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Q&A with ‘Gutsy’ environmental inventor Alice Chun

Alice Chun, inventor

You might have heard of the Gutsy Women series on Apple TV+ that premiered earlier this month. It’s based on Hillary Clinton’s The Book of Gutsy Women. The eight-part TV series is a must-watch as it showcases many inspiring women, including Jane Goodall, Gloria Steinem, and Alice Chun. I had the amazing opportunity to interview Alice, the inventor of the SolarPuff™, and below is what we discussed.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by The Milo Agency. Rest assured that it is a unique interview that I conducted with Alice Chun.

Q&A with inventor Alice Chun

Alice named her invention the SolarPuff™ and conducted field testing in Haiti for three years. In 2015, she launched Solight Design and initiated a Kickstarter program with unprecedented results. She went on to win numerous awards, including the US Patent Award for Humanity. Her products have been exhibited at the Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) in New York City.

Below, in our Q&A, Alice Chun opens up about being part of the television show Gutsy Women, how the idea for her solar invention came about, and more. Let’s get to the interview!

Q: How did you become a part of The Book of Gutsy Women and the subsequent show?

A: I met Hillary Clinton after we had worked with the Clinton Global Initiative to help get our solar lights to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. We received a small award from the Clinton Foundation for helping there. I was so excited to meet Hillary, and I knew about her love of children. I told her the story of Light Warriors – how I flew down to Dominica to deliver SolarPuff™ lights to schoolchildren. After I shared this story of the lights, she said, Chelsea and I are doing a book about women, and I wondered if you would like to be in the book?…

I then had a surreal vertigo vortex moment and recovered after a second and said, “ABSOLUTELY! It would be an Honor!”

While teaching as a Professor in Architecture and Material Technology at Columbia University, I created early prototypes of solar lights with my students, teaching them how to put a solar circuit together. Fueled by a passion for helping the underserved, I invented the world’s only self-inflatable, portable solar light based on origami – Eliminating the need for a mouth nozzle. This ensured a healthy, sanitary method to inflate.

Q: The self-inflatable design based on origami is incredible. So tell me, Alice Chun, what do you think makes you gutsy?

A: Well, in the series, we are on the episode called “STEP UP” which highlights women who see a problem and they “Step Up” to try to solve it.

Having an Iron GUT is the confluence of confidence, perseverance, grit, intuition, and passion. The ingredients to realize innovation.

Recently I flew To Haiti to deliver lights to victims of the 7.2 Mw earthquake in August of 2021. Gang violence was rampant then, with shootings, kidnappings, and fires right after the assassination of the Prime Minister.

I knew I had to get lights to Haiti, especially to the women and girls who live in tent camps, as there is a 30 % increase in assault in these areas after dark, especially right after a disaster strikes. Everyone was telling me not to go, but I put 400 SolarPuffs™ in my luggage and went down to personally deliver SolarPuffs™ to the southern hillside of Haiti. I checked my life insurance before I left to make sure I had it. Right as I was leaving Port au Prince, the Gangs in Martissant took a bus and flipped it over and blocked the roads, and started kidnappings. With God’s help, I was able to make it though, and made it back safely. But right after I got through, the roads were blocked and no one could get through for 3 weeks.

I created a new invention that I knew would make a huge impact on global health issues with communities living without electricity. Then years later, I was able to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and with the help of our NGO partners (non-profit organizations), we got over 100,000 lights to PR for humanitarian aid.

Q: That IS gutsy! What was the inspiration behind SolarPuff™?

A: The design of the SolarPuff™ is based on the origami balloon. I’m Korean, and my mother taught me origami as a child.

I had researched every solar light out there on the market back in 2010, and they were all heavy, bulky, and ugly. I knew the material had to be light but strong, soft enough to fold but strong enough to hold its shape.

After many prototypes, I found the perfect material, which is specialized. Sailcloth, the material used for sails on ships. Design provides dignity, which is absent in humanitarian aid. Why can’t we give beauty, wonder, and awe? Survival is not just about basics like food, water, and shelter. Beauty, kindness, wonder, and AWE, should be just as important. DESIGN MATTERS!

Q: I like what you say about ‘awe.’ Tell me, how can your invention make a difference in the environment and the world?

A: We are a solar innovation company, bringing solar to every household. We design and develop solar lighting and power solutions for every home. Solar Is an expensive upfront cost if you want to put a solar array on your home, but in small products like ours anyone can afford to have solar in their home and that small bit can make a huge impact if everyone did it.

From Nigeria or New York, we believe we all have the power to create change by using solar in our lives. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to use solar in your life. We all have the power to help heal the planet by using the individualized infrastructure. We give people the power to hold the sun in your hands. Energy is all around us, and it’s free and limitless. By using solar products collectively, we can lower CO2 emissions one light at a time.

One SolarPuff™ used a few hours a day instead of a regular light bulb, one person can save over 90lbs of carbon emissions a year. Multiplied by 200 million people is 9 million tons.

We founded this company for three reasons:

1.6 Billion people live without access to electricity, they resort to kerosene which is deadly and toxic.

Two million children die from the pollution of kerosene, and most communities living in these regions spend up to 30% of their income on kerosene.

The power of self-reliance and believing that one small thing can make a huge impact if we all work together to create change. We don’t need to tap into the grid all the time. This is individualized infrastructure, light, and power any time, anywhere.

