After moving to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was just four years old, Sue Chen (Singapore, Fall 1990) struggled with her identity. Majoring in Asian Studies in college, Sue embarked on a path of self-discovery and studied abroad to reconnect with Mandarin Chinese, the language she had spoken as a very young child. In 1993, when she was just 23 years old, Sue launched NOVA Medical Products in the U.S., which has grown to become an industry leader on a mission to unlock the potential in millions of physically challenged people. In addition to her work as CEO, Sue is a passionate shark advocate and an avid diver. Read on to see how Sue’s study abroad experience laid the foundation for her professional success, and why she credits sharks with saving her life.
IES Abroad: As a student at Trinity University, how did you hear about IES Abroad and what motivated you to study abroad in Singapore?
Sue Chen: For college, I wanted to go to a small school where no one in my high school went. This was a common theme that led to my study abroad experience. I wanted to be in an unfamiliar place so I could get to know myself. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was so frustrated that I didn’t. When I was in college, I started out as one major and then switched to another. Then, I went down this path of taking classes in Asian Studies – studying Asian culture, politics, history, etc. As I began taking classes, I began knowing myself as this amazing by-product [being Asian American]. I knew I had to take advantage of this. I knew I wanted to study abroad.
Studying abroad, I could take an intensive class in Chinese. This complimented getting to know myself. I spoke Mandarin when I was a kid. I came over from Taiwan when I was four years old. But I grew up in a predominantly white community, and I was confused. When we would travel to Taiwan, I didn’t really fit in and when I was in the U.S., I didn’t really fit in. It wasn’t that I didn’t fit in anywhere, it was that I didn’t know myself. I chose Singapore because there were not a lot of options in Asia at the time. I wanted to speak Mandarin and I could do that there. And I liked the fact that Singapore was a very sophisticated country, and it was also a good landing place to travel to the rest of Southeast Asia.
IES Abroad: What were some of the most influential memories from your time in Singapore?
SC: The greatest memory was being a part of the community with my floor. When you first got there, you were with other American students. Then, all of the sudden this experience to assimilate with other Americans went away. They separated us and put us all in separate dorms. At first, we were all very upset. But it ended up being the best part of the program. My most amazing, wonderful, defining experiences was assimilating with my hall, my floor, my dorm, and becoming part of that micro-culture.
When it was time for me to say goodbye, these girls on my floor all got together and gave me a surprise party. I will never forget it to this day. When had I arrived, I thought, “I am different from these girls.” And then I quickly realized how much we all were the same. I still get emotional thinking about it. Forcing us apart from our group was so powerful. That’s what college is about. What really defines you are the relationships you make.
IES Abroad: You had traveled overseas with your family before studying abroad. You had been to Taiwan and other places. How was studying abroad different?
SC: It’s totally different. I tell everyone that they have to have this experience. You are just becoming an adult. The study abroad experience forces you to become that adult. You have to get to know yourself to make this a great experience for you. That is probably the most powerful component of a study abroad experience. You are thrown into a situation. You are forced to adapt, be flexible, etc. These are all the qualities that are so important in your 30s, your 40s, and as you are an adult and a professional. You develop these qualities when you are abroad.
IES Abroad: How did you change the most during your time in Singapore? Did the experience shape the way you think in a profound way today?
SC: I was going into a country with very different political views, ideologies, and laws. When you are younger, you are little rebellious and you think you know what is right and wrong. Going to a country that is very different and has very different rules, it makes you think about things in a different way. Whether right or wrong, the world has different perspectives. When I arrived, I remember thinking, “I’m going to stir things up!” But the girls on my floor looked at me like I was crazy. They just didn’t do things that way. The cultural rules were different. Being in Singapore, I quickly realized that there are different perspectives. I may not have to agree, but I have to respect them.
IES Abroad: NOVA is a family business, started by your uncles as a leading medical manufacturer in Taiwan. How did you decide to assume this role as CEO and launch NOVA Medical Products in the U.S.?
SC: My story is rather humble. I was sure that going through college, I would come out with a career plan that was set. I was voted most likely to succeed out of high school. So I was shocked that I graduated with an Asian Studies major, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was so upset at myself that I didn’t have a plan. I started taking the LSAT and GMAT and thinking about continuing my education. I took a job. As I was studying and working, I was offered the opportunity to start NOVA in the U.S. How I came to found the company was very unglamorous. It was humbling. I graduated and didn’t have a plan. But what did happen, the way it happened, is the best thing. And I got to know myself.
IES Abroad: Were there lessons learned in Singapore that helped you in the early days of your career as a young, female CEO in a male-dominated family business and industry?
SC: When I was in Singapore, I sounded American but I looked Chinese. It was constantly confusing. Then I realized, that’s just my story. Everyone has a story. When I left, I had made so many amazing relationships. What I learned was connection. And connecting people. Trust. Getting to know someone and learning and trusting. With my company, I did the exact same thing. Connecting with people, getting to know them. I didn’t know a lot about the technical side, but I connected with people, learned about them and learned the business. It is my love of connecting with people that continues to shape this company. Every amazing thing we have ever done was the result of human connections.
IES Abroad: Do you feel that your experience in Singapore continues to have an influence on you professionally today?
SC: There’s no question it does. There is a skill set you develop when you are abroad. When you are young, your brain is still being wired. There is a confidence and a courage and a fearlessness that starts becoming part of your wiring when you are in a new place and begin experiencing new adventures. Today, as a business leader who wants to make change, it requires this fearlessness and courage. I absolutely attribute those experiences in Singapore to learning all those things you need today to run a company, or be successful, in whatever way you define it. That wiring started back then.
IES Abroad: You have many impressive accolades, among them being named by Fortune as one of the “Ten Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs” in 2011; by Ernst and Young as a finalist for the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2012; and by Forty over 40 as one of “40 Women to Watch over 40” in 2014. When you think of your company and yourself professionally, what are you most proud of?
SC: Yesterday, I met a WWII hero. We provided him with a mobility device that has given him his freedom back. I have this calling that we can do more to support our veterans and their mobility. Freedom was on their shoulders back in WWII. I want to provide mobility to all of these veterans and to all these folks who are still here. My proudest moment of running this company and being CEO is that it allows me to do these amazing things, like create little miracles. The veterans are my proudest moment.
IES Abroad: You are active in several organizations focused on shark conservation and empowering physically challenged people. How did you get interested in these causes and what drives your passion?
SC: I did a TED talk at the end of February – “Sharks Saved My Life. What Will Save You?” – that is along these lines. I’m a Christian and I believe God is calling me to do this. I kept feeling called to save sharks. I had just started diving and had had a few encounters. At first, it didn’t make sense. But sharks came at a very dark time in my life and got me back on track when I was going through a very hard time with my company and my now ex-husband. Everyone has their emotional bucket. When I become passionate about one thing, it fuels me up for my company and for other parts of my life. It’s all interrelated. I’ve run this company for 22 years and I am still so grateful and passionate. I attribute that to going where your calling is.
IES Abroad: Is there anything further you would like to tell us about Sue Chen the CEO or Sue Chen the activist, and how your study abroad in Singapore has influenced you?
SC: If my 44 year-old self were talking to my 20 year-old self, I would say: “You made a really good decision to go a do a study abroad program.” It has shaped who I am today.
IES Abroad: Is there any fun fact that you would like to share about yourself?
SC: My experience in Singapore also made me the foodie I am today.