Conservationist, political activist, CEO — no matter how you label her, this shark lover is making an impact
The heart and soul behind Operation Blue Pride; 3 mm wetsuits for warm water; the shark-feeding debate; the table manners of four scavengers of the sea.
Sue Chen’s first and only visit to Seaworld didn’t go as planned. The CEO of Nova Medical Products was 8 when her family took her to the Orlando, Florida, theme park, and after some begging, she held a bucket of herring to feed the dolphins.
“We made eye contact, and I just started crying,” says Chen. Scrapes covered the dolphin’s face. “I could tell he was sad, and that wasn’t at all the connection I wanted.
“But I knew I would go back to see marine animals as soon as I could — not in that way, but in their environment.”
It wasn’t until she was in her early 30s that she fulfilled that promise to herself, earning her Open Water Diver
card and quickly amassing a portfolio of exotic locales, including Hawaii and Cozumel. Following a getaway to the Galapagos, Chen returned with an overwhelming feeling.
“I don’t know where it came from, but I woke up knowing that saving sharks was my calling,” she says.
Chen spent the next few weeks talking about it, until her family told her to search the Internet to find a way to contribute.
And so it was she came across Shark Savers, still in its infancy in 2007.
“I cold-called them and said, ‘I’m a diver, and I want to help,’” says Chen.
At first, the only way Chen could assist was financially.
“So I made a donation, which helped launch the website. People often understate the importance of getting that initial funding — it doesn’t have to be a lot of money.”
Shortly thereafter, a friend introduced her to Reef Check.
Says Chen, “I went to a board meeting, joined the board, then became the board chair. It all happened really fast. I was all in!”
Then in 2011, the state of California’s shark-fin bill became a hotly contested issue, spurred on by a similar bill in Hawaii.
“I wasn’t intending to be a spokesperson for the movement, but somebody needed to go, and the epicenter of the opposition was Senator Ted Lieu, and I was in his district,” says Chen. “I’m Asian, I’m a business owner, and I knew I had a voice.”
The bill banning the possession of shark fins passed.
Says Chen, “What was so powerful was the grass-roots organizations — I had never seen anything like it. Shark lovers of all ages and all walks of life came together. It was an amazing collaboration of 30 or so nonprofits, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Sierra Club and Reef Check.
“It put a lot of pressure on the politicians. This is a representative government, which is supposed to represent the wants and wills of the constituents. When people protest and speak up, it’s a reminder that politicians need to vote in favor of what the people want, and the people wanted this ban.”
Through it all, Chen met accomplished filmmakers and shark conservationists (among other things) Jim Abernethy, George Schellenger and Shawn Heinrichs.
“These are people I never would have met in my day job,” says Chen.
The topic of her day job came up one day when Abernethy was suffering appendicitis and learned that Chen works in the mobility-aids field.
Chen says Abernethy was shocked. “What? There’s something in your life other than sharks?” Abernethy said to her. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring together your two passions?”
In that moment, the idea was born to help introduce wounded veterans to shark diving, and Chen went on to co-found the organization Operation Blue Pride.
“Veterans tell me they have tried everything to get back into some kind of normalcy, and they say diving is it,” says Chen. “The camaraderie of being in a team, the protocol, the act of looking out for a buddy — it really works for veterans.”
On the inaugural trip, three vets as well as businessman and philanthropist Richard Branson trekked to the Bahamas, where they all shared an underwater first: diving with tiger sharks.
Operation Blue Pride has since helped more than 100 veterans earn dive certifications, all thanks to Chen’s sharklike approach to business and her passions.
Her belief: No matter what, just go for it.
“I hear people saying all the time, about one thing or another, that they’ve found something they’ve always wanted to do. I always encourage people, no matter how old you are or if you have experience or not — just do it. I did.”