Alice Chun is a social entrepreneur, professor, humanitarian, and award-winning inventor featured in Hilary and Chelsea Clinton’s new Apple TV+ series, “Gutsy.” In 2015, Chun invented Solar Puffs, the world’s only self-inflatable, portable origami solar light, in order to bring light to places that have none. We may take light for granted but it’s a matter of life or death in third-world areas and for people in countries reeling from natural disasters and war like Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Ukraine.
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CONTENT WARNING: There is a mention of suicide in this episode.
At the moment that you understand that whatever you end up loving to do is, is greater than yourselves, the courage will come to you.
Thank you for listening to Shit I Wish I Knew in my Twenties. This podcast is hosted by me, a former high school dropout turned network TV correspondent who had no mentors, no big sister to show her the way. So now that I’ve kind of figured things out, my friends and I will help you to not just survive, but thrive in your 20s.
What do Hillary Clinton, Kim Kardashian and my guest, Alice Chun, have in common? They’re all part of a new can’t miss Apple TV+ series called “Gutsy.”
Thank you for being here, and for being gutsy. We appreciate you, Alice.
This is an honor to be here. Thanks for having me. This is so exciting to get to share all of my experiences with with the 20-somethings out there. I especially love helping women and young women and I think we’re, we really need a lot of support. I don’t think historically we’ve had a lot of support. And I think it’s fantastic that there’s platforms like this that you’re doing to to help.
Alice Chun is a social entrepreneur, a professor, a humanitarian, a force of nature and the award winning inventor of Solar Puffs, the world’s only inflatable, portable origami solar light. Why is this a big deal? Well, we may take light for granted, but it’s a matter of life or death in third world areas, and for people in countries reeling from natural disasters and war like Haiti, Puerto Rico and Ukraine.
How does it feel to be called gutsy?
Alice: It was weird because we were, when Hillary was in my house, Hillary and Chelsea and the camera crew and the lighting crew and the Secret Service came to my house back in March to film and I live in Manhattan. And it’s a tiny, it’s like the size of a refrigerator, my place. And all these people were stuffed in here and but at a certain point, we’re talking about perseverance, about never giving up, appreciating just that little tiny moment, that little 1% of success every day. And to trust in your intuition and trust in your gut.
And in some some ways I said to Hillary, you kind of need to have an iron gut. And she said, that’s why it’s called gutsy women. And I thought I would share that story with you. Because in a way gutsy kind of encompasses all of those things, especially being able to have faith in yourself, and your beliefs and your passion.
When you go out into the world trying to get something done, taking an idea and making it into a reality. It’s not easy. It’s difficult. And you’re going to always I mean, there’s always going to be challenges and hills to crawl up. And you need that passion. You need to have that belief because no matter how much good you try to do in the world, you’re always going to have haters. There’s going to be naysayers. There’s going to be people that say you can’t do this and you need to really believe in yourself. And I believe in you, I believe that all of the young women out there I believe you have this light inside of yourselves.
That is, it’s the light of your mind and the light of your heart. And if we keep fighting with that light, that’s the greatest weapon against injustice and poverty. And so that’s the story that I share with with kids when I go to different countries to deliver lights. When I went to Dominica, after Hurricane Maria, there were seven schools I visited, and they had no schools left, because they were all decimated, I just took Solar Puffs, put them in my luggage flew down there. And with all the powers that be, I was able to get appointments with seven schools.
I told them that the sun is the most powerful source of energy that comes to the Earth every day, it’s so powerful, it’ll give 7 billion people a light ball that can shine bright for their entire lifetime. But the light of your mind, and the light of your heart is more powerful than the sun. And that if you don’t fight with your fists, fight with this light of your imagination and your heart, and there’s nothing you can’t do.
And so I shared this story with Hillary because I knew that she just loves children. She has a soft spot for children. And I told her this story, and I called it my my light warrior story. And she was like, oh, Alice, I love that story. That’s such a great story. And then she said, you know, Chelsea and I are doing this book called Gutsy Women. And I was wondering if you’d like to be in the book. And I just had this vortex vertigo moment, surrealism coming at me. And then I recovered after a second and and said, absolutely, that would be absolutely amazing, and an honor. And meanwhile, I just like, I went home and I told my friends and they’re like, Hillary’s a politician, and she’s a liar. And you’re not going to be in that book. And but then a year later, in 2019, it came out and after many drafts and redrafts and working with the writers, I was in there next to Jane Goodall and Greta Thunberg. Wow. And I was like, wow, me. I mean, like I don’t, I’m not a famous person I just started out with, with this idea. And this, this hope that it would help people and make lives better. In fact, I knew. And now I know. I mean, since we’ve impacted over a million lives globally.
