Sue Chen, Founder & CEO, Nova Medical Products: They Told Me I Wouldn’t Be Here If I Had a Brother

Sue Chen founded Nova Medical Products in 1993 when she was just 23 years old with a strong vision – offer stylish designs and choices to people using mobility equipment.

Today, Nova has grown to become an industry leader in Mobility and Bathroom Safety products, providing greater independence and well being to people at all stages of life, with products that reflect the beauty, style and confidence of their customers.

Sue is changing the look and perception of medical equipment and improving the lives of millions of Americans reliant on assistive devices by incorporating fashion and function in products such as designer canes and colorful walkers. Through her trademark “Mobility Makeover,” Sue helps customers show their style and pursue an active lifestyle with the help of their mobility equipment.

Most recently, Sue was a finalist for the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, recipient of the Community Leadership Award from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and named one of the ten Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs in Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women issue.

Sue is a Director for NAWBO-LA (National Association of Women Business Owners), YPO member, Trustee of the California Lutheran University Board of Regents, President of Reef Check Foundation and Director of Shark Savers. She is also the author of Confessions of the Walker Stalker, about her experiences changing the way America faces mobility challenges.

We talked to Sue about the challenges she had to overcome as a 23-year old CEO; why she gave her people raises at the height of the recession; and about her unconventional alternative career path.

TNW: Your uncles established Nova as a leading medical equipment manufacturer in Taiwan before you founded Nova Medical Products in the US. It was a brave decision, aged 23, to take on this huge challenge. What are your recollections like of those early days?  

SC: It was challenging! Challenging because of my age and my gender. In those days, it was suggested to me to carry two business cards; one said CEO and the other said Account Executive.  Some felt that I might not be taken seriously as a CEO. And then there was being not just the niece, but a 23 year old female in a male dominated family business and culture. My opinions, drive, leadership, goals were not taken seriously at all. They made it clear that I was only being included in the business for the sake of my father’s memory.

They told me, “you wouldn’t be here if you had a brother”, and later, when my company was doing well, they would say “imagine how good it would do if you were a boy”.

I learned not to allow that culture and attitude about women to dampen my self-esteem. And the reality is, it taught me a lot about being a woman in business in general. It’s not much different here in the U.S., even today. My industry is still an old boys’ club. But that’s what inspires me to do things differently, create a different kind of product in an industry that had not changed in over 100 years, and to be a different kind of CEO.

TNW: Which elements of the Nova Taiwan business model did you keep the same when you launched in the US and which did you change?

SC: They are really two different businesses. NOVA Taiwan is manufacturing and we are distribution. The common mistake a lot of Taiwanese companies coming to the U.S. make is to become an extension of the Taiwanese company - staff with Taiwanese, follow Taiwanese business practices, recreate the same company. I understood that we needed to build an American company and fill a need in the American marketplace.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your company?

SC: Technology is very important. First, we are always innovating based on customer feedback and unaddressed needs in our industry. For example, we received feedback that it was difficult to keep folding walkers folded when loading them in and out of cars, so we developed a device, the Lock and Load, that is now standard on all of our folding walkers. It sounds like a simple thing, and it is, but we are the first to create it because we have such an excellent line of communication to our end users. We have an engineer on staff and when he joined NOVA, the first thing he did was get out of the office and meet our customers so he could understand their challenges, bodies, and abilities. We have also invested more in communication technology than any of our competitors. A great challenge in our industry is getting information out to the people that need it, from the end users who aren’t always technology saavy to their caretakers and loved ones. We are constantly working and using technology to bridge that gap because technology offers an amazing set of tools – the internet, youtube, social media. So while our traditional customer is used to more traditional communication, and we offer it to them with a very hands on customer support staff, we are also using technology to educate and communicate.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

SC: Our greatest challenge is that we sell a product that everyone hopes they will never have to use. It’s a denial-based product.

The challenge is how to get people excited about mobility equipment and get people to embrace a transition they hope they’ll never have. Losing mobility is among peoples’ greatest fears. Well, what doesn’t work is making depressing, grey equipment that just exacerbates the notion that once you need a walker or a wheelchair, all the excitement in life is over. After almost 2 decades in this industry, I can tell you, that simply isn’t the case. Life doesn’t just continue after a mobility change, it is still full of adventure, fun, love, exuberance and, yes, sex. The products offered should reflect all that, not mark someone as grey and broken down.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company that you remember as the highlight so far?

