Working to Repair the World

What Drives Businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker 

By Helen Mitternight

Let’s just get the money thing out of the way: Anita Zucker has scads of money; she has more than you or I will ever see, and her family name is on countless buildings around the Lowcountry.

She estimates that she and her family have given away about $70 million to charities in the past 10 years.

But if all you see when you look at Anita are the dollar signs, you’re missing the passion and vision that drive this Charleston billionaire.

Anita unassumingly greets a visitor in the lobby at InterTech Group, the Zucker family-owned holding company a few blocks from trendy Park Circle, and walks the visitor back to her office. The company has real estate holdings, solar farms and manufacturing operations, but a quick tour of Anita’s office shows where her heart is: Her desk faces a wall of family photos. A table and the floor are chock-a-block with Florida Gator memorabilia from her alma mater, mementos and honorary degrees from several universities.

“We tend to hold on to things in the South,” she says with a laugh, leading the visitor to a small sitting area with a sofa and club chair.

She shakes her head impatiently when asked what she would tell people who think she just throws money at pet projects.

“My hands get dirty. I roll up my sleeves,” she says. “I’ve been in the thick of these meetings, fight my way through, talk to people. If I need to go to Columbia and talk to the governor or a senator, I do it. I’m not just throwing money at things. I know a little about a lot of things. I’m never bored. I feel like I’m doing something all the time. I want to understand and know what I can do to make a difference.”

That may mean observing brain surgeries to get a better understanding of the neuroscience department at the Medical University of South Carolina. For Anita, the investments are personal and echo events in her life.

It’s not a huge leap to understand her interest in brain surgery and brain cancer: Her husband, Jerry Zucker, died of a brain tumor in 2008. She contributes to MUSC’s research and development in that area and, with her funding, researchers have come up with devices such as a 3D-printed brain tumor that enables doctors to perfect their technique. She also chairs a summit that attracts doctors working on brain cancer to share their data across an alliance of medical professionals from many hospitals and universities. “How are you ever going to cure this disease if you don’t share?’ Anita says.

Health is just one area that Anita is interested in. Her family and the family business also contribute to causes that further education, the environment and the arts.

Jerry Zucker was one of the founding members of the South Carolina Aquarium, and son Jonathan, who also works at InterTech, is chair of the board. Anita says the environmental work the aquarium does is amazing and she feels a special bond with the aquarium’s sea turtle rescue center, which bears the family name.

Anita also helped found a nonprofit, Cradle to Career, that focuses on improving education outcomes across the tri-county area and gets high school kids ready for college. One arm of Cradle to Career, Family Connects, will enable nurses to visit newborns and their families in the first three months of life. The nurses connect families with health care providers who can access  a database via telemedicine to save parents from wading through the bewildering assortment of disparate services.

“We are dreamers,” she says. “As a family, we’ve always been entrepreneurial, innovative and creative. My husband (had) a list of keys of success, and innovation and creativity very much play a role, as does having a sense of urgency, a bias for action, and a work ethic. With the world we live in today, I wish we had more of a sense of urgency and bias for action.”

Anita’s family also owns the Carolina Ice Palace and about 10% of the minor league South Carolina Stingrays hockey team.

“About 26 years ago, someone came to my husband and offered a piece of the South Carolina Stingrays. Our youngest son was extra involved in hockey and said, ‘Daddy, you need to do this!’ So we did, and our son still plays pickup hockey in Denver. The Ice Palace also has figure skating, which I love.”

The graceful swoops of figure skating echo a surprising passion of Anita’s: ballroom dancing.

“Oh, I love to ballroom dance! I can’t do it right now because of my back, but look around,” she says, gesturing around her office at photos of her in full dancing regalia. “I retired the quick step because it kills the knees, but I did perform it in one show. I’ve won a mirrorball trophy, there on the table! I’m really proud of myself! I really love it; I miss it because it’s joyful.”

She intends to have surgery eventually — when the 3D-printed spinal disc she’s helping to fund is perfected—but, until then, she plans to walk, have her house renovated, and read. An admitted “news junkie,” she says she reads everything from autobiographies to how-tos, and, when she needs to relax, Lowcountry author Dorothea Benton Frank’s books fill the bill.

One author she’s read, James Patterson, shares her passion for education and, she said, is investing in literacy in her home state of Florida. For Anita, that passion carries through to her concerns about her adopted state of South Carolina.

“We’re going through a lot in our state (South Carolina),” she says. “I really am hoping our Legislature can understand that education equals opportunity and economic development. I have a really hard time with the fact that we have children who are failing, who are ‘minimally adequate.’ You shouldn’t accept that for any child. We should have the best and the brightest. There are answers. Start young, that’s when they are sponges and that’s when they learn how to learn.”

Anita says she helps promote SC Codes, a free online program that helps adults and children learn to code and to think logically.

She gives money and helps establish educational programs now, but the passion came long before she had money. Anita started as an elementary school teacher and says she knows the joy of igniting a love of learning early in life.

“I don’t take anything for granted. We didn’t have money growing up,” she says, adding that both she and Jerry were children of immigrant Holocaust survivors. “I started working at the age of 12. I taught arts and crafts at a day camp and every summer, I got paid a little more. I also worked as a cashier in a pharmacy. I always had to work.

“I married at 18. We were going to school full time and then we owned a restaurant, a record store—don’t ask me why we had a record store—and a laundromat. Our deli only served lunch, but we were never available to work it ourselves. We’d meet between classes in the afternoon and cook for the next day, making corned beefs, pastramis, meatloafs. We lived in a mobile home and we did that every day. Restaurants and food have always been in our lives, maybe because of the lack of food in our parents’ lives at one time. We like dealing with food and feeding people.”

Anita still owns a restaurant – Ms. Rose’s Fine Food in West Ashley.

And Anita’s mother, who is 95 ½, is still alive.

“She’s still filled with strength and courage. I see myself at times and I say, ‘Oh, God, I’m just like my mother,’ but that’s a good thing. She taught me how to be tough in life.”

Anita says her parents taught her that she would have to create a stir to make change.

Do we have to disrupt? You bet we have
to disrupt!”

Anita says she’s driven by her family and by faith, especially the Hebrew phrase, “Tikkun Olam,” which means to repair the world.

“That does drive me, because it’s about changing lives,” she says. “But in Judaism, there is another saying, that if you save one life, it’s as though you saved the world. I want to save that one life that needs saving. I think it’s a special way of thinking.”