The Accidental San Antonian: Elisa Chan

Although Elisa Chan’s roots are half a world away, she’s not surprised to be representing her adopted city as a member of City Council. “San Antonio is this special place to me,” she says. “Everything important in my life has happened here: I met my husband here, we started our business here, and our daughter was born here.” San Antonio “must have been my destiny,” she says, smiling, “because I am here by accident.” When Chan left her native Taiwan in 1988 after graduating from Beijing University of Technology with a degree in computer software engineering, her first stop was in Austin, where she was to stay with a good friend of her mother, whom she called “Auntie,” while attending the University of Texas at Austin. While applying for a master’s program in computer science, says Chan, “I missed a deadline, so I wasn’t going to be able to go to school. My auntie said San Antonio had the closest school in the University of Texas system, so I enrolled there, thinking I would transfer to Austin.”

After moving to San Antonio — where initially she knew no one — Chan joined the Chinese Students Association to socialize with other Chinese-speaking young people. There she met her husband, Clifford Hew, an ethnically Chinese Malaysian who had come to this country to study structural engineering. As the couple’s relationship developed, Chan decided to stay in San Antonio to launch her career as a software designer. “In the 1980s, the United States was the most advanced place to be if you were in computer science,” she says. And, like many people who grew up in other parts of the world, she says, “I believed that the U.S. was the land of opportunities. I wanted to realize the American dream.” After earning her master’s in computer science in 1993, Chan started pursuing her goal by honing her professional skills at a series of jobs in her field. In the information technology department at Dee Howard Aviation, she developed a tracking system using bar codes, so that when employees used cards to swipe in and out, the company’s computer system could keep track of their hours automatically — an innovative method in the early 1990s.

At EMIS Software, she became product manager for an updated version of one of the company’s programs. “That’s where I started to get the big picture,” Chan says. “As product manager, I was responsible for more than just software design; I had to understand and make decisions about production, tech support, upgrades and new releases.” Moving to the University of Texas Health Science Center’s research imaging department, she developed software that linked 3-D images of the brain to facts about each part of the brain, a tool that allowed researchers to use visual cues rather than keywords to go straight to the information they needed. Working on this project gave her the experience of developing a custom product, tailoring it to the needs of specific users.

Meanwhile, her husband and she agreed in 1992 that he would leave his job to found what is now Unintech Consulting Engineers Inc., a structural and civil engineering design and consulting firm. Both Hew and Chan understood small businesses after working for some, and though Chan had thought about starting her own software-design firm, she had observed that when such companies brought out a successful product, the typical path was to sell out to a larger company better equipped to handle promotion and distribution. Instead, she says, “I wanted to be part of something we could keep growing.” Statistics showed that it would take about five years for a new business to become profitable, so Chan contributed to Unintech at night, on weekends and by taking vacation from her job. “When you’re young, you have the energy to work like that,” she says. “We couldn’t afford help, so we worked seven days a week, at least 10 hours a day.” Instead of taking paychecks from their start-up company, the couple lived on her salary. On schedule, in 1998 Chan quit her other job when Unintech needed her full-time expertise. The firm contracted with a client who needed a special type of retaining wall, for which Chan developed an application that used AutoCAD software; engineering specs were built into the pro­­­gram, so that when a user plugged in data about a location, the program produced a plan for a wall.

Before Chan and Hew started working together full time, she says, “We talked about it a lot. We had seen family businesses (whose owners) were unprofessional, where the employees didn’t know whom to listen to.” To avoid that, she says, “We always had a clear division of responsibilities, and we have always had offices on opposite sides of the building.” Communicating mostly by e-mail and intercom during the day, she says, “We don’t see that much of each other at work, and we try not to bring (business issues) home.” As president and co-owner of Unintech, she is in charge of business development, marketing, human resources and information technology, while her husband is the company’s CEO, handling the engineering side. Since its founding, Unintech went from a single employee in one office to 40 employees in its own building in the Stone Oak area, expanded a few years ago from 10,000 to 20,000 square feet. The building, whose interior design Chan supervised, “is a showcase for our work,” she says. The color scheme of soft yellows and reds she chose is a nod to their Asian heritage, “and I wanted to bring in some warmth; all-white interiors can look chilly.”

