Gassim Bangoura helps guide Birks Group on its diversity & inclusion journey

Complying with Quebec's new legislation is also among Bangoura's top priorities

Gassim Bangoura helps guide Birks Group on its diversity & inclusion journey
Gassim Bangoura, director, legal affairs and assistant corporate secretary at Birks Group

When Gassim Bangoura started his career 20 years ago as a maritime lawyer at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, he never anticipated that he would one day join the legal department at high-end fashion jewellery store, Birks Group plc.

“As a maritime lawyer I was spending time with sailors at large container ships and oil rigs, so it was far removed from the work I’m doing now, but it did provide me with very good training on how to become a lawyer and think like a lawyer – skills that would serve me well going forward,” says Bangoura. After five years at BLG he decided to change directions, testing the waters as in-house counsel at two different companies before landing at Birks in 2009 - a designer of jewelry, timepieces and gifts as well as the operator of luxury jewelry stores in Canada, with wholesale customers throughout North America and the United Kingdom.

Bangoura quickly climbed the ranks, earning the title of director, legal affairs and assistant corporate secretary at Birks in 2018.

As president of the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Bangoura is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion within Birks – and within the entire legal profession. He was a founding member of Birks’ diversity and inclusion committee in 2020.

“We need to think carefully, with purpose, about whether our organizations are meaningfully diverse,” says Bangoura. “I’m proud to say that Birks has been acting meaningful when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.” The committee has prepared a report with 11 proposals to enhance diversity and inclusion within Birks. They are actively working with outside consultants to create a baseline of the organization’s current standing in terms of diversity and inclusion. On that basis, Bangoura says they will be able to make decisions with regard to new hiring practices – with a specific goal to improve diversity among BIPOC and LGBTQ+ employees.

Bangoura is passionate about mentoring Black law students and helping them achieve their own career goals.

“I think it is incumbent upon every person in a position of influence, no matter what background they’re from, to help others get to where you are today, and then hopefully to surpass you,” he says.

As part of a small team of three at Birks, Bangoura works closely with chief legal officer Miranda Melfi, and one paralegal.

“Because we’re such a lean team, it means pretty much everything of a legal nature that touches the company’s business, ends up on my desk or that of the chief legal officer. We basically split up the work,” says Bangoura. This consists of business advisory work which includes evaluating deals and transactions, as well as commercial contracts, financing, leases and HR matters. Another big responsibility for Bangoura is managing and protecting Birks’ large portfolio of registered trademarks. He also handles employment matters and client interactions.

“All the cases that come to my desk that involve our clients are very interesting to me,” says Bangoura. “It may simply be that our marketing or retail team have a question for me regarding the legality of a marketing campaign, so I’m there to answer those questions.”

The legal team has worked hard to be viewed by the rest of the organization as highly approachable, Bangoura says, so that employees frequently come to them with questions, before problems arise.

“We’ve done a pretty good job over many years at mitigating the risk that goes along with operating any business, and I think a big reason for that is that we tend to have a lot of discussions with the heads of our business units, so we identify potential issues before they become problems, and our colleagues feel comfortable approaching us at all times,” he says.

Bangoura also assists the chief legal officer with corporate governance at the Montreal-headquartered publicly traded company.

As Law 25 – Quebec’s revamped privacy legislation – continues to roll out over the next two years, Bangoura is keeping a close eye on changes that will impact all of the company’s operations from coast to coast. The first round of changes came into force in Sept. 2022, while further changes will be rolled out in Sept. 2023 and Sept. 2024.

“It already has, and will continue to have a major impact on our operations,” says Bangoura. “Every single business unit within Birks will have a role in ensuring that we are compliant with this new law, and I am one of the people who is tasked with overseeing the compliance efforts.”

For the past year, he has been working with outside counsel partners to develop a privacy roadmap to better understand the status quo of how Birks collects, maintains and uses the personal information of clients and employees.

“That was the first step – understanding how we do it today – and then creating a plan meshed with the obligations of the new law, and creating a gap analysis to see what we can do better,” says Bangoura. Because of the nature of the business, Birks is already accustomed to handling client information in a strictly confidential manner, so they are already on the right path to implementing the obligations of Law 25, Bangoura says.

 

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