One is a musician, certified personal trainer and former varsity athlete. The other is a seasoned entrepreneur, co-founder of several Internet-based companies and fluent in four languages.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another setting where the interests of Mark Brown and Tyler Forkes might otherwise meet. Yet their paths have converged in a commitment to grow connections between Western community members.
“Bonds and friendships are created here that last forever,” said Forkes, recently named Alumni Relations Executive Director. “The Western alumni community is loyal and passionate. They are willing to come together and work to maintain a cycle of support so everything we do is to help this community advance.
“It’s a magical thing when you get alumni together and they get a little sparkle in their eye when they talk about what this place has meant to them.”
Mark Brown, MBA’95, lives that reality. It is why he immersed himself as president of the Shanghai and then London, Ont., Ivey Business School Alumni chapters for 10 years before joining the Western Alumni Association Board of Directors in 2013 and becoming its president last month.
“When working towards my MBA, one could feel the incredible vibe from Western all around.” he said. “The school spirit is so strong.”
Brown boasts a diverse career that started with General Motors Canada as an engineer and, after graduating Western, with Deloitte as a telecom consultant in Toronto and then Hong Kong.
That and other entrepreneurial work across Asia – he spent more than 16 years in the region and seven in mainland China – led him to initiate the Shanghai chapter of the Ivey Alumni Network. He recalls early gatherings of 30-40 alums there just to make connections and build friendships.
Brown’s wife is from Shanghai and her parents live with them in London, Ont., so Mandarin Chinese is the language of the home. Brown also speaks French and Japanese.
The technological expertise he developed along the way sparked his launch of internet startups CareerNext, Red8 Studios and Big Donut Games culminating in a return to Canada in 2009 where he became a partner with adHOME Creative, a pre-eminent national advertising and digital agency. He is also on the board of directors of Junior Achievement in London, as a mentor to young entrepreneurs.
In his newest role with Western, Brown has a vision that current students will grow to recognize how passionate alumni are for their school – and that they follow suit after graduation.
“We used to say that as soon as you start your Western career, you should already be thinking with an alumni hat on, looking at opportunities, recognizing your role within the community,” he said.
As Alumni Association president, he wants to create more ways current students can make connections with their peers, seek out alumni as mentors, and then take cues from alumni about how to keep that mentorship-and-support cycle going.
Forkes graduated with degrees in physical education, arts and education – including a five-year career as varsity runner at Queen’s – and went on to become a college athletic director. Immediately before Western, he was development director at Centennial College and, before that, held similar positions at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s and 11 years as Assistant Vice-president of Alumni Relations at Ryerson University.
Forkes is also a singer/songwriter who typically plays about one gig each month and festivals in the summer.
Forkes has yet to spend time in his office on campus, having arrived in London and at the university during the COVID-19 shutdown. Connecting with alumni through physical-distancing restrictions has presented challenges while offering a chance for new creativity
“We love face-to-face contact and interactions,” he said. “But we’ve been forced to move online to try and simulate that that kind of engagement. Our team has, in partnership with the Alumni Association, pivoted quickly and produced a lot of online engagement opportunities through webinars and lifelong learning opportunities. We’ve had tremendous uptake.”
The annual event will include creative, engaging programming – and not all on Zoom, he added. Planning meetings and consultations are already under way to make Homecoming its usual memorable experience for everyone.
“We’re trying to stay flexible enough that if things do emerge (from quarantine) in the next month or two that maybe we can take advantage,” Forkes said.
Steeped in the digital world, Brown said the past few months have also removed mental barriers to virtual gatherings.
“Whereas before we would have said, ‘How far should we engage our audience with online or virtual? Will the technological barriers be too much?’ Now the answer is, ‘The barriers are mostly gone, and it’s now a necessity.’ Even among some of the alumni around the world who maybe weren’t as technically adept, they’re now zooming with their kids and grandkids. So, it’s certainly broadened our communication options.”
As a result, last month’s annual general meeting of the Alumni Association took place through an online meeting – something that might not have been considered if it not a necessity.
Building off that foundation, he hopes to expand its visibility and presence.
When students see an Alumni Association banner, he wants them to understand the broader implications behind it. “For what does that actually stand? What does that mean? Do they recognize that it represents thousands of alumni around the world?”
He also wants alumni to recognize a breadth of ways to give back to their school – not just philanthropically but in time and expertise for university-supported events and in leadership that helps the next generation.
“We’re the spokespeople, the advocates, the biggest supporters of the university – the people who are really involved. I want to bring communication around those messages to the forefront.”
Forkes would like alumni to recognize they have a large and enthusiastic group of administration, staff and faculty members supporting them. Together, they team up to provide learning opportunities, social events and networking opportunities to alumni.
“This is a really top-level program we have here. The offerings we have for alumni are first-class. We’re going to continue to work to find ways to broaden and deepen Alumni Engagement.,” Forkes said.
He also has a message for current students: “I would like them to have an awareness of the contribution that those who have come before them have made and recognize that being part of the Western family is a lifelong relationship that they have many opportunities to take advantage of and contribute to.”