Valerie Chan: “Ask questions first before you assume anything”

Ask questions first before you assume anything. During the days following my accident, I slurred my words when I spoke with people on the phone. Some of them assumed that I had too much to drink. The reality was that I was working intensively with a speech therapist to help me with articulation and mental […]

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Ask questions first before you assume anything. During the days following my accident, I slurred my words when I spoke with people on the phone. Some of them assumed that I had too much to drink. The reality was that I was working intensively with a speech therapist to help me with articulation and mental cognition.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Chan.

Valerie is a seasoned business leader, a technology communications expert, and an unequalled crafter of strategic corporate narratives. She has built a position of influence throughout the legal and mainstream technology industries. Her skills in bringing complex company stories to wide public attention are in high demand by companies seeking growth, acquisition, public offering, or crisis management.

Valerie is a NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Teaching Fellow and has been a featured speaker at various industry conferences and events, including TEDxFarmingdale and LexLab (Hastings Law School). She holds a JD from Seattle University and BA from the University of Puget Sound. She is also a concert-level violist.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I was raised by an Asian Tiger mom. Just about anyone who was raised in a first-generation Asian-American family will tell you that their upbringing was rigorous. I was expected to get straight As in school, be the class valedictorian, play music at a professional level, and play a larger role in the community. Success was part of our DNA and it was assumed I would be successful when I grew up — preferably as a doctor, a lawyer, or a CEO. Failure was never an option.

Problems or setbacks were not things we talked about or acknowledged even to ourselves.

And — with respect to my more recent story — having an accident that impacted my mental or cognitive abilities definitely was not something I was encouraged to talk about.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill?

About seven years ago, I was in a severe car accident. The effects of which still impact me to this day.

A large white van struck my driver’s side door in rush hour traffic, propelling my car into the lane next to me. Another car hit me from behind and ricocheted me two more lanes over. When my car finally came to a halt, it was totaled. I had to escape out of the backseat window.

The accident left me with a severe concussion that was not detected until several days after the accident. I was unable to access parts of my brain — specifically the parts pertaining to my higher cognitive functions. This meant I had difficulty processing my thoughts and speech. While I could still speak, I had a stutter and my words came out differently. I could no longer articulate complex concepts. I slurred my words half the time, sounding as if I had too much to drink.

My spine and back were also impacted. Normal movements became hard to manage. I was unable to run, walk, or participate in life the way I had been used to.

The trauma of the accident forced me to acknowledge and adapt to my new normal, to live and act in a different way. For two years, I worked with a range of physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists. They helped me rebuild and access alternative pathways in my brain so I could walk, talk, and function again the way I used to do.

Mental healing was a massive part of my recovery. Every day, I was tasked with incorporating meditation and visualization techniques to visualize speaking, running, and being active again. I had to regularly conduct several memorization exercises so that I could remember the names of key items and strings of numbers from 6 to 10 digits long. I also completed different puzzles to help me with pattern recognition and word associations. I participated in concept matching games to help reawaken areas in my brain and access some of the higher cognitive patterns that were once my norm. During these sessions, I would record myself so I could check whether I was pronouncing these concepts correctly. I would often work with a friend so that I would avoid getting discouraged.

Physically, I was required to move every day in a new way so that my back would not sit in traction — which at first I found almost impossible, given my high level of pain and lack of mobility after the accident.

Through memorization, visualization, and audio and movement techniques — classical conditioning techniques that are common in psychology, marketing and other disciplines — I was eventually able to re-pattern the way I communicated and the way I moved through the world. It took me two years to create a new “thinking and being” pattern.

Looking back, I now see that I harnessed the personal discipline ingrained in me since early childhood to marshal my thoughts and re-establish a normal life.

Even so, the trauma of the accident impacts me to this day. I wince when a car even looks like it may be veering into my lane on the freeway. My lower back still goes into spasms when I sit for long periods of time. I sometimes reverse the order of words or entire phrases when I write, even though my brain wants to say something else. I still slur words, or they come out differently than I intend, especially if I am tired.

What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

The accident slowed me down so badly that I was forced to listen to what my mind and body were telling me, to actively choose what my next steps should be. I had to decide that I was going to run and be active and talk again, rather than just accepting my new circumstances as permanent.

