Student Spotlight with Yali Derman

CARRY ON: Yali Derman, 20, is a sophomore in Penn’s School of Nursing and a handbag designer. She’s also a two-time cancer survivor, beating leukemia at ages 5 and 9 and receiving a bone marrow transplant from her brother, Benji, at age 9. She says her latest creative handbag effort, Yali’s Carry On, signifies how people carry on when faced with medical baggage or challenges.

GOOD CAUSE: Yali’s Carry On is available as a black microfiber, gray microfiber or khaki canvas tote and is adorned with a brightly colored peacock design Derman created herself. All proceeds from the $85 bag are donated to the foundation K.I.D.S.S. (Kindness is Doing Something Special) for Kids. Derman and K.I.D.S.S. for Kids are partnering to help fund a playroom in the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

THE POWER OF THE PURSE: Derman explains that some of the peacock feathers on the new bag have a paisley pattern, similar to the design on brightly colored bandanas that cancer patients commonly wear while undergoing chemotherapy treatment. When she was younger, Derman rebelled against wearing those bandanas, instead turning them into purses. 

ART THERAPY: Throughout her life, Derman has found strength and comfort through art. “Art therapy was vital in helping me cope with the long and difficult treatments that ultimately helped save my life,” she says. Expressing herself through art also  enabled Derman to discover her autobiographical voice. “I wanted to be seen for who I was as opposed to a really sick child,” she says. “Sometimes the hardest story to tell is your own.”

MAKE-A-WISH: When she was 17, Derman worked with handbag designer Kate Spade through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “I wanted to celebrate my victory against leukemia and give hope to others and create a bag that ... [celebrates] the idea of survivorship,” Derman explains. The result—the Yali Bag—was a black handbag with a bright paisley interior that raised $50,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and earned Derman and Spade the title of donors of the year in 2008.

POSITIVE RESPONSE: At the Yali’s Carry On official March 5 launch at Derman’s hometown Saks store in Highland Park, Ill., the store sold 800 out of 1,000 bags. As of early March, Derman says she’s raised $62,000 from sales—well on her way to her $100,000 goal. Bags can be purchased for $85 through Derman’s website,

INTO THE FUTURE: Derman volunteers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, running a tote bag-making workshop and encouraging young people to find their voice. “I have to say that I’m a nurse first and a handbag designer also first and a cancer survivor also first,” says Derman. “I want to be an innovative healthcare professional.”

Yali DermanCARRY ON: Yali Derman, 20, is a sophomore in Penn’s School of Nursing