One feature of every office she has worked in for the past 11 years is a connecting room she calls “Nicola’s room.” The couple’s daughter was born after a difficult pregnancy, during which Chan had to stay on bed rest for six months. It was the first time in her adult life that she had to stop working, she says, “but when you have a child, the baby comes first.”

When Chan returned to work after Nicola’s birth, she wanted to nurse the baby, so she hired a nanny to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and set up a nursery in a room adjoining her office. Later, Nicola’s room became a place to play and more recently a spot to do homework between the end of her school day and the end of her parents’ workday. Because Chan and Hew don’t have family in this country, she says, “We don’t have a support system, so we had to create one.” At home in the early evening, she and her husband make a point of not talking shop. Chan says: “That’s Nicola’s time.” As their business and their daughter grew, Chan became more involved in community affairs. A past president of the Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce, she serves as vice president of the Texas Federation of Asian American Chambers of Commerce and belongs to three other local chambers. Chan has been active in several Stone Oak residents’ and business associations and has served on the boards of the Cancer Therapy and Research Center and the Southwest School of Art & Craft. With support from people who knew her through these and many other civic activities, Chan was elected last year to San Antonio’s City Council, representing District 9. For the last several years, she says, “San Antonio has been going through a critical time, and I felt I could help. We are one of the largest cities in the country, and to make the most of that status, we need to become more metropolitan, more cosmopolitan.”

Her interests as a council member include economic development, smoothing out traffic issues and the greening of San Antonio. “We need to create jobs, good jobs, beyond the traditional economic engines of the military and tourism,” she says and has helped in that effort as chair of the China Steering Committee, appointed by former Mayor Phil Hardberger, and more recently as one of the city’s representatives last May during the San Antonio Salute in the U.S. Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. Chan, whose business card is printed in English and Chinese on alternate sides, met with delegates from sister cities and officials from Chinese businesses considering relationships with San Antonio. “I think they were made more comfortable (in negotiations) because they could meet with someone who speaks Mandarin and who could be elected to City Council even though the percentage of Asian Americans in San Antonio is relatively small,” she says.

Back home, she supports the creation of a Park and Ride location in her district so that VIA can attract more “choice riders” — users of public transportation who could drive their own cars but choose to ride the bus because it’s more convenient, economical and environmentally friendly.

Describing herself as “passionate about economic development,” Chan promotes San Antonio as “a good environment for large and small business as well as international business. We have a geographical advantage in our proximity to the Mexican border and in being in the center of the country, but we need to do more to attract business so we can do more for our people and make them more prosperous.” As a member of City Council, Chan enjoys the access her position gives her to people with whom she can share her ideas about change and improvements. “It’s different when you pick up the phone as a volunteer,” she says. “You’re not sure if your message gets to the person who can implement it.” An American citizen since 1999, Chan is interested in running for higher elective office someday: “There is only so much you can do on the city level.” She identifies herself as a Republican, “a fiscal conservative who is socially open-minded,” who believes her party is “facing big challenges and needs to become more diverse.” Outside of family, work and politics, Chan finds time to cultivate even more interests. She loves to read in English and Chinese, especially biographies, tried golf “but I never had time to get very good at it” and is taking tango lessons, “something I was always interested in, but my husband wouldn’t do it.”

She also enjoys traveling with her family, with whom she recently visited Seattle. When they visited the Space Needle — a former World’s Fair theme structure like San Antonio’s Tower of the Americas — Chan noted that while “we have better (tower) grounds, they are more technologically advanced.” Space Needle visitors can view a historical presentation about the city and zoom in on local attractions that particularly interest them.

“I was thinking, we should have something like that here to help visitors,” Chan says. Even away from home, she adds, she’s always thinking about her adopted city. “We have so much going for us,” she says. “We just have to change perceptions of San Antonio, help other people see what we really have to offer.”

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