Meet the 2016 inductees into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni:
Jason McCourty UCNB’09, Sung Poblete NUR’89, GSN’92,’00, Stephen I. Chazen RC’68, Devin McCourty UCNB’10, and Phuti Mahanyele DC’93.
Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty, star NFL defensive backs, shut down
wide receivers on the field—and open up their hearts to tackle sickle cell disease off of it.
As star defensive backs playing in the National Football League, Jason McCourty and his twin brother, Devin McCourty, have made names for themselves in routinely shutting down opposing offenses. Jason UCNB’09 is a star cornerback for the Tennessee Titans, and Devin UCNB’10 is a star safety on the New England Patriots. Yet, the brothers really stand out when they come together to face a common opponent: sickle cell disease.
The twins are advocates for sickle cell disease awareness—a cause that hits close to home. Their father, who died of a heart attack when they were just 3, carried the trait, and an aunt has battled the disease all her life. In 2013, they launched the Tackle Sickle Cell campaign in partnership with Embrace Kids Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in New Brunswick that offers programs and support services to children and families facing cancer, sickle cell disease, and other serious disorders. The McCourty twins are a philanthropic force of nature, times two.
In three years, Tackle Sickle Cell has already raised $400,000 to fund research and benefit affected families. In February, the twins hosted their annual Casino Night in the Brown Family Football Recruiting Pavilion at High Point Solutions Stadium at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. More than 20 former Rutgers football stars spanning the 2000s helped raise about $35,000 for the Tackle Sickle Cell initiative. The twins also host an annual blood drive and a 5K run/walk in New Jersey and fundraising events in Boston and Nashville, where their teams are based.
They may indeed play for separate teams, but the McCourtys have been walking parallel paths since birth—Devin first, followed 27 minutes later by Jason, on August 13, 1987. Their physical appearance, athletic skill, imposing physiques, and mega-watt smiles are identical in nearly every way. They grew up in Nyack, New York, and were side-by-side standouts in basketball and football at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, New Jersey. Born leaders who have their mother’s unflagging work ethic, the twins were offered football scholarships to Rutgers– New Brunswick.
They were nominated for the 2015 Byron “Whizzer” White Award, the highest honor the NFL Players Association can bestow on a player, in recognition of their extensive community service in their team cities and hometowns. Still, being inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni ranks way up there, too.
“This is an amazing honor,” says Jason. “It speaks volumes about the things we’ve done off the field.”
Adds Devin: “To be mentioned with some of these other Rutgers people is a remarkable feeling. These people are doing some great things for the world.”
Ditto for the McCourty twins.
— Patrick Monaghan
A Wise Investment
South Africa’s Phuti Mahanyele, widely praised for her business acumen, is CEO
of her own investment company. But she’d rather be known for investing in others.
When her mother died at the age of 42, Phuti Mahanyele grew up appreciating the stark lesson that time was a precious commodity. She hasn’t wasted it one bit. Mahanyele DC’93 came to Rutgers University–New Brunswick from South Africa in 1989 when she was 17; in the 27 years since, she earned her master’s in business administration at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom, became vice president at Fieldstone Private Capital Group in New York, was appointed head of project finance for South Africa at the Development Bank of Southern Africa, joined Shanduka Energy as managing director, rose to CEO of Shanduka Group, and, having doubled the company’s net asset value in five years, launched the investment firm Sigma Capital in 2015.
Forbes has referred to Mahanyele as a “corporate titan,” an accolade all the more remarkable because she grew up under apartheid in the township of Soweto, where school was sometimes canceled by the rioting that roiled the country in the 1970s and ’80s. Her father was raised as one of 12 siblings in a four-room house, but he managed to lift himself up to become one of the top business owners in South Africa.
She credits his determination with fueling her own. “If my parents could do so well whilst having had so little, if I have been afforded such great opportunities by my parents,” she says, “then surely I should be able to excel even more.”
One opportunity was Douglass College (today known as Douglass Residential College). Toward the end of her high school years, her father announced that she was going to get a bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers, then an M.B.A., and then begin her career. “I was shocked,” she says. But her only career plan was to become a ballerina, so she acquiesced. “Coming to Rutgers—my goodness, what a life change!”
At Douglass, she realized something: “I suddenly had this voice that I never had.” She studied relentlessly and, in her downtime, became a leader in many extracurricular endeavors, including the Douglass Governing Council. Today, as a mentor to university students in South Africa, she urges her mentees to do the same.
Mahanyele feels compelled to mentor students and young professionals because she benefited from important mentorships herself, counting Penelope Lattimer, now director of the Rutgers Institute for Improving Student Achievement, and Cyril Ramaphosa, founder of Shanduka Group and today the deputy president of South Africa, among those who helped reinforce her already powerful work ethic. Their advice helped her overcome racism and sexism, which she accomplished largely by staying on task and, she says, cultivating strong friendships.
Mahanyele defines success as the ability to “have the choice to do that which is meaningful to you.” And what’s meaningful to Mahanyele isn’t just the work she finds so satisfying, but also her time spent mentoring and being with friends and family.
“I’d like my legacy,” she says, “to speak to the fact that I gave back.”
— Leslie Garisto Pfaff
Stand by Me
As a passionate advocate to find a cure for cancer, Sung Poblete, the leader
of the nonprofit Stand Up To Cancer, rallies others to join the urgent fight.