Q: That’s a good reminder to stay off the grid sometimes. What do you see as the future of solar energy?

A: In 1954, The New York Times reported on a breakthrough in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology that could lead to “the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun.”

Yet today, in the USA, we concentrate on the use of grid-connected solar-powered generators to replace conventional sources of electricity. But for more than 1.6 billion people in the developing world who lack access to a reliable electric grid, the cost of small-scale PV generation is often outweighed by the very high value of access to electricity for lighting and charging mobile telephone and radio batteries.

I see a trend happening in developing countries where disruptive innovations are used to solve for need and circumstance. This gives precedent to power hacking solar or wind – Eventually I forsee technology making a breakthrough with efficiency and longevity of photovoltaics to energy storage such as batteries.

Technology is getting thinner, lighter, faster – and maybe in the future we will see cars and buildings run entirely on solar energy. But wouldn’t it be phenomenal if all children in the world had a light to read at night and keep them safe. The future is a multifaceted conundrum because you need more efficient products with better economics to be affordable to all.

The return on investment for solar has a long tail, so governments and the communities need to work together to get this realized. Everything is interconnected.

Photo courtesy of Alice Chun & The Milo Agency

Q: Let’s turn the topic a bit now. What barriers have you faced as a woman in becoming successful in your industry? How have you navigated these challenges?

A: As I started in the workplace in my twenties, the issue of being a minority scaled twofold.  Being a woman made me another minority—echoing my childhood years – in business, women are constantly told they need to change themselves—be more assertive, work longer hours work harder, be better…

But what should happen is that working practices should change to accommodate the needs of half the adult population. It’s why I respect and admire Hillary Clinton so much—because she has done more for women’s rights than anyone I know, next to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Q: I agree that a bigger change needs to happen, beyond the individual. What advice would you give to new or aspiring women inventors?

A: Three ingredients to start:

1. Empathy: This has been overlooked in innovation historically. It is the origin of success because it instills the conscience of how will we help people. How will we be able to solve this problem.

Also, instead of trying to find a new solution, sometimes you need to problematize the solutions that already exist. Ask yourself, “how is this solution failing?” “How can we fix those shortfalls and help make lives better?”  Research like an obsession and as much as possible. What’s been done before?

Knowledge is everything; know all things that have a thread of significance to your idea. Then apply it where it makes sense.

As an inventor and entrepreneur, you will also need this with negotiations, raising investment, customer service, sales, effective teamwork, leadership, education, and knowledge transfer.

2. Resourcefulness: A good entrepreneur can jump out of an airplane and build a parachute on the way down. It’s in line with “an entrepreneur should  have the hands of an angel and mind of a thief.” Resourcefulness is about one part organization of chaos, two parts seeing around corners, and one part imagination.

3. Grit: Perseverance and purpose, diligence and vigilance are paramount—never ever give up.

Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes: I made so many mistakes, I don’t know where to begin. The biggest mistake, I think was not believing in myself-trusting the intuition, your gut. I put too much trust in others to deliver on things that never materialized. I’m very grateful for those mistakes because it prepared me to overcome any challenge. Now, trusting my data, history, and experience, I’ve learned so much.

Q: You might have given a few readers strength with those words! Do you ever struggle with self-confidence? If so, how do you overcome it? What works for you?

A: When I was in my twenties, I was pathologically shy and would have panic attacks before I had to present in public. I grew up in a household where I was told daily that I was not good enough and being Korean put me at a disadvantage, so there was no other option but to work harder than everyone else. It’s good to be humble, but surmounting this hard hill of doubt was a battle of woes by being purposeful to appreciate just one good thing, however small. Creating a new story for myself until it became real.

I had to prepare for the panic in my mind. And we can take steps, however small to overcome the perceived mountain of challenges. I must emphasize perceived here because many times, we get caught in our thoughts. And start to believe they are real. But the beauty of perception is that it works both ways—what you perceive to be terrible in your life- is not so bad to others– daily doses of allowing yourself to see the difference between perception and reality, and the irony of perception is that your story can always change. Y

You are in control of your story, and your perception can change as you share it with others and the world. Eventually, you will be able to see around corners. So, overcoming the challenges means you can take control of your story. And take steps, however small, to make things better.

Also, the time will come when you start to believe in something greater than yourself- that the impact of how your idea will make lives better. It’s at that point that you will find courage. The knowledge that I will impact my son’s future and his children’s future- and countless underserved communities through my inventions gave me the strength to subject myself to naysayers and haters.

No matter how much you try to do good in the world, you will always have haters. Taking a stance and sharing it with the public, you will always get haters. I’ve had death threats, and I had to take a step back and focus on why I started this journey.

Another inspiration was reading stories of other women and their perseverance. Doubt was overcome by feeding off their victories, their cunning, and failures.

Having an idea is the easy part. But to make it Into a reality. Is the excruciating, gut-wrenching part.

Thank you for being here, Alice Chun

It means a lot that Alice took time from her busy schedule to do this interview. She is definitely an inspiring and gutsy woman! She leaves us with a few words about where she sees herself in the future:

“I’m hoping to keep inventing things that make lives better… I’m thinking about writing a book.”

All the best to you in your current and future endeavors, Alice!


Top photo courtesy of Alice Chun & The Milo Agency

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