Alumni Spotlight: Stephen Kouri, BCS’79

Stephen’s favourite book, Grit by Angela Duckworth, argues that the secret to success is a passionate persistence rather than innate talent. It’s the mindset that this life-long learner and mentor has believed in and championed throughout his career and philanthropic endeavours.
Stephen arrived at BCS in the fall of 1977 in Form V. Hailing from Sainte-Thérèse, Quebec, Stephen’s arrival at BCS was spurred by a recent move to Westmount that left his family searching for a new school for him. Stephen and his parents visited various boarding schools, eventually settling on BCS. “I can still remember my interview,” Stephen laughs. “Mr. Doug Campbell asked why I wanted to come to BCS and my mother kicked me under the desk. I don’t remember what I said but I do remember the kick!”

He must have said something right because he was accepted, and soon enough it was the first day of school and Stephen found himself on the bus ride down to Lennoxville from Montreal. “I sat next to Nancy (Mair) Gardiner, BCS’79,” he recalls. “We had never met but our mothers set us up since we were both new and in the same class, and her mother was my GP.” Another distinct memory from that first day that stands out in his mind is of meeting Duncan McDougall, BCS’79. He recalls a chat he had with Duncan where they discovered that not only did they live in the same town and on the same street, but they lived in the same building and, in fact, were next door neighbours! “We were also both new so that was pretty handy.” It seems Stephen was introduced to the power of the tight-knit BCS world from the get-go.

Stephen lived in Williams House for all three of his years at BCS and recalls his houseparents, Art and Helen Campbell, with fondness. “Art had a big impact on me and, even though I pushed his buttons, we got along really well. When my kids Eric and Adam were young, we took a family trip to the Gaspé and drove up to see Art and Helen in Grand Cascapedia where they had retired. We exchanged Christmas cards for many years until Art passed away.”

Stephen embraced the boarding school life, joining a variety of sports including adventure training, football, and hockey. It was also within these halls that Stephen discovered he had a knack for marketing. “I was House Manager for the plays put on by Lew Evans, BCS’65, which was really fun and taught me a lot about marketing and sales.” As it turns out, that role and its experiences would end up influencing his future career.

Upon graduating from BCS, Stephen headed to Kingston, Ontario to obtain a Bachelor of Arts Honours in Politics at Queen’s. But he continued to pursue his passion for marketing, taking business electives whenever he could and managing one of the Queen’s pubs. Ultimately, that passion won out and, after graduating, Stephen took on the position of Assistant Brand Manager on Sunlight laundry detergent at Unilever. He would go on to build a 22-year career at the company, rounding out his time there as VP of Marketing and then VP of Sales. “Much like BCS, Unilever taught me about the world,” Stephen remarks. “The company operates in almost every country and I developed friendships all around the world.”

While at Unilever, Stephen was an instrumental part in Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, heading up the team that led the charge on developing it. “The campaign encouraged people to challenge the myths and stereotypes of what beauty looks like,” Stephen explains. The campaign, launched globally in 2003, was ahead of its time and the concept remains highly relevant in today’s cultural climate where we are finally seeing a significant turn toward this type of acceptance and promotion of diversity on the part of major brands across multiple industries. Working at Unilever, and on this campaign in particular, reinforced a lesson Stephen first learnt at BCS: “It’s okay to have a different view than others, and what’s important is being confident in expressing your point of view.”

Stephen is currently enjoying his 10-year anniversary at Smucker as VP Sales and Trade Marketing. “Smucker is a family-led, publicly traded company, and it’s been an interesting experience to see the power of continuity and culture that has been passed down from Smucker to Smucker,” Stephen says. The impact of workplace, and indeed environmental, culture and leadership on employees and youth is another passion that has developed in Stephen over the course of his career. “The science of the brain has really opened up so many avenues for understanding how effective leaders lead and I think it’s fascinating.” He is keenly invested in the development of today’s youth and nurturing the leadership skills of his team. “It’s so important to find people who are curious,” Stephen shares. “Curiosity is a mindset that we should be teaching and encouraging in young people. And then asking ourselves, ‘How do we pique a curious mind?’”

Outside of the office, Stephen serves as Toronto Chapter Chair of ProAction Cops & Kids, an organization that connects children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods across much of Ontario together with police officers. “The police officers develop and lead a variety of athletic, food, artistic, and cultural programs, and ProAction raises the money to fund them. I’ve been involved since 2006 and I have really enjoyed it.”

Besides—yet still closely aligned with—his volunteer pursuits, most of Stephen’s free time is taken up by his most recent passion for discovering the inner workings of future leaders. “How can we help younger people figure out what matters, what’s important, and what they are really interested in, sooner rather than later?” he posits. “In finding those things you create a passion, and if you are passionate about something you are more likely to be gritty and achieve what you set out to do because you’ll find a way to achieve it.” Although Stephen and his wife Jill are empty nesters with Eric in Marketing at Molson and Adam at Carleton, Stephen still makes sure to keep the family up to date with the latest research. “My poor children are inundated with articles, summaries, and pdfs,” Stephen laughs. 

A long-time and loyal donor to BCS, Stephen has remained in close contact with his alma mater throughout the years and is still in touch with the many friends he made while on Moulton Hill. “I’ve remained friends with a bunch of my classmates. Doug Mitchell, BCS’79, was the best man at my wedding and I was best man at his.” Despite a busy schedule and a full family life, he found the time to make it to Montreal for his 40-year reunion in September. “I flew down with Sarah Stairs, BCS’79, and it was great to catch up with her and all my classmates.” 
“I learned how to be a leader at BCS. I learned to have an opinion and to share my opinion, and that’s helped me in my career. I believe BCS has a role to play in helping our world through some of the challenges it is currently facing and will encounter in the future. We require leaders for tomorrow.” Given his passion for leadership and youth development, it’s no surprise Stephen is excited at the idea of a dedicated leadership program at BCS. “I believe that an investment by the school into the broad area of leadership, resilience, and how we get better at things is so worthwhile and will be very attractive to parents of current and prospective students.” 

Forty years after graduating, Stephen appreciates his time at BCS more than ever. “This school really opened up my eyes as a youngster from Sainte-Thérèse in the 1970s, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. BCS gives you a sense of the world and global community earlier than most people.” It’s an overall education that has served him in good stead throughout his career and life in general. “My parents would say that the best thing they ever invested in was to send me to BCS.” That’s a statement with which Stephen wholeheartedly agrees.

Bishop's College School is an independent English-language boarding and day school for grades 7 to 12 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.