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Vital People

Fiona Buchan, Director, Human Resources Administration

Fiona Buchan got married on a Saturday in September 2015, and she was set to leave for her honeymoon in Australia two days later, but she had one last task to do first. She woke before dawn on Monday at her home in Edinburgh, Scotland to apply for a position with the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease North America in New York.

Fiona had been working at The Union office in Edinburgh for four years, and as a lover of travel, she was excited by the prospect of living in New York City. The human resources manager position was a good match for her skills, she felt that she knew the organization well and there was only a day left to apply. Because Scotland had just passed a law allowing same-sex marriages that June, Fiona would be able to legally bring her wife with her and her wife would also be eligible for a work visa.

After several interviews, on Dec. 23, two days before Christmas, Fiona was offered the position. By the time her visa was approved in April 2016 the Union North America had merged with the World Lung Foundation to create a new organization called Vital Strategies. Fiona was unexpectedly thrown into what felt like a startup.

“It was an incredibly exciting time. Vital Strategies was just created. We were setting up the HR function at the time, setting up policy and procedures and systems and right away there was such rapid growth,” she said.

When Fiona joined, the HR team only had two members. Since then, Fiona and the larger (but still small) Vital HR team have recruited and onboarded more than 600 employees—averaging more than 100 a year.

In that time, Fiona also helped launch the organization’s first online benefits platform, developed Vital Strategies’ first welcome pack for new employees, led the implementation of the first applicant tracking system and HR information system, and played a key role in both the incubation and the spin-off of Resolve to Save Lives.

“In this type of startup environment, it is exciting and never dull,” she said. “It demands more of you and you also have more input into shaping how things are. I feel so proud of our team.”

Fiona grew up the youngest of four children. Her father was from Scotland and her mother was from London. Her father was a tax inspector in their small Scottish town, Peterhead, and he later bought and operated a hotel, where she worked throughout her teenage years. Her mother, who had worked for the head office of Marks & Spencer, the British retailer, since she left school at age 14, then worked at the hotel while raising four children. In the summer, Fiona lived in London with her grandparents and extended family and felt the freedom of exploring their neighborhood.

Fiona was a strong student and became the first person in her family to go to university. She began her career as a teacher, first teaching English in Japan for three years and then teaching French to secondary school students in Scotland for three years.

“I think there was something in me from an early age that loved travel. My first overseas trip was when I was 10. My mom took me to Spain. I just loved it,” Fiona said. “In secondary school French as a subject fascinated me. I loved it when the teacher would talk about the culture there. I was fascinated by it.”

Fiona loved teaching, but the conservative government in the U.K., out of fear over the AIDS pandemic, adopted a controversial law called section 28 which banned any kind of discussion of homosexuality in schools.

“For me, as someone coming to terms with my own homosexuality, to be in a profession where you were silenced, and silenced in a way that you couldn’t help children that may have been bullied or were feeling really isolated, that was a dreadful law to be under,” she said. “There was a cruelty of making it as if something didn’t exist and particularly cruel in an environment where you are teaching young people. Teachers were being sacked for not complying with this legislation.”

In large part because of this law, Fiona left teaching and got a job with Carr Gomm, a Scottish nonprofit organization that supported older people and people with mental health problems and learning difficulties. Motivated by the mission, Fiona applied for and was hired in an operations/human resources role.

“It’s very difficult to change direction, to move from one career to a different one. I feel really blessed that I was interviewed by the chief executive of that charity,” she said. “He had the vision to see that I did have those transferable skills. He took the chance on me, someone who didn’t have the track record in the field that he was recruiting for. He could see my potential.”

She loved her work with Carr Gomm. “They were doing cutting edge work. It was an organization that was excellent because you had a lot of interaction with the people you were supporting. That’s always given me a real satisfaction, being able to see that what you are doing makes a different in people’s lives.”

Fiona worked there for nine years, and then at The Union in Edinburgh. It was exciting for her to work for a 100-year-old organization, headquartered in French-speaking Paris, that had an office in Edinburgh, where she lived, instead of London.

Then she came to Vital. Of all her accomplishments at Vital, one she is most proud of is the revised parental leave policy which now gives all new parents in the U.S. 16 weeks of parental leave, including eight weeks fully paid by Vital Strategies.

“It is a really good example of shaping policies that promote inclusion and enhance the employee experience… In the U.S., the government gives no help. We were faced with wanting to really improve parental leave for all of our staff but also make sure that we were being responsible stewards with funds,” she said. “It is so important in HR because you are shaping these policies that have a huge impact on people’s lives.”

In August 2022, Fiona’s six-year U.S. visa expired, so she returned to Edinburgh, where she is now living and working remotely with her wife. They live near the sea, and Fiona has taken up “wild swimming” where she swims as much as she can outside. She loves to hike and to read historical and detective novels.

She is grateful to work at Vital and cares very much about promoting equity, especially for women.

“In HR, you get to be a part of two sides of our work. You are the employee champion; you are shaping the employee experience through the whole work life cycle. And then you are partnering with managers on what are future talent needs and where they have skill gaps. I feel so grateful to have been able to switch careers and to be where I am.”