Changing Their World
Heather Mason plans to reignite SUREFIRE as a way to teach, inspire, mentor and offer openings for service to young women.
By Matthew D. LaPlante
Heather Mason knew what she was trying to say, but the words weren’t coming out right. They weren’t coming out at all.
She slurred and grunted. She tried to call out for help, but couldn’t manage a coherent syllable. Her arms went numb. At the emergency room, someone finally told her what Mason herself had deduced that day in November of 2014. “You’re having a stroke,” the medic said. She was 41 years old. She was fit and healthy. She was at the top of her career. She was changing the world. “This can’t be happening," she thought. "Not now.” ASPIRATIONS TO BE A MOVIE PRODUCER For two years as a student in the journalism department at USU and two more after her graduation in 1996, Mason had an insider’s view of the Sundance Film Festival as a press liaison. But Mason, who aspired to be a movie producer, wasn’t content with a view looking in. She didn’t want to watch the deals being made — she wanted to make them — so she parlayed her time at Sundance into a gig at the Cannes Film Festival, onward to Fox, where she read and recommended scripts, then back again to Park City where, at the height of the dot com era, she presided over the marriage of Sundance and Silicon Valley in an “interactive lounge” for ShowBizData.com. That’s about the time she realized: she wasn’t producing movies, but she was producing. Far more than just an education in the film business, Mason’s time at Sundance, Cannes and Fox — and later, as an event manager for Charles Schwab — had given her experience in bringing together the people, places and logistics necessary to pull-off high-profile, high-stakes events. “I wasn’t producing movies, I was producing events,” Mason says, “and those things were similar in a lot of ways — and in all of the ways that mattered to me.” The Idaho Falls native was directing big-money productions. She was the go-to person in high-stress situations and the place where the buck stopped. A CASPIAN PRODUCTION In 2005, Mason founded A Caspian Production — the name was an homage to the titular character in the second published book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series and a nod to the idea of striking out on one’s own, as Prince Caspian must do in that novel. Mason committed Caspian to producing events for organizations that were making a positive difference in the world. Over the past decade, Mason has produced the Skoll World Forum, an annual international event promoting social entrepreneurship; the Futures Without Violence conference, a gathering of practitioners, policy makers and academics dedicated to ending gender violence; and the Not for Sale conference, dedicated to ending human trafficking. “I was working every night, every weekend, traveling like a maniac. I thought, ‘if I’m going to work this hard, I might as well do it for people who are really changing the world,’” she recalls. “I think I’ve always had a keen sense of my own mortality… you know, I feel like our time is limited and you’ve got to make it count. It really doesn’t matter if you leave with all the toys.” She pauses. “The shoes, though — maybe that’s a different story,” she laughs. “The shoes might actually matter.” Mason could have bought a lot of shoes with what she’s made at Caspian. Instead, she decided to do something no one had done before. 'WHAT CAN I DO IN THE WORLD?' Every year, about 1,000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs gather at the University of Oxford for the Skoll forum, where they debate, discuss and deal-make with an eye toward using business approaches to solve the globe’s most pressing problems. The speakers at the most recent forum included Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Nobel Peace Prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu. As always, the former president of eBay, forum founder Jeff Skoll, was there. Mason says it’s hard — maybe impossible — to be surrounded by so many powerful and passionate people without feeling driven to try to change the world. “Jeff Skoll is all about using what you have and the skills you have to do further good in the world,” Mason says. “When I listened to him and others, I started asking ‘what can I do in the world?’” Ever since high school, Mason says, she has been aware that her success in life was in large part a matter of luck. The right mentors came along at the right time. They drew an introverted young girl out of her shell. They told her she was a leader. Mason did not understand why mentorship needed to be contingent on happenstance. There are conferences for just about everything in the world. But when Mason looked around, she saw that no one had ever created an event where a girl could turn her head in any direction and find inspiration in the form of women who were doing amazing things. That’s the spark that lit SUREFIRE. The conference, which debuted in 2013 in Santa Monica, California, welcomed 200 girls from more than 45 high schools, along with dozens of speakers and non-profit organizations, to what Mason describes as “a buffet platter of opportunities” to teach, inspire, mentor, provide life advice and offer openings for service and exploration. There were sessions on everything from relationships to engineering to how to be “red-carpet ready.” Vitally, Mason said, it needed to be a place where a girl could ask any question — and get an honest answer from non-judgemental people. “Today is a holiday,” she told the participants as they arrived. “Today is a holiday from that voice in your head that tells you anything negative about yourself. Today when you hear that voice that tells you to worry about your thighs or your looks or your hair, you’re going to take a holiday from listening to it.” In the place of that voice, Mason asked the participants to go out of their way to offer compliments and give them in return. “It was such a cool thing to walk around all day and hear girls saying to one another, ‘you look really pretty,’” she says.