As a nursing student at Rutgers, Sung Poblete knew she wasn’t going to have a traditional career. Still, she probably didn’t picture herself working alongside entertainment and media luminaries like Yahoo news anchor Katie Couric, former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, and television producer Noreen Fraser. The three highly visible and high-powered women are among the nine founders of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), the pioneering nonprofit where Poblete NUR’89, GSN’92,’00 is the president and CEO.
As the head of the organization, since 2011, she was instrumental in bringing producer Ken Burns’s series Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies to the PBS television network in 2015 and launching a companion initiative to get people thinking, and talking, about cancer research—a subject that she’s passionate about. Every day in the United States, she says, “1,600 individuals die of cancer, and it’s unacceptable.”
Poblete took that stance early on in her career, when she was the director of clinical and translational programs at the American Association for Cancer Research. She’s been an innovative thinker throughout her 30-year career. As executive director of the Oxford Health Plans Foundation, for instance, she facilitated cutting-edge research through unique grant-making initiatives. And as vice president of clinical operations for a subsidiary of Fresenius Medical Care–North America, she developed national chronic kidney disease management programs, now staples in many health plans.
Nursing taught her to be a collaborator and a problem solver, skills that have served her well at SU2C, which she describes as “a convergence of science and the entertainment industry.” She credits mentor Arnold Levine, vice chair of SU2C’s scientific advisory committee and codiscoverer of the tumor suppressor gene p53, for understanding that pairing great minds from different fields can make for effective problem solving. This keeps with SU2C’s mission to “accelerate the pace of cancer research so we can find therapies for patients as quickly as possible.”
Rutgers taught Poblete to forge ahead despite failure. When she was turned down by a potential donor, Poblete, devastated, confided in another mentor, Nobel laureate and chair of SU2C’s scientific advisory committee Phillip Sharp, who said that “‘no’ is another opportunity for a ‘yes’”—a maxim she now lives by.
Poblete, who taught at the College of Nursing (now the School of Nursing) from 1992 to 1994, continues as a visiting lecturer. And she still turns to her Rutgers mentor Dorothy DeMaio GSE’79, dean emerita of the School of Nursing. “If I’m in a situation where I’m trying to inspire people, I can call on her and she’ll walk me through it,” says Poblete, who calls her induction into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni “a validation of all the time, effort, and dedication spent by my mentors.”
It is also a validation of Poblete’s fervent dedication to fighting cancer. “It’s important to do something that you’re passionate about,” she says. “For me, that’s tapping into the natural desire of people to do good. If I can get everyone to stand up with me, that will be my legacy.”
— Leslie Garisto Pfaff
From avoiding landmines in Vietnam to running a petroleum company that must navigate
the vagaries of oil speculation, Stephen I. Chazen successfully confronts the unknown.
Not long after graduating from Rutgers College, Stephen I. Chazen found himself in unexpected circumstances— a member of the U.S. Army’s 38th Infantry Platoon Scout Dogs, on patrol in Vietnam with a dog sniffing for mines and booby traps. For a geology major with academic aspirations, who was drafted and then trained to be a dog handler at Fort Benning in Georgia, Chazen RC’68 was undergoing a life-changing experience.
“A few inches here or there and I would have been dead,” he says, reflecting on his days in-country. “I’ve always viewed myself as extremely fortunate—and hopefully here for a purpose.”
Good fortune has been great company for Chazen throughout his distinguished career, but his inquisitive nature, unflinching integrity, and old- fashioned work ethic have been equally important. Chazen—who retired in April as CEO and is now a strategic adviser to and board member of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, an international oil and gas exploration and production company based in Houston, Texas, with operations in the United States, Middle East, and Latin America—is driven by the most basic instinct: not to starve.
It’s a trait born of his modest beginnings and his dream to one day earn $200 a week as an actuary. The oil industry turned out to be considerably more lucrative, though Chazen is not one to be motivated by money. To him, success is a measure of the positive influence one has on other lives. “Have you made them better, have you taught them, and have you enforced ideas about how important integrity is in life?” he asks. “That’s the stuff that makes you successful.”
It’s wisdom that Chazen, who has been at Occidental for more than 20 years, picked up at a number of stops along the road. From dismantling mines in Vietnam to managing a lab of moon rocks at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center to investment banking at Merrill Lynch, Chazen has seen his journey take a twist or two. While he’s never captained a shrimp boat, he didn’t think the life portrayed by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump was all that unusual, having application to his own life.
Chazen’s path began to emerge his junior and senior years at Rutgers, when he added statistics to his geology studies. The statistics classes taught him two views of the world: deterministic and statistical. Deterministic, in that everything is caused by something else, the goal being to discover the cause in order to predict the outcome. Statistical, in that things vary within a range. It was a revelation that helped him understand risk, how much variation is acceptable, and how to manage consequences if things don’t go as planned.
They are lessons that served him well in the oil business, where managing risk is paramount. The process of looking for fields, acquiring land, drilling holes, and transporting product can take 10 years, and there’s no guaranteeing how much oil will be found or for what price it will sell. Chazen has managed risk by drilling where the oil was known and extracting it cheaper than his competitors could.
“That’s what you have to do in life,” Chazen says. “Manage your risks.”
— Patrick Monaghan