Interview with Social Entrepreneur and Graphic Designer, Crystal C. Yan

Crystal Yan
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If Crystal Yan is any indication of what the rest of the class of 2014 is like, all we have to say is, “Watch out, world!”

This truly extraordinary sophomore at Amherst College lives a full double life as an economics major and thriving entrepreneur. As a graphic designer, she applies her visual and artistic expertise for a wide range of companies and clients—from tiny start-ups to giant corporations to non-profits (oh, and even an award-winning robotics team). We snagged Crystal from her packed schedule to give us the secrets of her success:

You’re a social entrepreneur—can you explain what that means for those who aren’t familiar?

Crystal: Everyone has a different definition, but to me, it’s someone who leverages business principles for social impact.

We love the idea of your book project called “What’s Next: 25 Big Ideas from Gen-Yers Under 25.” What are some of the coolest or most inspiring ideas that you spotlight in the book?

Crystal: I hate to play favorites, but I will say there is a diverse range of voices and interests represented in the book. There’s a young woman from the US who explains her view on the future of privacy and the role of human capital investment in finance; there’s a young man from Uganda who shares his experiences with ICT and women’s empowerment in Uganda; there’s a young girl from the US who talks about importance of seeing everyone—even kids—as customers. There is so much we as young people can learn from each other—we don’t always need to turn to mid-career adults for insight.

What’s one big idea you have for the future that you’d like to make happen?

Crystal: Right now I’m experimenting with Surround Bound, a collaborative conceptual art project that aims to collect 100 postcard stories and answer unspoken questions about race, gender, class, and privilege. We ask and address the question, “What’s it like being ______________?” Many recent events in the headlines have shown that we lack critical dialogue when it comes to identity and privilege. If questions of identity and privilege speak to you, I encourage you to (anonymously) submit your story  to SurroundBound.

You’ve used your design skills to work with some very influential companies. What’s your process for finding new clients?

Crystal: Most come through referrals. For example, I was referred to designing materials for a medical school research study by a nonprofit client of mine.

Your work obviously speaks for itself. What’s your favorite project you’ve designed to date?

Crystal: I love designing infographics—they appeal to both the econ/data nerd and the creative illustrator sides of me. This infographic for Reader to Reader, an international literacy nonprofit was very fun to design. You can see other samples of my work at my portfolio: http://crystalcyan.carbonmade.com.

You’ve spent some time in India and are also about to go to London and Beijing—would you recommend going abroad? What are your tips for others who’d like to do the same?

Crystal: Definitely, being abroad is a catalyst for learning. When you’re working abroad and in a new environment and culture, you’re guaranteed to be learning something new every day. Take advantage of resources at your school’s career center; the first step is just to ask and indicate that you’re interested.

What are your secrets to being a successful entrepreneur?

Crystal: This is a loaded question because there is no one right answer. But I believe if you’re not afraid to admit failure, if you seek help, and if you surround yourself with smart and driven people, and if you do that over and over again, you can’t go wrong. Anyone who has ever tried to start something will tell you that the path to success is littered with failures.

How do you juggle it all with being a student?

Crystal: You stick to online calendars like no other. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions: do I stay on campus this weekend to watch my friend’s show or do I hop on a bus to go to a conference? If you’re pretty involved on campus and have really found a great community and group of friends at school, choosing can be difficult. Often, you just go with your gut—you look at your choreographer who’s a senior and realize how happy she is to see people performing her piece in her last show and you remember that conferences happen every year, or you look at your notes and are honest with yourself and say, “Well, if I stayed and studied, half of that time would be procrastinating anyway, so I might as well just go.”

What’s your advice for others who want to use their unique skills to make a difference?

Crystal: Find a way to just get started. When I first learned design, I just started volunteering with non-profits and asking them if they needed help redesigning their outdated materials. If you ask someone how can you can help them, it’s pretty hard to get turned away.

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