This year’s Alumnae Special Achiever, Kirsten Sutton (Koopman-Osterreicher) ’83, describes herself as “an unconventional tech leader.” From a professionally trained chef, Kirsten has navigated a significant career pivot to become one of Vancouver’s most celebrated tech execs. As she commented in a recent interview with Business in Vancouver, “I really love cooking: I love feeding people, which isn’t so different really to what I enjoy now at work: that collaborative environment, working together, creating things that are brand new.” Kirsten is also a mother and her daughter, Olivia in Grade 8, attends York House.
SAP is a global software company with 95,000 employees in 160 countries around the world. In her current position as Vice President and Managing Director of SAP Labs Canada, Kirsten is one of only two female Managing Directors within the global SAP Labs Network where she inspires innovation within the Canadian development organization and manages 3000 employees in SAP’s four research and development hubs across Canada.
She is also the Global Head of Engineering for SAP Jam, leading a multinational development team working on a cutting-edge cloud collaboration software with over 51 million subscribers. Her role gives her a prominent voice in the technology industry. This year, she was recognized as one of Business in Vancouver’s Influential Women in Business and as a YWCA Woman of Distinction, which honours individuals whose outstanding activities and achievements contribute to the well-being and future of our community.
Kirsten actively promotes gender advancement at her company and generously provides both formal and informal mentorship to younger women interested in the technology sector. An advocate for girls in tech, she supports education initiatives like Templeton STEM and GIRLsmart4tech. Last June, Kirsten hosted a “Yorkies in Stem” evening at SAP Labs Canada’s headquarters in Yaletown, an invaluable networking opportunity for YHS alumnae. On YHS Alumnae Day, she participated in the “Breaking the Mold” panel discussion, offering practical steps to confidently navigate and push boundaries.
As a leader in promoting diversity, Kirsten has led the way for SAP Canada’s adoption of Autism@Work, an SAP initiative to hire and integrate 650 individuals on the autism spectrum into the workplace globally. Under her leadership, SAP Labs in Vancouver was recently awarded the Rick Hansen Foundations’ Certified Gold accessibility accreditation, making it the first business in Canada to be recognized. Outside of SAP, Kirsten gives her time as a Director of the Board of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and Science World British Columbia, and as chair of the Minerva Foundation, which provides leadership development programs for women and girls, and partners with organizations to advance gender parity in BC.
In her Founders’ Day address to students, staff, and alumnae as this year’s Special Achiever, Kirsten, proudly wearing her YHS blazer, attributed her success to following an unconventional path. Before enrolling in university for a degree in linguistics and creative writing, she already had 24 diverse job experiences to draw from, including private investigator, retail clerk, instructor of Business English and computers, actor, playwright, stage manager, bartender, chef and technical writer. “YHS had and continues to have tremendous influence on me and was key to who I am and how I succeed today. I didn’t appreciate it then and maybe today you don’t either. The years you will spend here are truly transformative.”
York House, was not only the place where she lived (her family home was formerly located on the school grounds where the gymnasium is now), but a place where she had been able to thrive as her unique self, to express her passion for questioning the status quo and why things had to be a certain way. She always had the insatiable desire to “break the mold,” to be a disruptor, and spin wild ideas. At the time, this was not always so well received as demonstrated from a few report cards, suggesting that she had potential and the ability to be successful, if she avoided the temptation of being easily distracted and spending time objecting to what was happening in class.
Today in her professional life, the Kirsten from 1983 isn’t much different from the Kirsten of 2018. She is championed as a disruptor, who inspires creativity and innovation, and leads her team to think differently, pushing them out of their comfort zones. Kirsten shared the 3 most important lessons she learned at York House:
“1. Be Unique: We are all Tigers (YHS Sports team) here and no two tigers have the same pattern of stripes. Every tiger in the world is unique. Being at an all-girls school wearing a uniform everyday, with everyone looking the same, studying the same subjects, competing in the same sports, engaging in the same shared experiences, you have no choice but to figure out what makes you stand out.
2. Be Yourself: Often girls feel that they have to present themselves in a certain way, like certain things or downplay their talents. To be your best self you have to be your true self. York House was a safe place for me to be me and is a safe place for you to be you.
3. Be Ferocious: We all have fears. It’s what you do with those fears that matters. At YHS you have the chance to try many things you may be afraid of. This is your time to experiment. Sink your teeth in, give it a try and be ferocious. When a tiger wants to be heard, you’ll know it, because you can hear them roaring as far as three kilometer away. Let everyone hear us roar!”
In closing, Kirsten expressed her gratitude for her time at York House and “the unique ferocious tiger that was brought out in me.” She encouraged teachers past and present, “to entertain the innovative, disruptive ideas of your students, as you never know where they may end up and the influence they may have thanks to your influence today.” Based on the spontaneous clapping and laughter of the audience of staff, alumnae and our Golden Alumnae, and students, Kirsten’s inspiring words and great sense of humour, clearly resonated with all who attended this Founders’ Day. Congratulations Kirsten on yet another achievement!