As an electrical engineering student, Nelson Chu ’88 learned the importance of juggling a rigorous workload with social activities and extracurriculars. He joked that his nickname in college was “Sleepy” because he was constantly losing sleep from mastering this balance. 

Now a venture capitalist with Kinetic Ventures LLC, he deftly shifts between business and technical knowledge to develop successful investment strategies — all while finding ways to give back to his community. 

Chu said the real key to success is quickly and effectively solving other people’s “hair on fire” problems. Chu will share these insights and more with Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering graduates as the Distinguished Alumni Speaker for the spring 2023 commencement ceremonies on May 13.

“Most universities talk about lifelong learning, but Virginia Tech is focused on lifelong service. Giving back through Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) doesn’t end when you graduate,” Chu said.

Chu, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech, will be honored at this year’s ceremonies as the college’s Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. The award celebrates graduates who have distinguished themselves in their careers, applied their engineering education toward global and community engagement, and/or significantly impacted the university through service, philanthropy, or meaningful interaction with students and faculty.

“Nelson will share a valuable perspective on innovation and entrepreneurship with our graduates, having spent his career cultivating a business approach tailored to the engineering industry,” said Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “As an electrical engineering alumnus, he understands which questions need to be asked to solve a problem and brings quality insights to the college's advisory board.”

Chu has stayed active with the university by sitting on the advisory boards for the College of Engineering, Virginia Tech Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, and Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties

“Receiving this award is a tremendous honor, for which I am both humbled and thankful. Being involved with the university — at the student, program, and administration levels — has been a real pleasure. I look forward to continued involvement at all levels,” said Chu.

Recalling his undergraduate studies, Chu credits Professor Gary Brown for guiding his focus on electromagnetic wave theory. While Chu was a student, Brown became an IEEE Fellow for his contributions to the understanding and application of electromagnetic scattering from rough surfaces. Chu, after developing an interest in the research area, went on to study the topic further at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1990.

Nelson Chu (right) and Professor Richard Hirsh (left) on one of their annual ski trips.
Nelson Chu (at right) and Professor Richard Hirsh on one of their annual ski trips. Photo courtesy of Nelson Chu.

Although some of his favorite Virginia Tech memories include late night group study sessions working on problem sets, Chu also embraced the social aspect of campus life, including Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) socials. Chu grew close to the TKE faculty advisor, Professor Richard Hirsh, who taught a course on the history of technology and an honors seminar that Chu took. Over the years, Chu and Hirsh have remained friends, frequently in contact on and off the ski slopes. 

“I was able to balance the extreme academic rigors with the fun and satisfaction of actively giving back to the community by participating in extracurricular activities. Experiencing non-academic activities provided a needed balance,” Chu said.

Looking back on his time at Virginia Tech, Chu expressed gratitude for the motivating scholarships he received that allowed him to graduate debt-free. 

After graduating with his master's degree, Chu worked as a development manager at Oracle Corp. in California. Three years later, he enrolled at Harvard University to receive his MBA. In 1995, Chu settled in Atlanta as a senior associate at McKinsey and Company. For the past 25 years, he has been the managing director at Kinetic Ventures LLC, an early- and growth-stage investor in rural broadband, digital infrastructure, and enterprise software. 

Chu and his wife, Mary '87, met as resident advisors in one of the few co-ed residence halls at the time, East Ambler Johnston. They now live in Atlanta with their youngest of three children. Their middle child, Brian, graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and 2022 with a bachelor's degree in industrial and systems engineering and a master's degree in business analytics, respectively.

The College of Engineering commencement ceremonies, held at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 13 in Lane Stadium, will also feature remarks from Ross and the college’s Outstanding Senior, chemical engineering student Yasmin Farzan.

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