When you’re starting out, you’re you’re always going to be confronted with these challenges, especially the naysayers and you need to really hunker down and be persistent, persevere, never give up. And when you come to a point in your life, where you get to thinking and doing something that is greater than yourself, that it’s not just about you, but it’s about helping others.
At that point, you’re going to find the courage, the courage will come to you. If you’re interested in becoming an inventor, and getting patents and commercializing an idea, that’s going to take a lot of determination, a lot of sleepless nights, and blood, sweat and tears. And the only way that you can get through it is if you love what you do.
I did a lot of research on what was happening in the underdeveloped world and the lack of infrastructure and how in South Africa alone, there’s 200,000 house fires every year. In India, it’s 30,000 house fires every year. And then there’s the burning, like flesh wounds from burns because of kerosene. And then up to 30% of their income goes to kerosene to buy, you know, light for just one night. So that’s when I decided to turn into a social entrepreneur because I knew that that if they could save that money, they could use that money for food, for education, for clothing. I’m starting a new business and and I thought, you know, this is a win win situation if it’s possible.
Then I researched every solar light out there on the market. And they were all heavy, bulky, ugly, and I thought, okay for deployment we want to save on shipping costs, that thing can’t be heavy. So I’m a material specialist I taught at Columbia University and also director of material technology at Parsons, the new school. And so my background is sustainable materials. And so it took me a long time to find the perfect material. And this is Solar Puff, and it’s made from sail cloth, it’s flat, and then it pops open into a cube of light. And it’s based on the origami balloon. And then it flat packs.
So this material is soft enough, it has like threads running through it a tri axial weave. And basically, it’s soft enough to fold but strong enough to hold it’s shape. And that’s how I ended up coming up with the material. And then the design is origami, which I’m Korean and my mother taught me origami, I’m sure you did origami, when you were, I think, every girl probably did origami when or wanted to. The beautiful thing about origami is that you start with a blank sheet of paper with nothing on it, it’s nothing. And with one fold, when you make that fold, it becomes structural, it’s no longer flimsy. And then in Japan, it’s the most beautiful point of the life of that paper because it has the greatest potential at that moment.
This is the only self inflatable portable, origami solar light. And also there’s no need for a nozzle to like blow it up. There’s some other solar lights out there that are kind of copying us yet, but you have to use your mouth to inflate like a beach ball. And after a disaster, sanitation is a huge issue, you have cholera, you have Ebola you have you know, and now COVID even.
You want to keep everything safe and germ free. So you don’t want to put your mouth on things. So this is just using the full technology with origami to pop it open and pack it flat. And design matters a lot. I think the thing about design is then you’re giving wonder, beauty and awe. And that’s just as important as function or food and water. Because if you don’t have beauty, wonder and awe, you don’t have hope. So that’s the other thing that I feel is is different about our products, when when we give them away is because the design is so beautiful. They literally, I mean, we had volunteers that delivered in Liberia and the village started crying and singing in song when they received their lights. And so it’s amazing the difference that it makes.
The other thing about what’s so important about light is that after a disaster, there is like a 30% increase in kidnappings and assault to young women, to girls. And it’s so important to have light because that will keep people safe. When you have in Haiti, in the human settlements…women were you know on the way to the bathroom at night, and would get attacked. And then when they were given solar lights, the next day at the medical clinic, the case of rape went down 30%.
We launched our Kickstarter in 2015. That’s when we started our company. And we were able to raise half a million dollars in 30 days in our Kickstarter and that helped us start the company when we had the Kickstarter. The earthquake happened in April and we quickly said, Hey, if you want to give a light to Nepal, we’re gonna get it there. We’ll distribute the light and that’s what we did and we got 1700 lights and had a volunteer go and deliver to them. They like slept in the rain, got bitten by leeches climbed up the hillsides with sherpas and then to a village with no light and then lit up the whole village with Solar Puffs.
