On Dec. 26, 2022, Alice Min Soo Chun checked four large suitcases at the JFK airport in New York and boarded a plane to Krakow, Poland. From there, she took a six-hour train to Lviv, Ukraine, where she had a nurse friend working at a local children’s hospital. Chun, an entrepreneur and inventor, was on a solo mission to hand-deliver 1,000 solar lanterns made by her company, Solight Design, to children in Ukraine displaced by Russia’s war on the country.
When she first arrived in Lviv, “one thing that struck me was walking out of the train station and the whole city was dark,” said Chun, 57. “The streets were completely dark. All there was was car lights.”
In Lviv and several other Ukraine cities, Russian forces bombed power stations and other infrastructure, leaving residential communities near the front line without power for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. “When there is no light in a disaster zone, women and children are more likely to get assaulted and kidnapped for human trafficking. That happens all the time,” Chun said.
Traveling alone in a war zone with a lot of luggage is riddled with challenges even when one is lucky enough to stay clear of human-induced dangers. One time in Lviv, Chun accidentally tripped on a poorly lit, crumbled sidewalk when walking at night and fractured her rib. Another time, she almost lost her luggage on a train because the doors closed on her bags while she was trying to get off. “It was like traveling with four hippos that were very reluctant to move,” she said of her four suitcases packed with folded solar lanterns.
Chun stayed in Ukraine for two weeks and visited two refugee camps and three children’s hospitals in Lviv and Kyiv, two of the worst-hit cities during conflict with Russia.
“I care a lot about children,” said Chun, who has an 18-year-old son. “In Ukraine, every child has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). My nurse friend in Lviv said that, because of constant bombing and air raids, it takes hours for kids in her hospital to calm down every night.”
Ukraine is the fifth “red zone” country Chun has visited in the past 15 years to deliver her invention to refugees who lost access to electricity. In the past, she has traveled to Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Dominica and Haiti after natural disasters. But Ukraine is the first country she’s visited in the middle of a war. “Everyone told me not to go. They said I would be shot or raped or kidnapped. But I went anyway, because I know the impact that it’s going have,” Chun said.
An extraordinary passion for helping others
Chun was born in 1965 in Seoul, Korea to an architect father and a painter mother, who influenced her early on to pursue a career in arts. When she was four, her family moved to the U.S. and settled down in Syracuse, New York. Growing up, Chun was the only Asian kid in her neighborhood and school. “I got called out a lot,” she said, “for having Asian eyes and stuff like that.”
In 1980, Chun moved back to Seoul with her parents and attended high school in Korea for two years before returning to the U.S. on her own for college. She studied architecture at Pennsylvania State University as an undergraduate and earned a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, Chun put her knowledge to use designing public amenities, such as park benches and community picnic areas, for underserved neighborhoods. In earlier interviews, she joked she has a “motherly” nature thanks to her astrological sign of Cancer.
“Alice has a passion for helping others and she puts it into action,” said Donna Woronka, an accountant who has worked for Solight Design since 2019. “Alice is extraordinarily brave beyond anyone else I know. She sacrifices, at times, her own safety, for that.”
In the early 2000s, Chun began teaching Architecture and Material Technology at Columbia University and Parsons School of Design in New York as an adjust professor. While teaching, Chun created early prototypes of solar lights made with sustainable materials. In 2010, after the Haiti earthquake, Chun and her students created a solar light that could be used immediately in disaster relief situations: a lightweight, self-inflatable lantern later branded “The SolarPuff.”
Unlike most solar lights in the market that are bulky and heavy, the SolarPuff weighs only two ounces, packs flat, and pops open with a pull-tab. The design is inspired by Japanese origami, the art of paper folding, which Chun learned from her late mother. Each SolarPuff lantern can provide up to 12 hours of lighting when given eight to 10 hours of direct sun charging, according to Solight Design’s website. Its most important feature is portability. “You could only fit maybe 10 regular solar lights in a box,” Chun said. “Ours, you can fit 120.”
