Barb Chan, creator of the Koolooks app, wants to make the world a more beautiful place. “I say more beautiful instead of better because, as an artist, I’m always searching for the beauty in people,” Barb says, “the beauty in their kindness and compassion, and the beauty in their relationships with one another.”
Barb comes to that search out of the struggle to find beauty in herself. She was still learning to speak English when she left the protective confines of her family home in Moscow, Idaho, to join a classroom of first-graders who did not resemble her in any way. “We were one of very few ethnic families in a small college town, where my Dad was a professor,” Barb explains. “All I wanted was to blend in. But I didn’t blend.”
In fact, one little girl decided that the racial differences that distinguished Barb from all the other kids in class were fertile grounds for ridicule. “She became my tormentor,” Barb says. “She would call me ‘ching chong chinaman’ and make fun of my eyes and my nose. She was really popular at school, so when she told other kids not to play with me, they did what she said. And when you’re faced with that kind of hatred as a little child, it defines the way you see yourself in relation to the rest of the world. I became a loner. At recess, I’d pick flowers and blow the fuzz off dandelions.”
“I was so outwardly focused and so eager to be like other people that I didn’t know, who I was myself,” Barb says. This was the seed that eventually manifested itself in Koolooks. The hardship she experienced when she was young, made her sensitive to other people’s feelings. “I’m a watcher and feeler of behavior and emotions.”
A few years ago, Barb started to notice how women interact when they shop. “They want validation,” Barb says. “Even when they’re shopping alone, they often want someone to help them with their choices. So I started wondering if I could develop an app that would help women feel that sense of connection with each other and receive positive affirmation for their choices.”
Initially, Koolooks was a platform that presented two fashion choices side by side to a community of influencers and buddies. “It’s like texting pictures to your friends and asking which outfit looks better, and everyone votes and comments.” Barb explains. After building out that foundation, Barb recruited 500 women to play with the app and make suggestions, on the basis of which she added a number of features. And now it has grown into a community of over 125,000 members all over the world, growing by several hundred a day.
Over the last year, Koolooks has evolved from a fashion app into a moderated community that uplifts and encourages women to share about themselves, their culture, their daily fashion choices, their traditional fashions, and their lives. Beauty, fashion, art, creativity, personal passions, and sisterhood are the substance of Koolooks. “This safe, nurturing community is the reason why women feel emotionally connected. There is no other community like Koolooks that provides a safe haven for women to truly be themselves on social media,” Barb summarizes.
The hardship she experienced when she was young, made her sensitive to other people’s feelings. “I’m a watcher and feeler of behavior and emotions.”
Barb had trouble discovering her own beauty and purpose in part because she grew up in a context where difference was a liability. Both of her parents left China in the late 1950s to study in America. Her father was an engineering student in mining and metallurgy. Her mother studied nursing. They met at a Chinese New Year’s party in St. Louis, fell in love and got married. After Barb’s father completed his graduate studies and accepted a teaching position at the University of Idaho, they left to make a life for themselves in a town with the unlikely name of Moscow. Barb and her three siblings were born there, in the heart of white America. They attended the local Catholic church and pursued assimilation through the stereotypical path of academic excellence.
Barb acknowledges that she had some challenges with her mother in her youth. “I never felt she understood me, and why I struggled with my self-confidence and identity,” Barb says. “In Chinese culture it was study, study, study and make something of yourself, because it is a privilege to live in this country. So I had that pressure on top of all the social pressures—feeling rejected, not pretty enough, not good enough.”
“But I felt confident whenever I was creative,” Barb says. “I would produce these little neighborhood plays where I was the writer, wardrobe designer, and director. I’d assign roles to everyone and give them their scripts. That’s when I felt a sense of acceptance and fulfillment.”
“In middle school I tried to blend in and be more social. My teachers got worried. They wanted me to continue being the diligent Chinese girl, who got not only A’s but A-pluses — because I always wanted to outperform the other A-students. No matter how hard I tried to fit in, I somehow never felt accepted or comfortable in my own skin.”
The antidote to all those struggles was her father. “I got all my feel-goods from him,” Barb recalls. “He used to draw with me and tell me that I was a wonderful artist. Sometimes he’d slip me a couple of extra dollars so I could get a treat during lunch at school, or he’d pick me up early and say, ‘Let’s do something fun with your sister.’ On Sundays after church he would take us to the student union for doughnuts, and then we’d go to the College of Mines. I’d study all the rocks and memorize their names. I learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and all its qualities from my Dad.”
