Former Facebook Exec Chris Pan Reinvents Himself as a Mental Health Advocate
What’s your word?
- CategoryMakers + Entrepreneurs
- Written byStefanie Lingle Beasley
- Photographed byAnastasia Blackman
I thought I had it all figured out,” recalls Chris Pan. “I had just made money from the Facebook IPO. I had a great job in the heart of Silicon Valley. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t.” Incredible financial and professional success aside, Pan had just gone through a difficult breakup and found himself asking a lot of questions around life and purpose.
“It was 2012 and I needed a change,” he says. Friends recommended that he take time off and visit the Hoffman Institute in Napa—a personal growth retreat. “When I arrived, they asked all of the guests to give up their devices,” notes Pan. “I thought, ‘this isn’t going to last—I don’t want to be off the grid,’ but after a few days of meaningful conversations and really deep searches for my inner truth I discovered I didn’t need the devices. I’d made some pretty profound breakthroughs too—the biggest of which was that I wanted to help people. I knew only a very few could have the time or means to work with professionals like I did. I saw my purpose in trying to make that help, that inner work, and teaching available on a large scale. I wanted to make an IMPACT.” Over the subsequent years Pan has dedicated himself to just that.
Today, when Pan enters a room he is immediately noticed. His palpable energy draws people. Just over 40, he could easily pass for a grad student. One can imagine that when he was back at Harvard Business School with pal Mark Zuckerberg hanging out in Pan’s dorm room and talking about a startup called Facebook (yes, this really did happen) that Pan looked much as he does now—slim, athletic, without pretense. Appearances aside, it’s Pan’s personality that reverberates with friends, strangers, and audiences small and large (he is a regular on the TEDx circuit). But just who is Chris Pan?
That is a question with many answers. Pan is a Tawainese immigrant who moved to Ohio when he was four years old—quickly finding himself like the proverbial fish out of water. Unable to speak the language and looking vastly different than his Midwestern classmates, young Pan studied hard, quickly learned the language, and began to thrive in his American environment. When his family moved back to China, Pan was forced to reinvent himself, yet again, as a bi-lingual student at the International School of Beijing. Pan is also the Ohio State grad who so impressed his professors that he was challenged to teach multiple courses including one on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to a class of 400 students. His charisma garnered attention not just from the faculty, but fellow students (he was elected homecoming king) and later from recruiters at McKinsey. Pan holds the distinction of being the first student from Ohio State ever recruited by the famed consulting firm. And, Pan is a man unafraid of saying “no.” He felt pressured to go to med school and realized, after a few short months, that medicine was not his calling. “When I am enthused about something, I will work all hours and dedicate myself,” he says. “But when I feel it’s not right, it drains me, and I have to switch paths.”
In 2013 Pan switched from the high-tech to high-touch world, launching myintent.org—an online space that offers free courses in everything from mindfulness to yoga. “I wanted to create a community for people who are working on themselves,” he says. Interestingly, the most emblematic tool for the MyIntent Project has been a humble bracelet crafted from a small round piece of metal with a string as a strap. Each bracelet is hand stamped with a single word. Pan encourages people to look inward and find a word that gives them hope, strength, or definition. These words and intentions become a daily reminder of what people are most passionate about, what they want to overcome, and what they want more of in life. “The intention bracelets are meant to connect people to their purpose,” he stresses. “We believe there is purpose inside each of us, and we want our efforts to encourage people to share more truth and inspiration with each other.”
What began as a simple tool has grown into an impressive social enterprise with deep emotional resonance. A chance encounter at an LA party with Shawn Carter (better known as Jay-Z) helped catapult Pan’s project into the limelight. “I didn’t know Jay-Z at the time,” says Pan, “but I knew of the work of his Shawn Carter Foundation and all that the foundation is doing to help individuals facing socio-economic hardship further their education.” So, Pan took a breath and with his trademark gumption introduced himself to the music mogul and said, ‘I have a gift for you.’ Pan gave him a bracelet bearing the word EDUCATE. The bracelet fueled a conversation that immediately struck a chord with Jay-Z—who, in turn, encouraged Pan to bring the MyIntent Project bracelets to the rapper’s Grammy Awards party. Soon celebrities, musicians, and CEOs began sporting MyIntent bracelets. Kanye West even wore one bearing the word BEAUTIFY on the cover of Time Magazine’s 100 List in 2015. But Pan is quick to underscore, “We are not a jewelry company—we are a service project.” Proceeds from the jewelry fuel the course offerings on myintent.org and dozens of nonprofits have utilized sales of MyIntent bracelets as fundraisers for their own initiatives.
With the onset of COVID-19 and the dramatic effects rippling through our society, Pan upped the amount of free courses—bringing onboard some of the best inner work and self-care teachers he’s worked with over the past seven years. It’s a passion project that he’s committed to growing. “Our team is working virtually to help as many people as we can,” he notes, “and physically we’re bringing self-care and food to some of society’s most vulnerable on Skid Row in Los Angeles.”
When asked what word is on his bracelet now? Pan answers, “I have had a few over the years. My first bracelet said IMPACT. My bracelet today says BLACK HEARTS MATTER. There is much work to be done, and we have to commit each day to caring. We have to commit to our intentions.”
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