USU grad Heather Mason — seeking to make change in the world.
Did that change the world? For Pearl Bham it certainly did. “I wasn’t a very talkative person before,” says Bham, who is now 19 and in college. “I wanted to be goofy and fun and confident, but that’s not how I was. I was in a shell. At SUREFIRE, everything changed for me. It’s not too much to say that Heather changed my life.” SEEKING INVESTERS IN GOOD Mason had no intention of making money on the conferences, but set up the organization as a for-profit for social good, reflecting what she’d learned from the Skoll conferences about a flexible model that invites investment from others who aren’t looking to profit so much as build an organization that can eventually support itself without having to constantly fundraise. Ultimately, Mason believed, the participating organizations and sponsors would see the benefit of hosting — and funding — more conferences like the pilot in Southern California. Mason nearly cleaned out her savings to put on the first conference, then doubled down on her investment to host the second, which included girls from 65 high schools. “I kept thinking, ‘OK, I just need to prove that this works,’ and then people will see that and they’ll see the benefit of being involved,’” Mason says. “And the thing is that it did work. It all worked. Everything I’d learned along the way had told me this was going to be huge.” The 2014 conference was barely over when people began to ask when and where the next conference would be held. And that’s when it really struck her: There wouldn’t be one. SUREFIRE hadn’t caught fire. Not in the way Mason had expected, at least. The leaders of organizations that participated all said they loved the opportunity to connect with young girls in the way they had in Santa Monica. Many said they would love to be involved in other cities where their organizations were working, as well. But none of them stood up to offer financial support. “It was crushing,” she says. Kate Howmann, who worked with Mason on the 2014 conference, said it was hard to watch her friend and mentor deal with the failure to find steady financial backing. “She was so passionate about it,” Howmann said. “She had this unshakable faith… you think that will be enough and it was just so hard to see someone so strong be let down so much.” IMPACT ON YOUNG LIVES It was just a few weeks after the 2014 conference that Mason found herself lying, quiet and afraid, in a hospital room, at the end of the most terrifying day of her life. “The whole time, I’d been just completely out of my mind frightened,” she said. “All I could think about was, ‘Is this my new life? Will I not ever again be able to talk?’ I’d always thought about mortality, but I’d never thought about this.” She tried to calm herself and adjust to her surroundings and noticed that there was a woman sharing her room. “Without even thinking about it, I just said, ‘hello’ and then it was like ‘oh! Hello! Hello! I can say hello! My mouth is moving and I can say hello!’ And my hands — my hands were moving!” Doctors told Mason that she had suffered a complex migraine — the symptoms of which can include weakness, loss of vision and difficulty speaking, sometimes to the point of mimicking a stroke. They suspected stress had played a role. She was soon back to work, but with a different perspective on her life and a different outlook on a career that is frequently listed as one of the world’s most stressful. “I’d done the latest SUREFIRE at the tail end of a marathon of events and I was exhausted and worn out,” Mason says. “Most of the clients I have are really amazing and we’re doing amazing things together, but I’ve had some difficult ones, too. And my life has a lot less room for that, now. These days, I think to myself, ‘am I going to let this put me in the hospital?’ and the answer is no.” It’s still difficult for her to talk about SUREFIRE. But as time has passed, Mason says, the recollection of the impact she was able to have on the lives of young women like Pearl is overtaking her sense of disappointment that the model she chose didn’t work out. And slowly, she says, she’s coming to see what happened to SUREFIRE wasn’t a failure, but rather an opportunity to re-ignite the concept in a different way. She is now at work re-launching SUREFIRE as a non-profit organization. That, she knows, will mean endless fundraising. But if what she saw in 2013 and 2014 can be repeated again in the future — if it changes just one more life — it will be worth it. “I think life is a constant fight between seeing opportunities and managing expectations,” she says. But she still expects a lot. Of life. Of herself. Of the girls still out there who haven’t caught the fire. And she has a lot left to say about all of that.