Speaking to SFU’s best and brightest: an interview with 2019’s SFU Outstanding Alumni Night awardees

The Outstanding Alumni Awards show us why we should all be proud as SFU students through the success of this year’s awardees

Photo by SFU News

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer 

The 2019 Outstanding Alumni Awards took place September 20 at the Sheraton Wall Centre. It featured four awardees: Isabel Ge Mahe, Kathleen Hepburn, Hew Choy Leong, and Mark Okerstrom. Peter Akman, 2018’s recipient for Outstanding Alumni for Professional Achievement, hosted the awards night. 

All four awardees are exemplary in their own right, sporting an impressive list of accomplishments under their belt. I sat down with Isabel Ge Mahe and Hew Choy Leung separately, and they led me through the ups and downs in their career.

The first awardee I approached was Apple’s vice president and directing manager of Greater China region, Isabel Ge Mahe. We spoke in between the bustle of mic fittings and rehearsals. 

Mahe is a powerhouse: she was personally hired by Steve Jobs in 2008 to work as vice president on their Wireless Communications team at a time when Apple was preparing to release their first iPhone. Since then, she’s moved on to a managerial role. Recently, Mahe was selected to join Starbucks’s Board of Directors, too. 

Alumni advice — Isabel de Gahe: “Just persevere — because you will always run into problems and you need to learn to plow through that.”

While Mahe has an impressive resume, we chuckled as she recalled the long nights spent at SFU. “[Engineering science] was actually a really challenging program, I remember it required 160 credits to graduate.

“I remember working with my teammates in the labs through like, early mornings sometimes [until] 3 a.m. [ . . . ] I remember eating cold pizza in the Pit.” Apparently, the Pit was a hang out spot on campus that’s long been renovated over.

Mahe truly believes in what she is doing. She advised students to persevere through their mistakes and to do things they really believe in. Mahe ended our conversation by also telling me that you can never spend too much time with your family. After we finished our interview, Mahe later reaffirmed the importance of family in her acceptance speech. She told the audience about coming to Canada at the age of 16 with her father and learning English by bussing tables. In honour of her late father, who sacrificed his career as a doctor in China to help her purse her dreamsin Canada, Mahe created the Peng Tu Ge Scholarship for Women in Engineering or Computing Science at SFU. 

Alumni advice — Hew Choy Leong: “You have to be very patient with what you’re doing, and with the failure.”

I then spoke with Hew, who was charming and easygoing, over dinner. It was evident in just a few minutes of conversation that he built his career from his endless discipline. Hew is a distinguished scientist, renowned internationally for his discoveries about the antifreeze protein in salmon. Hew is from Ipoh, Malaysia, and studied at Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore. I was born in Malaysia and briefly studied in Singapore too, so on a personal level, it was really inspiring for me to speak with a Malaysian academic. We bonded over this before launching into his extensive academic career. 

After graduating from Nanyang Polytechnic, Hew got a scholarship to study at the University of Manitoba. He then followed his supervisor, who got a job at SFU, to Vancouver. Hew then completed his degree at Simon Fraser University in one year, an institution which he credits for his work ethic in research. 

So all my experimental work was done at Simon Fraser. The research culture in Simon Fraser and also the kind of advice I received from many of my professors, I still remember,” he said. “So my experience at Simon Fraser, even though it was short, it laid the foundation for my research interest. It also trained me how to do research.”

When asked how he dealt with challenges in his career, he responded that challenges were natural in his work. 

“As a scientist, when we do research, you look at the term, ‘research,’ [meaning] you continue doing it.

“It means you have to be very patient about what you are doing, and about the failure,” he said,
“the results may not be consistent with what you think it should be [but] these are the kind of issues that train you to be a sharp and critical thinker.” 

In his acceptance speech, Hew told an anecdote about one of his failures; he had imported about 200 cod into his lab for research, but they all died overnight due to the cold temperature. Hew joked that the fish everyone then ate at the research centre made him the most popular guy in the centre. Still, Hew persevered and closely observed some fish that didn’t freeze to death. And from there, the rest is history. 

