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Why this entrepreneur is carrying 1,000 lanterns to Ukraine

Alice Min Soo Chun, who made this year’s “50 Over 50” Impact List, invented a self-inflatable, portable solar light.
CEO of Solight Design, Alice Min Soo Chun.
CEO of Solight Design, Alice Min Soo Chun.Courtesy of Solight Design.

Alice Min Soo Chun has been busy packing 1,000 collapsible lanterns into three giant suitcases. Shortly after Christmas, she’ll cart them by herself to war-ravaged Ukraine. Her goal is to distribute as many of the portable solar lights she created to as many children in hospitals as she can.

“I want these kids to know that we haven’t forgotten about them and that the world cares about them,” said Chun, the co-founder and CEO of Solight Design. “I want to tell them that the light is basically like holding sun in your hands…and the light of their imagination is even more powerful than the sun – and that they are going to get through this.”

Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid have left many without power. After Chun spoke to a children’s hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, she said she learned many young patients there were scared and struggling during the rolling blackouts. She also said she learned at one hospital, nurses at one point were cooking for food for infants in the Intensive Care Unit and didn’t have light and power, and were having a difficult time even just boiling water.

Chun, 57, who was honored on Know Your Value and Forbes’ 2022 “50 Over 50,” Impact list, knew she had to help.

Alice Min Soo Chun, CEO of Solight Design, shows the lantern she invented to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, center, and TODAY co-anchor Hoda Kotb, right, at a "50 Over 50" luncheon in New York City on Dec. 8.
Alice Min Soo Chun, CEO of Solight Design, shows the lantern she invented to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, center, and TODAY co-anchor Hoda Kotb, right, at a "50 Over 50" luncheon in New York City on Dec. 8.Taylor Dieng

The entrepreneur had previously delivered her origami-style “SolarPuffs” to children in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The lanterns have also been distributed to war-engulfed countries or areas hit by national disasters, including in Nepal, Haiti, Ghana, Liberia and more.

“When we gave our colorful lights [to kids in Puerto Rico], it was easier for them to relax and fall asleep. They used a blue light as a nightlight, which helped them in the evening….So when I heard about the kids in Ukraine, I said ‘I have to go and take these lights to them,’” said Chun.

The lanterns, said Chun, will be paid for by Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Iger reached out to Chun after his team saw her work featured on “Gutsy,” Apple TV+’s show by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, which spotlights some of the world’s bravest and boldest women.

Girls in Nepal with a Solight lantern following an earthquake in 2015.
Girls in Nepal with a Solight lantern following an earthquake in 2015.Courtesy of Solight Design.

To get to Ukraine, Chun will fly into Krakow, Poland and then will take a six-hour train to Lviv. She plans on delivering the lanterns to children in three hospitals.

Chun is planning on making a second trip to Ukraine in the spring to deliver an additional 4,000 lanterns.

Chun grew up in South Korea and then upstate New York. As a young girl, her mom taught her origami (the genesis of the SolarPuff), in addition to sewing. Always creative and fascinated by design, Chun studied architecture at Penn State, and eventually earned her masters in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

A Syrian refugee holding a Solight lantern.
A Syrian refugee holding a Solight lantern.Courtesy of Solight Design.

The idea of the SolarPuff came about in 2006 when Chun’s son was diagnosed with asthma. At the time she was living in New York City and learned one in four kids in the Big Apple had asthma due to air pollution. She decided to focus on solar technology while teaching at Columbia University. Three years later, she developed her first inflatable solar light prototype. And in 2015, SoLight Designs was born.

Despite the potential danger of her upcoming trip to Ukraine, Chun said she isn’t afraid.

“I’m a little nervous. But I’m more excited than anything,” she said. “…If I can go and make a difference in this small way, there’s hope for everyone.”