by Len Lear
Vanessa Z. Chan, who lives with her family right behind Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and is on the school’s Board of Trustees, has achieved numerous honors in her 44 years. None, however, tops her selection as commencement speaker for the University of Pennsylvania ceremony for engineering undergrads this Saturday, May 12, 2 to 4 p.m., in the Palestra.
“I graduated from Penn 24 years ago,” Chan told us last week, “so I am very excited to be going back to commencement but from a different vantage point. It is amazing how quickly time flies, though. I can’t believe it’s been almost a quarter century since I was an undergraduate.”
Chan, who is already as busy as a baseball player who plays all infield positions at once, is a professor of practice of innovation and entrepreneurship at Penn as well as the undergraduate chair of the materials science department. She is also on the executive committee of the Penn health tech center, which is “a JV between Penn’s school of medicine and Penn engineering.”
Chan was born in St. Louis but moved with her family at age 10 to Hong Kong. She came back to the U.S. at age 17 in 1991 to go to the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated from Penn in 1994 with a degree in materials science and engineering and then got her doctorate from MIT in 2000.
Chan, who calls herself a “mompreneur,” was a high-profile corporate executive for 14 years at McKinsey & Company, a worldwide management consulting firm. She co-led their innovation practice in Philadelphia.
According to Chan, however, she encountered lots of problems for consumers but no great solutions. So three years ago she decided to take a walk on the high wire, leave the corporate world and help to solve some of these problems with her own company, re.design.
Her first product is called “Loopit.”
“When I was in the corporate world,” she explained in an earlier interview, “I was on the phone 12 to 15 hours a day, and the tangled knots that my headphones made were driving me crazy.
“As a tinkerer and engineer, I started researching about knots and read about the mathematics behind knot formations. I found a paper that concluded if you clip the audio jack and earbuds together, then the likelihood of a knot forming is much lower.”
Chan designed magnetic clasps that eliminate the knotty problem. There’s also a built-in microphone so users can answer calls while on the go.
“I also wanted something that I could wear as a necklace,” she explained, “so that I didn’t have to dig around in my handbag for my earbuds, and as someone who makes jewelry, I designed Loopit so that it could be worn as a stylish necklace or used by men as a black leather-like cord that can be stuffed in a pocket.”
In less than one year, Chan developed the stylish, tangle-free headphones, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign (“We doubled our goal, raised $35,000 and delivered on time!”), was selected to be a finalist on The Today Show’s “Next Big Thing” and was launched on Grommet, a website that reviews new products and only selects about three percent of them to go on the website.
According to Chan, “Loopit is doing fine, but I haven’t focused on it because I started this new position in September. I’m just focused on my retail website (for Loopit) for now, but I do have (other) ideas in the works.”
Loopit is just the first of many products Chan plans to launch with her new company. “The goal for Loopit,” she said, “was to learn about branding, marketing, manufacturing and retail to see if I could be successful in bringing something to retail and if so, then use what I’ve learned to launch my other ‘everyday products with a twist.’”
Chan’s husband, Mark van der Helm, is the VP of Energy & Waste for Walmart and works in Arkansas during the week. Boss magazine recently did a cover article on him (https://thebossmagazine.com/walmart-sustainability/).
Vanessa and Mark have two daughters. Karina and Ariana, 12 and 9, respectively, who both attend SCH.
For more information about Loopit, visit http://www.redesign.studio/store.