When I first met President Bill Clinton, it was in Haiti in 2010. And I had like a glued, duct taped prototype version of the solar panel that I showed him and he loved it. He’s like, Oh, come over here, come look at this. Come look at this, I like your light, fast forward 2017, Hurricane Maria hits. And by that time, we were able to work with NGO partners and got over 100,000 lights to Puerto Rico. And Hillary was there. And that’s when I first met her.
All the things that you have accomplished, creating this company, this incredible humanitarian effort, being a social entrepreneur, helping people far away who need this, lifting people out of poverty and keeping them safe, but when you’re in your 20s, did you ever think that this will be your path?
Never. And that’s a really great, great question. Because a lot of times when, you know, you never know what’s going to happen in the future. And sometimes you have to, you know, instead of trying to change the current, sometimes you have to go with what life gives you.
What did you think you’d be doing? If I asked 20 year old you?
I don’t know, you know, I have so much faith in the young women that I meet today. They’re so precocious and knowledgeable and up with everything that’s going on in the world, I’m so impressed with, with how advanced young women are, you know, in their teens, like because my son is 18 and in high school. And so I’m around other moms and young women, and they’re 18, 19. And I’m just always so impressed. And I feel like when I was that age, I was nowhere near that precocious or knowledgeable about the world, I was just happy that I got through high school, let alone you know, getting into college, it was just totally different.
My experience while growing up as an Asian in the United States, I was beat up when I was a little kid. And I was you know, teased because I looked different. And what I think in hindsight is in a way, it made me stronger, because it toughened me up to understand that there’s going to be naysayers and haters out there. And you just have to, to believe in yourself and fight again, going back to that story of light warrior, to believe in the light that is within yourself and fighting with that, never giving up.
When I was in my 20s I thought I would be married with five kids living in suburbia. And I’m living in New York in a refrigerator-sized apartment and inventing shit, you know, every day. It’s like, totally different. I never thought I would be a professor. I mean, like, as soon as I graduated and got my master’s in architecture, I started teaching at University of Pennsylvania for several years. And then when I moved to New York, I started teaching at Columbia University.
And when I was young, I was pathologically shy, I could not speak in front of people, I could not get, I had panic attacks before my final reviews. At the moment that you understand that whatever you end up loving to do is greater than yourselves, that the courage will come to you.
A friend of mine who’s a very talented correspondent, Errol Barnett said something like what you said – that there will be naysayers. There will be people who stand in your way who don’t help you, don’t get out of the way, or just hurt you or stop you. Yeah. And he said, added on to that something I thought was so valuable. He said, Don’t you be one of them.
I know in my past, I have stood in my own way. Thinking I couldn’t do it. Thinking I wasn’t good enough, thinking I wasn’t the right person that somebody else could do it it, right? I just didn’t have it within me, by doubting myself. And if I was to go back the one thing I wish I knew in my 20s was that I can do anything that I set my mind to. Now can I run a you know a two minute mile? No, but I can run the fastest mile I can run. No, not really one of these days, but you know what I’m saying? Now what’s the one thing that you wish you knew in your 20s?
I, you know what I, I think we’re kindred spirits. Because I’ve when, when I was in my 20s, if I were to tell my younger self, I would say, you know, believe in yourself, believe that you can do whatever you want to do and don’t listen to the naysayers.
That’s the one thing I think that’s really important is that so many times you can, you can get off track by putting too much value in other people’s opinions. But there’s no one else that’s going to know better than you about the situation, no one spent all that time researching or thinking about this idea.
And it’s good to, you know, share it with the world and get constructive criticism and feedback. But you should be able to edit that yourselves and not take, you know, and get rid of the things that that aren’t necessary or hurtful.
I grew up very poor. And when I moved to the United States for college, I left Korea, my parents behind, and I was very much alone. I didn’t see my parents for nine years, because back then, we didn’t have cell phones, we had to actually dial and, you know, can you take this? You know, will you take this call and pay for the charges, you know, that sort of thing. And so it was very expensive. And so I didn’t see my parents for nine years, at some points because I was so, you know, away from my family, and very low, you know, alone in college, that was so, so sad and lonely that I thought about suicide. And looking back, that’s the thing that I would regret is thinking and going in that direction. Because all of the things that I have now like my son, my amazing son, and being able to invent and help make lives better by going on this entrepreneurial venture.