It was not a mental shift per se. It was more like an awakening, as if a kind of human instinct or “intuition” kicked in — I began to listen to that deep primal inner voice that we all have access to as humans but often goes unheard.

This intuition exposed me to a rich inner life that had been buried for so long and helped me access and listen to not only what I needed, but also what others wanted and needed as well. Just as animals in nature instinctively use their senses to communicate with each other, because my senses had become heightened I was able to improve my own communication with other people in a similar way.

Using and accessing all of my senses in human interactions, I found I could “hear” or interpret body language. I could intuit the meaning behind people’s words and feel the impact of those words. I could more readily hear the anxiousness or excitement in a person’s voice. I could tell if they were distracted. I could adapt my communication method to what worked best for them — by sending a written message, for example, or by talking more slowly. And most importantly, this newfound intuition allowed me to become more creative. I began writing and trusting again, and I felt inspired. Beyond my original goals of talking and running, I found that I could accomplish much more for myself while also helping others accomplish their own dreams.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?

During that time of recovery, I still had to work. There was no other option, no golden parachute to rely on. I had to go out and find different modalities or new types of services that could help me function — if not exactly in the same way as before, then at least somewhat similarly, so that I could continue leading a team and a successful company.

The accident forced me to let go of much of the everyday work that I was doing and trust my staff to step up. While I was in recovery, I worked hard to create a culture that fostered teamwork and collaboration, and this delivered massive results. In fact, my company has grown from five staff members at the time of the accident to 18 today.

I have also spoken publicly about my accident in corporate environments, presented at TEDx Farmingdale, and mentored entrepreneurs at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center and at the UC Hastings LexLab, teaching future business leaders different ways of thinking and new approaches to entrepreneurship.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

A disability is a barrier to achievement only if you see it and believe it to be one. You cannot achieve your dreams if you use your limitations as an excuse for not aspiring.

Rather than seeing a disability as a hindrance, view it as an opportunity to find a different path to overcoming whatever stands in your way. By slowing down and listening, by cultivating your senses and trusting your inner voice, you will be guided to succeed in whatever venture you undertake.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I would not say there is specifically one person who helped me get to where I am, but a group of people. First, I am lucky to have such an amazing team at Plat4orm. After my accident, I was not able to work to the same degree. I had to focus on my recovery, which meant that I really had to lean on my team to continue pushing the business forward.

In the medical field, Dr. Jangaard from the Jangaard Clinic on Whidbey Island, WA and the team at Sojourn Wellness in Oakland, CA who helped me through the worst of my recovery. They pushed me to take that next step, finish the exercise in front of me and go on to the next. Their efforts gave me the hope that I would be able to move past the pain and recover.

And lastly, I am grateful for my speech pathologist. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I talk often about my accident to encourage other people who have had accidents or setbacks in their lives to envision a way forward and a return to a productive and fulfilling life. I also like to mentor entrepreneurs. Many of the lessons I have learned in overcoming a disability can also be applied to the challenges of starting up and running a business. This can mean dealing with unforeseen obstacles, taking (well-judged) leaps of faith, doing your homework, and letting experts help you to do better. Above all I feel that, by fostering the amazing human potential that lies within each individual, we can spark new and better ways of existing in our personal and business lives.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

  1. Ask questions first before you assume anything. During the days following my accident, I slurred my words when I spoke with people on the phone. Some of them assumed that I had too much to drink. The reality was that I was working intensively with a speech therapist to help me with articulation and mental cognition.
  2. A disability is not always considered a disability by the person living with it. For me, the accident and its aftermath ultimately taught me to think differently and be more creative, and to refuse to allow any limitations to define what I could achieve.
  3. Do not pretend that you can relate to every aspect of another person’s story. My story seems particularly “relatable” insofar as I got into a car accident and was injured. But the concussion and many of its effects were unique to me and are difficult for others to understand.
  4. People with physical limitations tend to appreciate things more. I know several people who have lost their sight or their hearing. They see life from a different perspective in a way that most of us simply are unable to do. My own experience with physical limitations has given me an ability to look at my life through a kind of wide-angle lens. I tend to see the bigger picture in a way I could not before my accident.
  5. A disability or physical limitation presents an opportunity to reconnect with our deeper human instincts, to value intuition and rely on every one of our senses, and to honor the humanity of others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Anything is possible if you have the right team in place and the right mindset.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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