That refuge was prematurely foreclosed by Parkinson’s disease, which struck Barb’s father right after she turned twelve. He managed to teach at the university for several more years, until the tremors became extreme. One day, the Dean of the college circulated a bulletin that Barb’s father could no longer teach, or conduct research. Before long, he felt forced to resign, and everything fell on Barb’s mother. “I remember my Mom crying and crying, not knowing what to do with a sick husband and four young children. My Dad became so depressed after he lost his job that he was lying in bed all day staring at the ceiling.”
Admirably, Barb’s Mom took charge. “She was duty-driven and saw her family falling apart, so she had to do something. That’s when she became devout and resolute,” Barb recalls.
By that time Barb’s mother had already realized that the young artistic soul, who liked to draw and lose herself in her own creative world, was not cut out for life in her hometown. So she insisted that her daughter transfer to the University of Arizona, where she studied graphic design. “My Mom could have kept me at home to help her through that hard time and stay with my wonderful sisters at the Alpha Phi sorority. But she insisted that I go. That’s when everything changed.”
Barb began to meet all different kinds of people, and the creative aspects of her personality began to flourish. She discovered that it was possible for other people to like the things that she liked about herself, and in that environment her spirit bloomed. Then TWA showed up on campus looking for candidates to work as flight attendants.
“I didn’t think they’d be interested in me, because in those days it was quite a competitive industry, but my roommate encouraged me to apply, so I did. And they picked me over thousands of other girls at the open call,” Barb recalls, “I couldn’t believe it! And then practically overnight I went from being an average student to feeling completely liberated.”
The antidote to all those struggles was her father. “I got all my feel-goods from him,” Barb recalls.
“It was really exciting,” she says. “After I graduated, they flew us to a private location for weeks of training. They made us cut our hair, taught us how to do our makeup, and drilled us on safety regulations. They served us lavish meals every night, but then they weight-checked everybody, and kicked anybody out who gained too much weight.
“Becoming a flight attendant opened up new horizons. We didn’t make much money, but we traveled the world and met people from all walks of life. We’d lay over in London, Paris or New York and get invited to parties with rock stars and celebrities.”
While Barb was working as a flight attendant, one of her colleagues suggested Barb join her in a lucrative sideline—modeling. “I never thought of myself as a model,” Barb says, “but I had developed a more confident personality and was often told I was very photogenic.” She was signed by an agency based in St. Louis, the city where her parents had met, and before long she appeared in commercial photo shoots and videos.
“It was a thrilling adventure that helped me learn about the hard work behind the glamorous industry,” Barb recalls, “and that helped me learn about myself.”
Barb enjoyed a carefree life for eight years. “Then I started to yearn for more substance,” she recalls. “I wanted to discover my true calling, and I wanted to create something of my own. So at the age of 29, Barb left the airline industry, became a business owner, and gave up modeling herself to become an agent for other models.
“I started with two models and steadily grew the business to more than a hundred young women and men,” Barb says. “I got bookings for the models, and travelled the globe with them. There was a lot of competition — bigger agencies trying to steal models that I had discovered and developed — but building up that business made me realize what I had to offer other people. And it was rewarding, because I was making a positive, lasting impact on young women’s lives, helping them learn how to represent themselves, to believe in themselves, and to reach their potential in a tough industry.”
During those years, another story was unfolding in Barb’s family. As her father’s illness continued to advance, Barb’s mother moved the family to California. “I didn’t see how she was going to manage that,” Barb says, “but if she had to take charge of the family, she was going to do it some place where there was more diversity and more opportunities. So off they went. I really admired that. I didn’t realize how heavy that burden was for her until later. Mom worked very hard as a nurse at the University of California while caring for Dad and two younger siblings.”
During one of many crises in her father’s illness, Barb’s mother called and said he had been moved into hospice. “I cried all the way home on the airplane,” Barb says. “When I got there, my mother and I knelt down and prayed. I said, ‘God, I’m not ready to lose him yet. Please give us a little more time.’ Later that night, Mom woke me up and said that my Dad was about to die — he was moaning and breathing that death rattle. I could see that he was parched, so I soaked a sponge with water and sat beside him all night, dripping water onto his lips one drop at a time. I could see that it gave him comfort.
“The next morning, we took him to the hospital. The medical team told us that they would admit him to a room and allow him to pass peacefully. It was traumatic. Dad was moaning and visibly suffering. It was a very difficult decision, but Mom and I ended up discharging hospice to ensure that the hospital could administer fluids to Dad. We chose fluids over morphine. Before long, Dad stopped moaning. Somehow, he had defied death. We were in disbelief that we could take him home.”