But I’d like to share that when you’re young your emotional ability to take the stresses of the world, especially when you’re in your teens and young 20s. It’s a lot and never ever give up. You know, when you’re in a dark place, I think it’s so important that you have just as one friend, two friends, close friends, not many, you don’t need many, but just one good friend that you can talk to.
You know what, there is no finish line. There’s no finish line, you just keep going. It doesn’t matter. You just keep going, just doing that. 1% better the next day, go to sleep. Tomorrow is going to be a better day. And it will and just having a lot of faith and just belief in in your passion.
Okay, I’m at the point in the interview where I asked you the same question I ask everybody to share with me one thing in your 20s – the worst job, the worst outfit, the worst hairdo, the worst date. Something that stays with you that you go, man, I wish I could erase that.
Yeah, hell yeah. We had bad perms back then. Why did we perm our hair then? We had terrible perms where we came out looking like you know, Richard, you know the guy that does the aerobics. Oh, Richard Simmons. Yeah.
I can’t wait for people to see Hillary in this series, because she is so funny. She is funny. And she’s so personable, and like down to earth. And I love that woman to death, but like not many people. I mean, when she was running for president, I don’t think people got her really how, what an incredible woman she is and and how personable and she’s just hilarious.
I look forward to watching and I love that this series is highlighting gutsy women. And I love the word gutsy. Because we think we need other things. We think we need the approval of others, the help of others, when really in most situations, what is your gut saying? I coach people and usually they are younger journalists and they will say I don’t know what to do here. I’m not sure what to do. Let me tell you about this. What would you do? It’s not about what I would do. I always say what does your gut say? Yeah. And you know, it’s always the right answer.
And we don’t want to listen to our gut. Oh, and by the way, I have not listened to my gut many times and have definitely paid for that.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s a really great point because because so many times we’re tempted to not listen to our gut, you know, am I really doing the right thing? You know what’s gonna happen? Well, you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you might as well do it anyway.
I cannot wait to watch this. I cannot wait to watch gutsy women.
I can’t either. I’m kind of like looking, you know, I’m gonna bite my nails thinking you know, my hair was terrible that day. Look at that makeup. But I just hope that it’ll inspire other people or, or that you know, young women will. Because it’s so important. Know, the reality TV shows, they’re not real. No, there’s nothing real about them. They’re rampant and they’re, you know, people are obsessed with it. And I’m so glad that there’s a series like this where there are famous people on this on this series, but there are a lot of, also just regular women that are just getting shit done. I think it’s really important, especially to share with with young women.
That you could be a rock star, you can be a celebrity in your own house. Get how we think, Oh, you have to be Kim Kardashian. No, we don’t have to…But we have to be the best we can be. And we can get incredible stuff done. Incredible. You know, it’s funny, Alice, you know, I will be reporting the news at the White House or something, you know, doing anchoring or something like that. And people, and I’ll take pictures because it’s cool, you know, good lighting, always take pictures in good lighting. But people say you’re killing it. And what I want people to know is when I’m killing it, when I’m truly killing it is like when I came up with an idea for a podcast that might you know, might lift up the next generation when I’m sitting here, haven’t showered, my hair is three days dirty. And you know I am sitting here, oh yeah, how am I going to edit this? It’s the things that you don’t see that are just as “killing it” as other things that you do see that we are traditionally thinking are killing it, but you don’t have to be Kim Kardashian to be killing it. Right. You and I are killing it right now. This moment.
Yeah, girl. Hmm. And trust your gut on that.
Absolutely. Well, that is some Sh*t I Wish I Knew in my 20s I can’t thank you enough Alice.
Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties (SIWIKIMT) is a podcast dedicated to helping 20-somethings thrive in their twenties, not just survive.
Host Debra Alfarone knows how tough being in your twenties can be. As a high-school dropout turned-network-TV-correspondent, she learned most of life’s lessons the hard way. She overcame the odds and now covers the White House for CBS News nationally. She’s also a confidence coach for young women in the TV news industry.