Would you give up your inheritance to charity? For Heather Fraser, this was a surprisingly easy decision. As someone who embodies the change she wants to see in the world, she was more excited by the impact her parent’s money could have on the lives of others than on her own life.
Heather has always been a possibilities person. Her work is driven by interests in human insight, innovation, and the global impact individual empowerment can have. After over 30 years building businesses and leading teams at Procter & Gamble, creative services agencies and academia, Heather started her own business called Vuka Innovation. She also wrote another book on business design, and recently launched a new software tool for entrepreneurs to help them design a great business around their inspired ideas, Vuka Works. While continuing to leverage one experience into her next quest, Heather has always loved bridging the gap between creativity and business, and empowering people with a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship to embrace the inherently innovative nature of business.
She’s a relentless optimist and the kind of person that’s driven to leave things better than she found them. “I want to help people discover that they have the capacity to do more than they might think they can,” she explains. “Everything I do is based on the notion that we live in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and things will always change, but we have the innate capacity to figure things out and make the most of any situation.” Thus the name of her company – Vuka, a Zulu word that means to ‘awaken one’s capacity and stir into action.’ That pretty much captures Heather’s life mission.
We spoke with Heather to learn more about why she decided to put her inheritance towards charity, the work she does with the Firefly Foundation and her other life work, and why she’s so passionate about empowering others.
Why she gave up her inheritance
Heather was working in advertising as a partner in a successful advertising & design agency when both her parents got diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases. She was enjoying a successful career by many measures, but she felt she could be doing more impactful work. Watching her parents decline she said to herself, “We’re all going to die, so we really should do something meaningful and purposeful with our lives.”
As an only child, the responsibility fell to Heather to be the guardian of both her parents. While they still had their full mental capacity, she re-did their wills with them to ensure that any money left over from paying for their long-term care would be put towards a family foundation devoted to improving others’ lives, beginning with brain health.
For Heather, choosing to put the money towards charity was an easy decision. “I don’t deserve this money,” she expanded, “They earned it and this should first be spent on them, and then their legacy. It was simply the right thing to do.”
“Plus,” she reflected, “it’s fun! Buying a bigger house wouldn’t have been satisfying. Setting up this charity and figuring out how their money can have the largest possible impact is far more meaningful. This has been a great source of joy for me over the years. It’s way more rewarding for me personally, to do things for others and to give people a better start in life.”
Setting up the Firefly Foundation to invest in aspiring young neuroscientists
In 2006, Heather set up The Herbert K. and Elizabeth M. Anspach Family Foundation as the founding patron of the Firefly Foundation. Firefly is a charitable organization that raises funds to support research and develop programs to prolong brain health. In particular, Firefly focuses on inspiring and developing the talent of hopeful young neuroscientists through their science camps.
For Heather, neuroscience feels like the last frontier. “We know so much about our bodies,” she shares, “but the mind is still a mystery.” The name Firefly was chosen to represent a remarkable point of nature’s light. “It represents a moment of illumination that inspires us each and every time we catch a glimpse,” their website explains.
What started as a 2-week research camp for high school students has since grown into a range of programs including a junior camp. Over 300 kids have gone through their programs and many are going on to study or get scholarships at some of the most prestigious schools in the world. Firefly also has a scholarship program to ensure that children from families who don’t have the financial means can still attend camp. “Science is a great equalizer,” Heather says, “It doesn’t matter what you have materially or where you come from, science demands problem solving and collaboration skills. Everyone deserves an opportunity to exercise their brainpower and follow their passion.”
Firefly encourages the next generation to care for their brain and to follow their passion for science. “The best thing we could do is make science cool for young kids,” says Heather. “We always encourage kids to think about their brain as their best friend and to take care of it, and for some, channel that passion into a professional calling.”
The importance of cultivating ingenuity and empathy
Through the family foundation, Heather also set up scholarships at the universities her father and mother attended. For her father, she set up a scholarship program for engineering students at his alma mater, University of Wisconsin. For her mother who was a voracious reader that loved to travel, she set up a study abroad scholarship at her alma mater, University of Michigan, for liberal arts students who are the first in their family to go to university.
The study of humanities is important to Heather because of its ability to foster empathy. “In a world where we need more empathy,” she says, “one of the single biggest areas of study that cultivates empathy is literature. To enjoy literature, you have to become another person. You have to see the world through their eyes. This is an incredibly valuable skill in life, and across all disciplines.”
Why she’s passionate about empowering others
Heather is committed to championing personal potential by showing people they have the capacity to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have the confidence for, especially young people. “We often underestimate what these kids are able to do,” she shares. “Kids have a lot of capacity to figure things out. They’re not stuck in a paradigm the way many adults are.”
A common thread running through Heather’s work is the desire to democratize opportunity. She’s seen firsthand how you can change the trajectory of a student’s life by giving them access to the right opportunity. “This is life-changing for kids,” Heather says. “It just takes one defining experience to change everything, and we’re giving them that chance.”
What she’s looking forward to
In the spirit of empowering others, Heather and her team recently launched Vuka Works, an interactive business design tool that helps startups transform their inspired ideas into a business. The current systems in place to help startups grow and access capital are extremely difficult to navigate and often favour those already in a position of privilege. Heather once again saw an opportunity to level the playing field. With Vuka Works, Heather and her team hope to democratize entrepreneurship, and give more entrepreneurs their best shot at success.
At the same time, the world has been hit by the COVID pandemic, making in-person summer camps impossible. In partnership with University of Toronto Schools and the remarkable ‘Bright Lights in the Lab’ team, the program has transformed into a virtual summer camp. In Heather’s positive view, “In a world of VUCA, there is also an opportunity for an important pivot to adapt to the future.”
We’re so thankful Heather made the time to share her work with us as well as her outlook on creating change. Her story is a wonderful reminder that we are more powerful than we know and can do more than we think with what we have.