SC: It would have to be the day that Denise came into our office and I asked if I could interview her. Denise is young - right around my age - she’s ambitious, she loves to travel, she’s fiercely independent, highly creative and a wonderful photographer. She also has ALS, a horrible debilitating, fatal disease for which there is no cure. It was the first time I could really see myself in a NOVA customer. Not the person I might become as I age, but the person I am right now, today.

It was a transformative experience for me personally and for our company. The independent, creative, beautiful embracer of life – that’s who we make products to serve.

TNW: What is next for Nova Medical Products? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

SC: Next is really a continuation of our mission; changing the landscape of mobility in America, and how we define that. Everyone will encounter a mobility challenge, either directly or through a loved one. We want them to know that there are beautiful options out there and that they can still be stylish. Technology is a big part of it. We will continue to engineer and create products that enhance human ability, but we will also continue to use technology to take the NOVA mission viral through word of mouth, youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else is out there. The number one thing I’m told when people learn about NOVA is “I wish I’d known about your product”. Everyone has a neighbour, a grandmother, a friend that suffered with ugly, grey, broken down equipment with tennis balls stuck to the back of their walker. Nobody should have to go through that, so we will use every means possible to educate that there are alternatives.

TNW: You have grown Nova from three to sixty employees, so you are the perfect person to ask about scalability, a frequent discussion topic in The NextWomen and DWEN communities. What is your advice for entrepreneurs looking to scale their businesses?

SC: Invest in your people! We don’t follow economic trends and corporate standards by downsizing or cutting back on benefits every time there’s an economic bump in the road. Everybody at NOVA gets health at 60 days. We are one of the few companies that pay 100% of health insurance, even when rates increase by double digits every year.  We gave people raises and increased 401k matching at the height of the recession. Why? Because the people that work here and live our mission are what make NOVA a great company. Every day, I get letters praising our customer service reps, our engineers, the person answering the phone.

My advice to entrepreneurs? Remember that there’s nothing more critical than the people that make up your company and invest in them.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed as the company has grown?

SC: Leadership has become more about living and inspiring the mission with my people. It means that I’m walking the walk of inclusion, of leading with the mission – not quarterly sales reports – and of creating a company that serves all of our stakeholders, from our customers to our warehouse staff. As I’ve become more confident as a leader, I’ve involved the team more and empowered them to also walk the walk and live the mission. As a company and a group of people working together, we are all aligned in our core values and mission.

TNW: If you hadn’t launched Nova Medical Products, which alternative career path might you have pursued?

SC: A conductor! So I keep a baton in my office just in case!

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

SC: DWEN was really a springboard for me in terms of networking and getting the word out about NOVA. I’ve met so many people.  I met women that I could bond with, commiserate with, relate with and inspire each other. I met women entrepreneurs that are building something great. It is different being a woman entrepreneur and I’m glad. In that space at DWEN, at individual level, you have so many moments of connection and inspiration, and on a massive level, being in a conference all together, it’s inspiring. It made me realize that anything is possible when we support each other.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

SC: What it means to be a mission driven company. It means that you are connected to yourself, to the people that you work with and the people that you serve, first and foremost. Women do a really good job with those three connections, perhaps even a little bit better than men. Women can transform industries because they are generally more mission based. We make the majority of the buying decisions, so we are always coming up with new ideas to solve a problem or fill a need. 87% of consumer decisions are made by women – we’re a tremendous resource of knowledge, ideas and innovation! Being a mission driven company means that we lead with the mission, in all that we do. Sales are one thing - don’t get me wrong, financial success is great and necessary – but changing an industry, changing people’s experience of something difficult, changing the world?

That’s what makes you want to get out of bed every morning and start the day!  So, yes – I went from running my company to changing the world…in 4” heels!

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

Sue Chen is a truly inspiring person. She's also written a book about her experiences in this business.

http://iblogalot.com/2011/11/10/confessions-of-the-walker-stalker-by-sue...

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