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Interior Design graduate helms equity initiatives to pay it forward

Newsroom authorby Vitusha OberoiDec 11, 2023

Sheridan graduate Kathryn Lawrence’s (Bachelor of Interior Design ’19) twin passions for creativity and philanthropy are sparking change, not only in Canada where she arrived as an international student in 2015, but also in Jamaica, the country she is proud to call home. Kathryn Lawrence

As an Interior Designer at Brook Mcllroy in Downtown Toronto, Lawrence works with Indigenous communities to create spaces that reflect their vision and culture. As Founder of the Ubuntu Creative Arts Project (UCAP) in Jamaica, she strives to forge pathways to success for students dedicated to the arts. As a Co-Founder of the social enterprise Nobellum, she supports Black youth, entrepreneurs, and professionals in Canada, Africa, and the Caribbean to engage in entrepreneurship and innovation, using technology to further their projects.

It’s a full slate of initiatives with a recurring theme – creating an environment for diverse communities to connect, grow, have access to knowledge and resources, and find representation – inspired by the concept of “Ubuntu,” a Zulu phrase which means ‘I am because we are.’

“When I started working, I paid attention to how common it was for me to be the only one who looked like me in many rooms. It made me realize that I need to do my part in making that not be the case.”

“It’s the idea that we are all made up of those who came before us, and as we succeed, it is our duty as human beings to help others who want to follow similar paths. That’s something that has always resonated with me,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence began her philanthropic journey soon after graduating from high school when she established a scholarship program for visual arts students to create pathways for young Caribbean creatives.

“There weren’t many such scholarships, if any, at the time and I’ve always had this craving to create opportunities that I didn’t have for others who want to walk a similar path. The last few months of my high school experience had really been symbolic for me. There was a competition to design our high school flag – we never had one before – and my design was selected. We had a flag-raising ceremony and it felt surreal. Encouraged by my mother, I started a small scholarship for the arts, the Kathryn Ann Lawrence Visual Arts Scholarship. And that evolved into the Ubuntu Visual Arts Scholarship,” says Lawrence.

Helping Jamaican youth follow their passion for the arts

The UCAP has since grown into an organization with the aim of inspiring and helping Jamaican youth interested in pursuing the arts as a profession. It provides students with opportunities to learn from creative professionals across different sectors and offers scholarships and support with creative portfolio and brand development. It also helps students to make more informed decisions when selecting their careers.

“Ubuntu is the idea that we are all made up of those who came before us, and as we succeed, it is our duty as human beings to help others who want to follow similar paths.”

“Quite a few students in Jamaica, who are passionate about the arts, typically get pushed into traditional career fields because those are deemed more feasible. I believe that if students and parents knew about the full breadth of creative professions and how to access them, this wouldn’t be the case. That is why the UCAP’s central goal is to provide them with access to the knowledge and the tools they need to present themselves in the creative landscape, not just back home but internationally,” she says.

The scholarships the UCAP offers to students span both Jamaica and in Canada for international students from the Caribbean. This summer, it hosted its first Summer Creative Intensive in Jamaica. This one-week program, delivered in partnership with the Jamaican Ministry of Education and Youth (MoEY) as well as the Jamaican Business Development Corporation (JBDC), provided holistic professional development for high school students. It introduced students to creative industry professionals with local and international expertise in fields such as architecture, film and television, cinematography, and interior design. Students also developed online portfolios during this week and received a personal branding toolkit.

Kathryn Lawrence

Showcasing career opportunities in the arts

“Some of the students were studying theatre arts at the high school level. At the beginning of the program, when we asked them what they wanted to become, many of them said actors or playwrights. However, by the end of the Intensive, we found that they had broadened their list of potential careers to explore other streams in the entertainment industry such as executive production, videography, set design, and cinematography,” Lawrence says.

The UCAP is trying to break the stigma attached to non-traditional fields by showing students that there are so many avenues they can pursue as artists and creatives. That there are others who are willing to invest in their passion and innate creativity, and that they can have successful careers in the arts.

“My hope is that I contribute to creating a world where we no longer have these conversations about minorities and diversification and access. When equity will be commonplace and other young Black Caribbean women and girls like me will have greater opportunities to thrive and achieve success.”

“We are currently in the planning stages with the JDBC and MoEY for next year’s Intensive and are hoping to do this event on an annual basis, and maybe move it to Canada as well,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence says it was her passion for the arts and the desire to expand her initiatives internationally which first brought her to Canada, and to Sheridan’s Interior Design program. Despite the many challenges she faced as an international student, she was determined to prove herself. During the program, she succeeded in receiving annual scholarships and was recognized as a student leader on campus, with a leadership award in her final year.

Advancing Black-owned businesses via Nobellum

In her third year, Lawrence founded the Sheridan Caribbean Students Association, reaching out to her community and forging long-lasting relationships. One relationship in particular was her connection with another Sheridan graduate, Melisa Ellis (Computer Systems Technician-Software Engineering ’20). Both of them shared the concern that there was little or no representation of the Black community in many professions.

Then, in 2020, the brutal killing of African American George Floyd by the Minneapolis police created outrage the world over, spotlighting the social injustices faced by the Black community. The tragedy spurred Lawrence and Ellis to do something more, and together with other BIPOC leaders they decided to create a lasting impact for the Black community by leveraging technology for its advancement. This led to the founding of Nobellum, a non-profit social enterprise with a mandate of supporting the startup of 100 Black-owned businesses in STEM by 2025. By now, they have already supported 40 startups.

Nobellum focuses on strengthening the Black business ecosystem. Led by professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industries, it supports Black youth and professionals to engage in entrepreneurship and innovation, and exposes them to the advantages of leveraging technology to sustain their entrepreneurial ventures. Just this year alone, it has hosted a series of pitch events in partnership with the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, The City of Toronto, and The City of Mississauga’s Ideation lab.

“We currently have an Innovator program which consists of coaching, mentorship, business development resources and a series of workshops, events and funding opportunities for Black entrepreneurs to help them gain the skills they need to upscale their businesses,” says Lawrence.

Creating space for diversity through design

A licensed Interior Designer, Lawrence also sits on the Board of Directors for Interior Designers of Canada, the national advocacy association for the interior design profession. “When I started working, I paid attention to how common it was for me to be the only one who looked like me in many rooms. It made me realize that I need to do my part in making that not be the case. My interior design industry experience so far has been a mix of using my ecosystem and reach to advocate for other BIPOC designers - making space for them; as well as using design to create lasting impact,” says Lawrence.

Currently an Interior Designer with Brook McIlroy, a design firm widely acknowledged for its Indigenous Design Studio which gives expression to Indigenous cultures in communities and landscapes, Lawrence is translating her vision into design. One of her current projects is a Language and Cultural Centre for the Mohawk people in Tyendinaga, a township in Ontario, where she and her team are collaborating closely with the community to understand their aspirations and needs.

It is far from easy to hold a full-time job as an interior designer and still continue with her work with the UCAP, Nobellum and other volunteer initiatives, but Lawrence says this is her way of paying forward the support she herself received.

“My hope is that I contribute to creating a world where we no longer have these conversations about minorities and diversification and access. When equity will be commonplace and other young Black Caribbean women and girls like me will have greater opportunities to thrive and achieve success.”

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