Alumni advice — Mark Okerstrom: “[Work] hard, [pursue] your passions, [take] risks, and [get] comfortable with failure because that’s a part of life, and ultimately just [be] open to opportunities.”

I went on to speak with the two other alumni, Mark Okerstrom and Kathleen Hepburn, for pieces of advice they’d give to students. 

Okerstrom is the CEO of Expedia, and is quite down-to-earth despite helming the Fortune 500 company at a young age. He confessed to me that he wasn’t sure what to do in his twenties. 

“I had tons of different career goals over my life,” he began. 

Okerstrom explained that his curiosity drove his different career decisions. “Ultimately, I ended up pursuing things I had the most interest in,” he said.

“I had practiced law for four years, and I discovered more interesting things, then I went back to business school and I’ve been blowing through life.”

Okerstrom’s academic life had taken him from SFU, then to UBC for law school, and even to Harvard Business School at one point. 

“It was one of those times, when growing up in Canada, I thought ‘who gets to go to Harvard?’” Okerstrom recalled fondly. Still, no matter where he goes, Okerstrom praises SFU for guiding him. “My time here at Simon Fraser [ . . . ] was one of the most formative periods of my life.

“I studied philosophy and critical reasoning, and then psychology and calculus,” he told me. “The breadth of what I studied was phenomenal — SFU instilled in me a curiosity that still drives me today; but it also instilled a need to [be] disciplined, and to be self-motivated to get things done on time.” Indeed, Okerstrom’s constant willingness to push himself and to accept opportunities has taken him all over the world to find his next step. 

Alumni advice — Kathleen Hepburn: “Accept you’re going to fail.”

When I finally approached Hepburn and spoke with her, it was clear that she’s a passionate filmmaker. Having graduated in 2007, Hepburn is this year’s Rising Star recipient, an award that recognizes new talents among SFU alumni. Hepburn’s first feature film, Never Steady, Never Still, has premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. The film won the awards for Best Canadian Film, Special Jury Prize, and Best Director. 

“I think I’m inspired by the world we live in — the social context of our lives and the ethical dilemmas,” Hepburn mused, when asked about what inspired her work. “But I’m really interested in [ . . . ] people living in complicated circumstances and having to make difficult decisions.” 

Indeed, these inspirations are reflected in her most recent production, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a film wherein two Indigenous women in Vancouver meet each other by chance and come to lean on each other. This film is the culmination of Hepburn’s collaboration with Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as writer and director. The Toronto International Film Festival describes The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open as “a brilliant, poignant collaboration between two of Canada’s brightest — and boldest — filmmakers.

When asked about the most rewarding experience about working on the film, Hepburn talked about her actor’s growth — they were working with a 17 year old actress, Violet Nelson, who had never acted before in her life. “When we first met her, she was unbelievably shy and reserved, if you asked her a question, she would [ . . . ] shrink into herself. Throughout the process of making the film, [ . . . ] she emerged into this [ . . . ] amazing [person].” 

Hepburn really believes in her work, which is what keeps her motivated. “One of the things that makes a filmmaker successful is that they don’t give up [ . . . ] it’s a tough industry, and you have to not be afraid of putting yourself out there.” 

Even through the obstacles, Hepburn, really believes in her work, which keeps her motivated.

 “One of the things that makes a filmmaker successful is that they don’t give up [ . . . ] it’s a tough industry, and you have to not be afraid of putting yourself out there.” 

Her words, like those of the other alumni, can speak to all of us, no matter what point we are in in our academic journey. To see these phenomenal individuals light the way for SFU alumnus instils an indescribable pride; as a student, I’m elated to see how my work now could lead to greater things, and that feeling is a great gift.  It was especially a good experience to connect with alumni who are proud to show how SFU led them to their careers. Overall, when SFU feels like a commuter campus sometimes, it’s nice to have an event that remembers and celebrates our community here.


The full speeches of the 2019 Outstanding Alumni Awards recipients are available on Facebook.