Often, we think of technology relative to a career as an asset, a tool or skill to be leveraged for gain. But during a recent dinner, Professor Vanessa Chan reminded me that the changing nature of work means technology can be so much more: it can be the key with which entrepreneurs unlock the global economy or the secret to a successful work-life integration and balance for others.
Chan is currently a Professor of Practice in Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Undergraduate Chair for the Materials & Engineering Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She also is an inventor, runs her own startup, and invests and advises dozens of other startups. We met so she could discuss a business idea, but the conversation quickly grew into a wide-ranging discussion of entrepreneurial thinking, useful technologies, and best practices in their everyday applications.
Professor Chan followed a traditional path early in her career. After receiving a Bachelor’s in Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and then a PhD in Engineering from MIT, she climbed the corporate ladder to become the first female partner in the North America Chemicals practice at McKinsey. She also co-led the firm’s innovation practice.
She credits McKinsey with helping her to build out a bench of soft skills to go along with the technical skills she learned earning her PhD. She is quick to share research from Harvard University that says: “85% of job success comes from well-developed soft skills and only 15% comes from technical skills & knowledge.”
Interestingly, she feels this combination is lacking for newly minted engineers and the explicit teaching of soft skills is notoriously absent in most university programs. To counter it, she is committed to teaching many of those skills in her own classes, hoping to help Penn Engineering students become known both for their technical acumen and their ability to work effectively within large and complex teams and ecosystems. She does this as part of a class for engineering students that teaches them how to build their own companies, and in her Senior Design course, where Engineering seniors pursue their capstone project.
Her mission is to produce more well-rounded engineers that can attain even greater success when they graduate. Professor Chan mentions a recent departmental review that felt validating because it recognized her curriculum teaching as one of the strengths of the department and is considering rolling it out to graduate students as well.
Professor Chan is passionate about this because she believes people in the real world thrive not because they had the highest GPA but because of soft skills that allow them to work effectively in complex ecosystems, whether it be academia, industry or startups. She says that startups are critical to the growth of the economy, and points to the Small Business Administration statistics that say over 627,000 new small businesses open each year and that small businesses (defined as 500 or less employees) contribute to almost 50% of the United States GDP as evidence.
One of the reasons Professor Chan feels so strongly about this is because she also runs her own startup called re.design studio. As part of the studio and company, she invented a tangle-free headphones product called loopit. The experience of designing, funding and launching that product opened her eyes to the democratizing power of technology for business.
She explains that through a Kickstarter campaign for loopit, she was able to connect with more than 500 complete strangers who backed her campaign. It brought her into contact with people as far away as Europe and Asia — people she never would have been able to meet, interact or (more importantly) transact with as little as ten years ago.
When it came time to actually manufacture loopit, Professor Chan turned to online tools and platforms like Alibaba and Maker’s Row. They helped her construct prototypes and source manufacturers that could build early versions of loopit then scale to meet demand. She says she never would have been able to have the same level of success as a one-woman company struggling to bring her ideas to life without these powerful platforms.
Outside of her role at Penn and with her company, Professor Chan is involved with more than a dozen other startups as an angel investor and advisor. She is also testing the waters with keynote speaking to help inspire others to adopt a growth mindset and be confident in failure as a catalyst for that growth. Technology plays a role in all of these endeavors, helping her spread the word on her message.
But Professor Chan also makes the point that we should embrace technology as a key platform for our personal lives. Powerful, yet common tech tools today give us the freedom to work remotely or from home while also enabling families to keep in touch while apart.
Ultimately, Professor Chan sees technology as a critical enabler that makes it possible for each of us to tap into the global economy in some way. It can also function as a great leveler, helping advance work-life balance and opening new opportunities for distributed careers.
One way that Professor Chan hopes technology is used better is to recruit more women into related fields. She notes that across all of her roles – professor, startup founder, investor, and angel investor – she sees less than 15% of positions held by women. The power of technology today should make it more accommodating for women to enter and succeed in these same roles.
For Professor Chan, that means it’s more than just the availability of technology. She says we need more female role models to inspire the next generation of female tech leaders and grow those numbers.