Vanessa Chang: fidelity & philanthropy

Vanessa Chang: a daughter’s life after the childhood loss of respected heart surgeon the late Dr Victor Chang

It can be quite difficult to rationalise one’s life when someone so dear is taken away at such a tender age. Daughter of the venerated Sydney-based heart surgeon, the late Dr. Victor Chang, Vanessa Chang has dedicated her relatively youthful life to philanthropy. Like father, like daughter suggests that inherent goodness runs deep in the Chang family.

The Asian Executive interviews Vanessa in this life-affirming report.

TAE: How has your father influenced your philosophy on life?

VC: Firstly I don’t believe that only one person is responsible for shaping a child’s personality or philosophy. There are many factors that influence a child’s outlook on life and this changes as you mature. Sometimes you don’t realise until you are much older.

Vanessa ChangMy father’s family was not wealthy; they struggled like many other people who migrated to Australia. Having two children myself, I often imagine how difficult it would have been for dad, at age 12, to lose his mother to cancer and then be shipped off in a steamboat to Australia to live with his cousins. Because of this I think dad developed great resilience.

Dad had great drive and was extremely diligent at school, university and in his working life. He was a hard worker. One of my philosophies is that you should not expect to be given everything for free, you should work for it and not take it for granted. I have told my children that my husband and I will break our backs to give them a good education however they ultimately have responsibility for what they do with that; they create their own opportunities and they will need to work hard for it. My 13 year old has had a job since he was 11, he doesn’t need it but he wants it, and I’m proud of that.

I don’t believe dad took no for an answer. There are times when people need to stand up for themselves and believe in their convictions; do what is right even if it means it feels uncomfortable. The heart transplantation program in Australia was originally going to be based in Melbourne but dad pushed very very hard for this to be based in Sydney and luckily it was a successful bid. Perhaps my philosophy to persist & be resilient came from him.

I also have a strong sense of fairness. There’s always a team involved, one person cannot take sole credit for success. I suppose I’m talking about humility. I’d like to think I inherited this philosophy from dad.

TAE: Why drives you in terms of your father’s charitable foundation work? VC: It took me a long time to take the reins and make the decision to continue and step up to be the CEO of the Victor Chang Foundation. It can be very emotional for me at times to think that this person I am talking about is my own father however ultimately I suppose I don’t want people to forget the work he started. I wouldn’t be driving this organisation if I didn’t believe in its aims.

I want the Foundation to give heart surgeons from Asia and Australia the opportunity to learn advanced techniques in cardiac surgery, particularly heart transplantation, and take skills back to their home countries. I want Australia to lead innovation in cardiac surgery. I want to continue to forge close cultural ties between Australia and Asia. These are my hopes for the Victor Chang Foundation.

TAE: What is your regular work and why are you passionate about it?

VC: My regular work is this! I am continuing what dad started as CEO of the VICTOR CHANG FOUNDATION. The Foundation is a grant-making, not-for-profit organisation founded by dad in 1984 and continues to honour his legacy by awarding grants to individuals in two key areas:

Education, training and upgrading skills in the areas of cardiothoracic surgery, heart and lung transplantation and cardiology. The Victor Chang Surgical Fellowship is part of this funding program.

Innovation, with a focus on heart transplantation, artificial hearts and artificial valves (mechanical assist devices).

My background is fundraising so of course I have to give the Foundation a plug and mention that donation can be made at  It took me 20 years to find the courage and the strength to realise that dad would want someone from his family at the helm of his Foundation so in a way I am doing it for him. However I am also extremely excited about any future innovations in heart surgery that this Foundation can help facilitate and about keeping dad’s close ties to Asia alive.

TAE: How do you wish others to remember your father?

VC: Exactly as he was before he died; a skilled cardiac surgeon with a cheeky smile who was humble and had a passion for passing on skills by training surgeons from Asia and for wanting to be innovative, hence his work on the artificial heart. I don’t want people to remember him as the doctor whose life was tragically taken too early – even though this was the case. I’d prefer people to remember him for the work he did and what he achieved with his team whilst he was alive and that it continues.

TAE: Is there a message about the role of Asian Australians in Australia to be good corporate citizens?

VC: For me, I don’t think the term “corporate citizens” is valid and additionally I’m not sure we should be distinguishing Asian Australians either. There are plenty. of citizens, be they Asian or non-Asian, in Australia, who can achieve so much in the third sector so why don’t we just say “good citizens”?

I can only give you my personal perspective. I moved from the corporate sector to the not-for-profit sector over 20 years ago because I did not feel that I was being fulfilled by working for an organisation that made profits purely for shareholder wealth.

This, of course, has changed a lot over the past 10+ years with corporates introducing “corporate citizenship” and “social responsibility” as a major part of their culture. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing. In fact, I did work in philanthropy within a corporate organisation for a while but I found this to be analogous to making salad dressing – bear with me – mix oil and vinegar together and shake them up; at first they come together but eventually they just won’t mix properly!

Anyway, I’m very happy to see corporates are giving part of their profits to third sector organisations, this is a really good thing. The next step is to follow in the footsteps of the USA and get private “philanthropists” to start sharing their wealth with NFPs too.

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