“Ever since that day, my mother and I have become closer. I love and admire her so much,” Barb says. “Mom makes fresh juice for Dad every day. She feels grateful to still have her best friend with her, to care for him, and to spend these final days showing him how much she loves him. From time to time my Dad responds to my Mom’s voice or holds her hand, and we feel it is a blessing. We asked God to spare his life. We prayed for a miracle and we got it!”
“I know now that my mother had her own struggles as a little girl,” Barb says. “She was a middle child, a girl in China, and never felt special. She felt unattractive and invisble. When I was young I hoped that I would never be like her, and now I am so proud to be her daughter.”
“You know, we come from a long line of high-achievers—painters, doctors, engineers, and intellectuals. My grandfather and grand uncle were four-star generals. But we ended up in Moscow, Idaho and lost touch with our heritage. The experience with my Dad brought some of that back. We are survivors, and our dedication to overcoming hardships and adversity only makes us stronger and more grateful for what we have.”
“And it was rewarding, because I was making a positive, lasting impact on young women’s lives, helping them learn how to represent themselves, to believe in themselves, and to reach their potential in a tough industry.”
Barb sees Koolooks as an extended family, a community of sharing, giving, and kindness with sisters all over the world. “It’s a platform that connects and unites women, who want to share their lives, their passions, their goals, and their challenges in a safe environment that does not judge them for who they are,” Barb says. “They receive sincere, encouraging advice and unconditional support. It’s all about women uplifting women. We learn about other cultures through individual stories. Some women share about their hijabs, some ask what to wear to prom, some share vegan recipes, which is a favorite topic of mine as a devout vegan and animal advocate. Some women share about struggles they experience in their countries, some post pictures of their beloved pets and vacations. Some women share business ideas and books. Some just need love and encouragement. Koolooks has truly become a virtual village that nurtures women who feel emotionally connected to the app’s supportive culture and positivity. We’re breaking through barriers. There is no other moderated app like Koolooks that systematically bans bullies and establishes a norm of being kind and respectful to each other.”
“The app also features new trends in fashion before they reach brick and mortar stores. Fishnet stockings under ripped jeans, silver platinum hair, flannel shirts were prevalent on Koolooks’ fashion feed long before they appeared in stores or were written up in style sections. “I knew that mustard and orange were the ‘it’ colors before they appeared at H&M,” says Barb. “Gingham and stripes are hot, hot…or not? We shall see in Koolooks this week in real-time.”
“We record trends, like 70% of the women buying this dress prefer black over red. Or 60% of the women, who bought shoes in Norway last week, went with platform and strappy, or sneakers or combat boots. Information like that is invaluable to retailers and fashion brands. The most important thing is user-generated content and data without compromising the personal information of our community members.”
“This app is also a safe haven for young women going through the kind of adversity and hardships I had to overcome myself,” Barb says. “I want them to know there’s a community and emotional lifeline out there for them. We are even creating a new category for therapists to support girls with more confidential issues. Koolooks is where you are loved for who you are. I give you permission to love yourself! We even welcomed our first LGBTQs last year — I’m so glad they’ve found a home with us!”
The community was developed with women in mind, but men are also welcome, if they come in the right spirit. “Thirty women from different countries have become so passionate about our community that they have become Koolooks influencers. They are the Koolooks focus group that sets the tone and acts as advisors and role models in our community,” Barb says. “Our focus group has become my extended family, and the girls work with me to develop new features and uplift our community every day.”
One man who has been involved with Koolooks from the beginning is Barb’s husband, Wolf. “He has been a strong source of support and brings broad technical experience to Koolooks. He has taught me so much about working with software engineers and has helped me to assemble a world class team. I am really grateful for that, but I am also one of the few, who work with Wolf that gets to boss him around,” Barb laughs.
Barb characterizes her leadership style as humble, honest and grateful. “I’m not afraid to admit when I mess up. I love supporting people who are making a positive difference, not just in my company. I feel deep appreciation for those with great talent, and I do all I can for them.”
Her advice to young people would be to remember that every experience has a shaping force in their lives. “Young women struggle with self-love and acceptance. It is not easy to navigate their place in this world,” Barb says. “I tell them that they are exactly where they are supposed to be. Allow yourself to feel all of it because every experience brings you closer to becoming who you are destined to be. I have learned that one can evolve and grow at any age. My Mom learned how to use Koolooks in her seventies. She is one of our top voters in the app. Go, Mom!! I would like to use my diverse experiences to give hope and understanding to anyone who is seeking love and acceptance, and wants to be part of the change for a more beautiful world.”