How do you put into words the impact of the Onion Foundation? Since 2014, this private charitable foundation, co-founded by UC Irvine alumnus Fritz Onion, has given millions of dollars to more than 460 organizations in all 16 counties of Maine. Through grant funding, it has supported everything from arts programming for the general public and free music education for children, to healthy soil solutions for organic farmers and access to the outdoors for people with disabilities. Countless lives have been touched by this foundation.
“We really want everyone to benefit from the things that we benefited from growing up,” explains Onion, a tech entrepreneur who established the foundation with his wife, Susan. They both grew up in rural Maine, enjoying access to the mountains, participating in local arts programs and marching in their high school band. “We wanted to create something to do work in the arts and the environment, because these are areas our family cares about very much.”
Expanding Access to the Arts and Nature
The Onion Foundation’s mission is to “build a more equitable and healthy Maine by deepening the connection of all people to the arts and nature.” Grants offered through the arts program provide access to multicultural arts education, support public engagement through free or low-cost events, and build the capacity of the art sector in Maine. Grants offered through the environmental program expand equitable outdoor access, support high-quality nature learning, and encourage advocacy to protect the environment and mitigate climate change.
The focus on equity is an important part of this work. “There’s a huge underrepresentation of people of color in both arts and environmental organizations in Maine, and we know that some of the biggest impacts of climate change are going to affect under-resourced populations,” says Onion. “We want to raise the visibility of these issues and make sure that we’re increasing access to nature and the arts for all people in our state.”
Onion’s father, who was a doctor in rural Maine back in the 1970s, exemplified this idea of community uplifting. “His thesis was that if you give people the opportunity to improve their health, then you can improve the health of everyone in the community,” says Onion. “He worked at that his whole life. He was an inspiration for giving back and understanding that you’re part of a larger community that you want to be contributing toward.”
Awarding more than 1,400 grants over the years, ranging from $1,000 to $40,000 each, the foundation is leaving its mark as it builds a greater sense of community and encourages creativity and outdoor exploration across the state of Maine.
“Here in Maine, we’re right next to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, but many kids are inside playing video games and not really getting out,” says Onion. “So those are things we wanted to try to help change.” Yet Onion stresses he’s not anti-technology; it’s more about striking the right balance. “For the record, it’s not that I’m against video games,” he says. “I actually wrote one of my own video games and produced it at Virgin Games in Irvine, which was a blast!”
Promoting STEM Learning
Onion produced that video game, Club Racquetball, back in 1992 while earning his master’s degree in computer science at UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). He went on to become co-founder of Pluralsight, a classroom-based technology training business that has since grown into a successful online enterprise technology skills platform. The company went public in 2018, and in 2021, it was purchased by Vista Equity Partners and taken private again.
“When our company started getting investments from venture capital, and then we were on this trajectory for it to become a public company, we very quickly decided we wanted to do something to give back as part of this process,” explains Onion. In fact, the original plan was for the Onion Foundation to support STEM education as well, but early on, they realized that most of their STEM grantees were also in the environmental space. “It was easier for us to just focus on those two pillars of the environment and the arts,” he says, “so we found the niche that we wanted to work in.”
Finding that niche for the foundation, however, hasn’t kept the Onion family from branching out.
“Susan and I currently work with the Maine Math and Science Alliance personally to help promote computer science education and algorithmic thinking in [K–12] schools across Maine,” says Onion. “So we still believe strongly in those principles and want to see them promoted.”
In 2018, they also helped launch Pluralsight One, the philanthropic arm of Pluralsight. Its mission is to “unlock opportunity for the underrepresented by increasing access to technology skill development and promoting diversity in the technology workforce.” Through this work, they are exploring everything from putting educational kiosks with digital learning content in refugee camps, to providing education and training to underrepresented minorities in computing in support of their journey to becoming “pioneers in the software development space,” says Onion.
Pluralsight One also provides free or discounted product grants to nonprofits — including to the Norwegian Refugee Council and YearUp — to assist with staff training and system maintenance. This supports the nonprofits while also providing revenue for grants for educational programs in software development around the world.
Following in Philanthropic Footsteps
On May 5, 2023, Onion was inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame in recognition of his esteemed career as a tech entrepreneur and for his invaluable work as a philanthropist.
For anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps as a tech innovator, Onion has a startup suggestion. “There’s a real opportunity, if anyone is interested, in creating an efficient grants administration software system that scales well and gives free access to lower tiers,” he says. “I considered going down that road but [didn’t] want to build another software company.”
For anyone hoping to follow in his philanthropic footsteps, spreading his success in Maine to other areas, he suggests taking your time. “If you’re in a position to give back, I encourage you to think about it early and think through all of the options as you move forward,” he says. “Step back and do a long-term analysis of where you want to be and what you’re trying to do. Going through that thought process is a really educational experience. You meet a lot of interesting people … it’s definitely a path worth going down.”
— Shani Murray