A “for-purpose” business championed by celebrities
In 2010, Chun brought a SolarPuff prototype to Haiti to show at a green tech event attended by former President Bill Clinton, who was impressed by the product. The encounter led to an unexpected friendship between Chun and Hillary Clinton many years later.
After the Haiti earthquake, Chun founded Studio Unite, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focusing on developing creative solutions for disaster relief. In the meantime, field testing of the SolarPuff began in central Haiti with a group of local farmers, mostly women and children. Facing challenges of mass manufacturing the product through a nonprofit, Chun incorporated Solight Design in 2015 and raised $500,000 in upstart funds on Kickstarter.
In the U.S., SolarPuff lanterns are available for between $30 and $100 online and in stores, including at Whole Foods and the MoMA Design Store in New York. Sales to nonprofits are often subsidized or free. Chun said the company has generated about $10 million in revenue since its founding.
“We are not a charity, but we have a social mission to help those in need,” Chun said.
In 2017, after Hurricane Maria, Solight Design shipped 100,000 SolarPuff lanterns to refugees in Puerto Rico. The next year, SolarPuff won the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Award for Humanity. It also received recognition from the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a program under the Clinton family foundation.
At a CGI event in 2018, Chun met Hillary Clinton for the first time. After hearing her story, the former Secretary of State asked Chun if she would like to be featured in The Book of Gutsy Women, a book she and Chelsea Clinton were working on about the world’s bravest women.
“It was a vortex bone chill moment for me. I couldn’t believe she asked me to be in her book!” Chun recalled.
Asked her first impression of Hillary, Chun said, “I was surprised at how down-to-earth and funny she is. You don’t see that in the media…I came back from our first meeting and all my friends were like, no, she’s a politician, she’s a liar, she’s not gonna follow through with the book thing. But she followed through. It’s an attestant to her integrity.”
Last year, The Book of Gutsy Women was adapted into a documentary series called Gutsy on Apple TV+. Chun was featured in one of the episodes. After the show aired, Chun received an email saying Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, would like to meet her. They met over a Zoom call in November 2022, and Iger and his wife, Willow Bay, offered to pay for the SolarPuff lanterns Chun was bringing to Ukraine.
A lifelong mission to shine a light on children in darkness
In Ukraine, Chun witnessed first-hand the horror of war. At hospitals in Lviv and Kyiv, she saw kids who had their arms and legs blown off by bombs. She met a girl whose 12 family members were shot and killed in front of her and a boy who was stranded in a field for a month before rescuers found him.
“One time I walked into a hospital room, and there was a girl with steel rods going through her body to keep her together,” Chun said.
At the Okhmatdyt Children’s Hospital in Kyiv, the largest of its kind in Ukraine, Chun met a 14-year-old boy named Artem who had to have his leg amputated due to a shrapnel injury. When she gave him a SolarPuff and asked him what he would do with it, the boy said he wanted to go camping with it in a forest near his home.
“I was thinking: He’s just like my son!” Chun said. “Even though they have experienced the unimaginable and the horrific, you wouldn’t blame these kids for being hateful or spiteful. But I found the opposite of that. I found these kids to be forgiving, kind and grateful.”
Chun, who doesn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, communicated with locals through translators. In Lviv, her translator was a friend working at a local hospital. In Kyiv, she found help from a local contact introduced by Hillary.
“When I gave those kids the solar lights, I told them, now you have the power of the sun in your hands. It’s more powerful than anything in the world,” Chun said. “If you keep fighting with that light in your heart and your imagination, there is nothing you can’t do. And it’s the greatest weapon against injustice.”
“I think what Alice does is beyond social work,” said Woronka. “She is solving real problems that haven’t found good solutions yet.”
Chun returned to the U.S. in mid-January. Since then, her company has sent more SolarPuff to Ukraine. Earlier this month, she embarked on a trip to Turkey to help those affected by the earthquake in February. After that, she plans to return to Ukraine this spring.
“Sending something by mail does not have the same impact as me delivering them personally,” she said. “Every time I go, I come back with the most amazing stories of resilience, courage, perseverance and love. It’s a gift to me.”