“I got called to save sharks. I don’t know why. I don’t know why it was sharks in particular, but it was the strongest calling I’ve ever had,” says YPO member, CEO of Nova and Co-founder of Operation Blue Pride Sue Chen.
Talking to Chen is like having a conversation with someone you have known a long time; even if you’ve only just met. Her passion for whatever topic she’s discussing is so all-encompassing it is difficult to imagine she has energy left over for anything else, which is just what led to the creation of Operation Blue Pride.
“I brought some of my shark conservationist divers to a YPO family event on Catalina Island as resources about five years ago,” explains Chen. “When I told them what YPO was all about and how I qualified, they looked at me, shocked and said, ‘You own a business?’ They couldn’t believe I cared about something other than sharks.”
Chen’s business, Nova Medical Products, manufactures mobility equipment for physically challenged people, empowering them to embrace their ability challenges by offering them stylish designs and choices.
“Nobody I ever met that uses an ugly gray walker with tennis balls likes it,” Chen explains in likely the same way she explains her ‘other life’ to her conservationist friends. “When someone has a beautiful walker, it makes them feel better and it makes the people around them more comfortable. When you see a woman going around with a red walker with a leopard seat cover you’re going to think ‘she’s hot!’ And why wouldn’t she be anymore? Your walker should be an expression of yourself; fear drives so much discrimination and insecurity.”
Over the course of that weekend on Catalina Island, Chen, her shark friends and her fellow YPO members started considering ways to merge her passions — sharks, mobility equipment and the group of people who most inspire her: wounded veterans.
“We imagined the same kind of person willing to sacrifice their life for other people’s freedom would be willing to fight for sharks,” explains Chen whose dad had a history of working with veterans at the VA hospital which itself, was a large part of the mission behind Nova — to make better products for veterans. “A few months later, we had three wounded veterans who were on their way to the Bahamas for our first shark expedition.”
Today, Operation Blue Pride has certified more than 150 veterans, helping heal their wounds by providing the kind of camaraderie, protocols and buddy system that allows them to re-engage at a similar level of teamwork in which they were trained.
Not your typical advocacy group
While we are all familiar with calls to action from myriad animal advocacy groups, chances are, sharks don’t spring to mind like, for instance, the snow-cuddly faces of baby seals, or even the lumbering beauty of giant, brown bears. Yet as it turns out, sharks are perhaps the most important species on our planet and the most dangerous in terms of their decimation.
“That’s a big statement, right?” asks Chen and then continues. “We are an ocean planet and if our oceans aren’t healthy, our planet isn’t healthy. Plain and simple. Sharks were put here to keep our oceans healthy; to keep the ecosystem in balance. They basically eat dead, diseased, dying animals; now imagine if there was no way to clear these out and our oceans became totally contaminated …”
And then there’s the reason they’re being slaughtered.
“In the last 20 years, approximately 90 percent of the population of many shark species have been wiped out because of a bowl of soup,” says Chen. “Isn’t that the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard?”
Shark fin soup, which is thought to have been created by an emperor in the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 968) who wanted to show off his wealth to his banquet guests, quickly became a practice at social occasions symbolizing a host’s status.
“Not only are they hunted for soup, but the way they’re hunted is unlike the harvesting of any other animal,” explains Chen. “Hundreds of fishing lines are thrown out, raking in the sharks, which are then relieved of their fins and thrown back into the water to die.”
Chen’s education and advocacy work with Chinese groups regarding this environmentally destructive devastation, resulted in the largest grass roots environmental victory in the history of California.
“We cut off the most commonly used trade route to get shark fins to Asia,” says Chen. “Consumption is now down 70 percent in China and carriers like UPS have decided to no longer ship shark fins. It made a big difference and is a reminder that we have to fight for our biggest business partner: our planet.”
After Chen’s first dive 10 years ago, sharks started coming into her dreams until she could no longer ignore it meant something.
“I never believed people when said they had a calling,” admits Chen. “I always assumed it was based on some rational experience they had in their past they didn’t remember, but now I believe there is a higher force out there, spiritually, that pulls you in directions you can never quite expect.”
The surprise results of Chen’s first dive experience are akin to the surprise benefits of her YPO membership – while Chen joined the organization to become part of a business network, it has since become an integral part of her personal passions.
“When you bring YPO members together, magical stuff happens,” says Chen. “Our oceans need a lot of YPO help and ramping up the Water Sports Network is going to create more ocean love, YPO-style.”
In the end, Chen’s belief in ‘happy chaos’ allows her to stay open to whatever comes her way.
“The word chaos in Chinese is defined as ‘where brilliant dreams are born,’” says Chen. “No one ever knows what’s going to happen; you wake up every day and brace yourself for what’s to come. I try to achieve happiness in life, to welcome the chaos and live in a state of brilliant disruption.”