benjamin Button who’s going in reverse and gets to know everything that they, you know, that they learned and accumulated over time and get to apply it when they’re younger. So maximize what it is that you’re doing. So have a plan, but also have a board. You know, I mean, companies have boards and they shepherd and steward the company. So put together a board for You Inc., right? People who know what they’re doing can give you actual relevant advice and who care about the outcomes for you. And that board can change over time just like a corporate board, right? But consult those people when you have big decisions to make in your life. And you know, I do due diligence for a living. So it’s not just the advice you get, it’s who gives it to you and what their ax to grind is. So over time, develop sort of that board and change the members out as your needs change and as their capability of helping you changes. Be good to yourself. I think sixty to seventy percent of our self-talk is very negative, right? And, you know, friends come and go, spouses come and go, children come and go, but you’re stuck with you for your entire life. So be good to yourself. Be kind to yourself. Show yourself the grace that you show in others and be as motivated and desirous as good things for yourself as you are for others around you. So that’s probably the best sort of mantra, and that, you know, the distillation of all of the advice that I’ve received over my career. Those are the things, right? Have a plan, have a board and be good to yourself.

Mervyn Allen:  That’s good advice. I have one last question for you, Dennis. I have had and still have some aspirations for one day writing the great novel or maybe a great screenplay. Is there something outside of leading a great corporation that really motivates you?

Dennis Mitchell: It’s going to sound corny, but my children. And you know, people talk about legacy all the time, right? Like the Golden State Warriors, right? What’s their legacy? Are they better than the ‘96/‘97 Bulls? But at the end of the day, all of that is dust and ashes. So the thing that motivates me is my children and they motivate me to be a good person. They keep me on the straight and narrow and coloring within the lines. And what is extremely gratifying is when they start to make decisions and you see them starting to mimic your habits, right? You talk to them. And most of the time I have this whole theory that children are hardwired to not to listen to their parents because if they did listen to their parents, our, you know, our species would stagnate and decline because no one would push boundaries and no one would innovate. So they’re hardwired not to listen to us. But those few times where you can see that they actually took something – that advice you tried to pass on to them and they’re actually using it. Nothing better than that. And when you see that, it just doubles down on your motivation to kind of continue to sort of set the example and provide the advice and the guidance. So yeah, them.

Mervyn Allen: Sounds good to me. And on that note, we’ll call it a day. Dennis has been terrific talking today to you today. From my perspective, it’s been extremely insightful and informative and I hope we can continue these discussions.

Dennis Mitchell: Absolutely. And Merv, I want to thank you for this opportunity. I want to thank McMillan for this opportunity. And I hope you continue to do the series. And if there’s any way that I can help. Happy to do.

Mervyn Allen: We’ll have you back next year.

Dennis Mitchell: Sounds good.

Mervyn Allen: Thank you to everybody who tuned in today. Dennis Mitchell, Starlight Capital – thanks very much.

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