Engineering’s Vanessa Chan gives students a real-world glimpse of life after college

Vanessa Chan

Vanessa Chan is an entrepreneur and an angel investor. She’s a college professor and an inspirational speaker. She serves on boards by day, and bakes cakes with her daughters by night. And also manages to find time to knit.

“Once you become a working mom, you just get stuff done,” she says, laughing.

Chan, a professor of practice of innovation and entrepreneurship, and the undergraduate chair of the Materials Science and Engineering Department, has been teaching at Penn since the fall of 2017. She returned to her alma mater—she graduated with her bachelor’s in materials science in 1994—after a full slate of accomplishments: earning her Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and pursuing a postdoc in Germany; working 13 years at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., where she co-led its innovation practice and helped found its Philadelphia office; and creating her own business, Redesign Studio, where she invented Loopit’s stylish, tangle-free headphones.

What Chan brings to Penn, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science specifically, says Dean Vijay Kumar, is an important “real-world perspective” that’s shaking up students’ thinking—in the best kind of way. From incorporating soft skills into her teachings, to pairing students directly with mentors from industry, she’s making her mark on campus one day at a time.

“Vanessa is a remarkable individual,” says Kumar. “You cannot help but be impressed when you meet her. And if there were ever a box, Vanessa would be outside of it; she always has an interesting way of looking at problems, and brings a fresh perspective.”

Clear communicators

Chan, who was born in St. Louis, but spent most of her younger years in Hong Kong, has a sense of humor that beams, and a cleverness that’s palpable. She connects sharply with whomever she’s speaking with—and that’s intentional. In fact, it’s one of the various soft skills she incorporates into her classes, specifically Senior Design, a two-semester capstone program that challenges Materials Science and Engineering students to generate and execute original projects.

Soft skills, which, for one, allow people to work well with others, don’t come easy for everybody. Chan notes how she went all the way through graduate school without ever learning much about them. 

“I had to learn the hard way at McKinsey,” she says. 

Typically, at engineering schools, curriculum centers around perfecting the understanding of science and technology, with good reason. But those hard skills are almost useless in solving challenges if a person is unable to “communicate the big picture,” says Kumar. “Soft skills are an important part of who we are, how we innovate, and how we have an impact on the world.”

In fact, studies have shown that 85 percent of job success comes from having well-developed soft and people skills. A statistic Chan often refers to, she’s evolving the Senior Design curriculum as somewhat of a “finishing school,” she says, allowing students to focus on a team-based engineering project while developing presentation, communication, problem-solving, and self-reflection skills, as well as gratitude (a final course assignment expects students to write a physical thank-you card to someone who’s impacted their lives).

“Right now, I’m really excited about how we teach the next generation of engineers to be prepared,” says Chan. “I really want to empower engineers so they’re not just strong technically, which you absolutely are coming out of Penn, but also how prepared they are for the real world.”

Engineering ideas with impact

Another goal for Chan is to ensure materials science students have a strong awareness of technology commercialization—before they graduate from college. 

“When I first graduated, I had no idea how things got sold,” says Chan, “and how you actually launch a new technology.”

One way Chan is doing this is requiring students to consider commercialization at the onset of Senior Design. Students are encouraged to focus on projects that address real-world problems, while understanding what the existing solutions for these problems are, and how their approach will be better.

This way of thinking benefited recent materials science graduates Emily Spencer and Gray de Simone. Winners of the overall Penn Engineering Senior Design Project Competition this past spring, the duo created kirigami envelopes for self-cooling buildings.

“Our project clearly fit into the world as it is now,” says Spencer, chatting on the phone from Seattle, where she’s interning this summer at Samsung. And, thanks to Chan’s class, “we were able to communicate that well.”

This year, notes Chan, is actually the first that the Materials Science and Engineering Department team took home the top prize, worth $800, in the competition. “It’s huge, great news,” she says.

A bridge to industry

Philippe Sawaya has always been intrigued by startups, but never thought he’d be able to pursue his own.

“It’s thanks to Dr. Chan,” says Sawaya, “that my outlook really changed.”

Sawaya, a rising senior in computer science, took Chan’s Introduction to Engineering Entrepreneurship course last fall. He enjoyed how she meshed, in class discussions, anecdotes—good and bad—from her McKinsey days, as well as her time launching Loopit.

“Her class gave me enthusiasm about entrepreneurship,” he says. “It finally feels achievable.” 

Sawaya has already been working with his team, preparing an idea for next year’s Senior Design project, one he hopes can evolve into a real startup. Chan, helping Sawaya through the process, has connected him and his partners with a mentor at Comcast—Leon Li, vice president of the tech giant’s cybersecurity arm. 

“Dr. Chan has all these connections that are highly relevant, and she’s so excited about connecting us,” Sawaya says. “We’ve already had a few meetings with Leon and some senior data science engineers at Comcast, and attended their cybersecurity conference, which was really cool.”

Boosting corporate partnerships at Penn is important to Chan, mostly because it can hopefully retain talent in Philadelphia, she says. 

“Comcast is a technology powerhouse, and [Penn has] world-class engineers, but they are fleeing to the West Coast,” she says. “Why are they doing that? Comcast is amazing. Let’s figure out a way to keep our engineers who are trained here, here. We are working directly with leaders like Tony Werner, the president of technology and product for Comcast Cable, and his team, to create opportunities for our students.”

Exposing students to all the “great stuff that’s going on in Philadelphia” is her mission, and an important aspect to developing a thriving technology ecosystem within the city, says Kumar.

“The fact that students should interact with industry should almost be taken as an axiom,” says Kumar, “because students that are learning engineering, in order to have an impact in the profession, in the world, they need to figure out how to interact with industry.” 

‘Failure is like farting’

Chan had been working at Penn for less than a year when Kumar asked her to give the 2018 School of Engineering commencement speech. 

“It was such an honor,” Chan says, recalling her surprise. “It’s one of those things where you don’t even dare put it on your bucket list because it’s never going to happen. I was floored he gave me the opportunity.”

She wanted her talk to focus on the importance of not being afraid to fail—too many students worry about straying from perfection. But, most of all, Chan wanted to make sure it wasn’t boring.

“I was riding my bike, noodling on the speech, trying to think of something like failing that all of us do, but we’re too embarrassed to talk about,” Chan says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like farting.’ I almost crashed my bike.”

To say the least, her speech resonated

“I think farting is a universal language,” Chan says. “It was a very relatable speech and I was hoping to be able to relate to students through humor.” 

“Not being afraid to fail isn’t specific to engineering, but it’s particularly important in engineering,” says Kumar. “It is just very hard to anticipate the impact of new ideas, new ventures, but if you constantly worry about the perfect idea, you’re not going to be very successful.” 

Chan brings this perspective into the classroom, too. Julia O’Mara remembers one conversation, quite clearly, that she had with Chan: Kicking around a Senior Design project idea, O’Mara wanted to pursue an antimicrobial multilayer system for catheters, but was worried that, because she’s not an expert in the particulars, she’d ultimately fail.

“Dr. Chan told me to not let being an expert in something hold me back, and that I’m able to solve problems and work around situations in an excellent way,” recalls O’Mara. “That’s something that is going to stick with me.”

Today, O’Mara, who will soon begin her job on Blackstone’s innovation team, is no longer afraid to ask questions, and she knows she doesn’t have to be an expert to contribute to or support a plan.

“I feel so much more prepared for my job than I ever would have if I didn’t have Dr. Chan for Senior Design,” O’Mara says. “She really is changing the program for the better.”