Sue Van, president & CEO, Wallace H. Coulter Foundation; from an interview with the National Museum of American History, May 18, 2017. Edited for clarity by Ms. Van June 2017.
My name is Sue Van, and I am the president/CEO of The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. Wallace H. Coulter, the benefactor of the foundation, invented the Coulter Principle, an electronic method of counting and classifying microscopic particles suspended in fluid. This principle was incorporated by Mr. Coulter in an apparatus to count and classify blood cells, a process that was previously done manually. This apparatus, which came to be known as the “Coulter Counter,” revolutionized the practice of clinical laboratory medicine. The CBC, the complete blood count, to this date remains one of the most widely performed clinical diagnostic tests.
This led to major breakthroughs in science, medicine, and industry. In fact, the Coulter Principle touches everyone’s daily life, from having a blood test to painting your home, from drinking beer to eating chocolate, swallowing a pill or applying cosmetics. It is critical to toners and ceramics as well as space exploration where NASA uses it to test the purity of rocket fuel. The impact of the Coulter Principle on the medical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, food, beverage, and consumer industries is immeasurable.
The Foundation continues Wallace’s practice of providing risk capital for innovative initiatives through its grant programs. The Translational Research Partnership Program promotes academic translational research based in biomedical engineering. By implementing industry best practices, this process accelerates the translation of promising university innovations into practical advances that improve patient care. The Biomedical Societies Program supports leading medical societies to bring the latest education and standards of care to resource-limited countries. The Asian American Pacific Islander Program focuses on building a consortium among national, state and local community based organizations to create one cohesive community to promote collaboration and partnership in civic engagement and health disparities.
Prior to establishing the foundation in 1998, I was the executive vice president and chief financial officer of Coulter Corporation, responsible for the company’s long-term strategy, as well as its financial and legal affairs. Coulter was the leader in global diagnostics that created and built the market for automated hematology which made blood cell testing affordable and accessible for the world.
Whether at the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation or the Coulter Corporation, I am often asked about who and what helped me succeed. When one is successful, there is no denying that a village assisted in the growth, development, and ultimate success of the individual. Certainly, Wallace Coulter had significant influence and impact on my life. It is a testament to his total trust and confidence in me that he created a foundation so that I could continue his vision and legacy investments. However, the qualities he admired—my character, values, integrity, work ethic, persistence, and perseverance—were instilled in me long before I joined Coulter in 1975.
So who was the influence that designed my character? Who was the engine that empowered my ability to take risks, to be calm in challenging times, to be entrepreneurial and innovative when answers did not yet exist? Who taught me to be secure in confrontations and conflicts? To stand my ground when there was chaos and times of uncertainty? Who helped design, create, and shape me to be who I am today? Who instilled in me my morals, my strengths, and my character?
The answer is simple—it was my mother and father. Although it is common for parents to have such influence and impact on their children’s lives, my mother and father were not of the normal parental mold. The difference and uniqueness of their legacy rest in the fact that they were my role models in a strange new country, one where they did not speak the language or have any family or friends. Today there is infrastructure to support Asian American immigrants; in the 1950s, there was nothing.
My father was born on a small island off the coast of Shanghai, China, in 1920. Since there were few jobs, he left home at thirteen and found employment as a seaman on international ships. When WWII broke out, my father was a seaman on a British ship, which was docked in the United States, so he enlisted in the U.S. Army. My father went back to China in 1945 as a U.S. soldier and married my mother. I was born in 1946.
My parents were separated from 1946–1952. It took that long for my father to bring us to the U.S. because it was so difficult to bring family from China in those days. In fact, many men actually started new families in the U.S. and gave up the families that they had in their homeland. My father stayed the course and with the help of his best friend, an African American named Eddie, completed the required paperwork. The fact that my father was committed to bringing my mother and me was even more admirable because his first born was a girl, which many other fathers deserted.
So, in October of 1952, we arrived in America. My father, by bringing us to the U.S., gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. After arrival, my father again left to work on a ship, so my mother and I were left to cope and adapt as best as we could in a place where we didn’t know anyone. My mother was pregnant with my sister Susie. This was a very difficult time for her—no support to help with prenatal care or OB-GYN.
In the winter of 1953 my father was again away on a ship. We were alone and the furnace in our apartment broke down. My mother asked our Chinese neighbor to ask the landlord to fix our heater. We had a newborn and were heating the apartment with the gas stove and oven. After two more days of no heat, my mother asked the neighbor again. The neighbor yelled back, “Do it yourself!” So my mother grabbed me, and she went storming to the landlord’s apartment. She started yelling at him in Chinese and told me that I had better be translating it right in English. After yelling at an adult at age six, confrontation and debate did not intimidate me. There were many times that I translated for my mother, as she made demands and had confrontations to protect and take care of her children. Seeing this small woman—she was only 4’8”—standing tall against the challenges and threats to her new life served me well in all the battles that I faced with prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion that have always been a part of my life.
We were quite poor growing up, so my mother had to be creative to make ends meet. We bought an old torn sofa, and my mother made the sofa covers. She hadn’t done that before; it was the first time. She bought three dresses for me: one for special holidays and occasions, one for me to go to school, and one she ripped apart so that she could see how it was sewn together. And from there, she made all of the clothes for me and my sisters. So I was really lucky to be the oldest, because I always got the new dress. All of my sisters got hand-me-downs. Each of us had five dresses, one for each day of the week. When kids made fun of us or asked me why I wore the same dresses every week, I posed this question to my mother who responded bluntly that it was “because we’re poor and can’t afford more. As long as they’re clean, that’s all that matters.”
So I was never embarrassed that I couldn’t go to birthday parties or on the school trips. I just said, “My family is poor, so we cannot afford it.” I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed—it was just a fact! We never went on vacation. None of us were able to ride a bicycle, because we didn’t have any bicycles. In fact, I was the one to buy the first bicycle for my brother from my earnings as a bartender and waitress.
My first year at Ellenville Elementary School was really rough. As my mother helped me get dressed, she told me that we were the first Chinese family in this town. She said, “If you are stupid, they will think all Chinese are stupid, and you have sisters coming behind you.” I was nine years old. That was the last day of my childhood. From that moment on, I was carrying the burden of the reputation of all Chinese on my little shoulders. From that day forward, I took on the role as representative for my family, my community, my country, and my race! So throughout my life and career, I am always sensitive to appearance, perception, and responsibility. After all, I was representing China.
The first school year was really hard on me. I was excluded in everything, and the prejudice and discrimination were overwhelming. But, at that time, no one really knew how to describe prejudice and discrimination, and no one really knew how it felt. I never shared these feelings of depression and sadness with my parents. After all, my father worked sixteen hours a day, and my mother could hardly cope with raising six kids and making ends meet on a waiter’s salary. But one day, it must have been an especially hard day, I came home crying and my mother asked why. I said, “I don’t know why everybody hates me. I didn’t do anything bad to anybody. Why does everyone hate me?!” My mother, in her usual blunt way, said, “Because you’re different.” That’s all she said, but at least I had an answer. When children don’t understand and do not get an explanation, they assume it’s their fault, that they must have done something wrong to people for them to be so mean.
From that moment on, I was able to deal with the prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion that I experienced my whole life. I knew that because I was different, because I was always the only Chinese, or the only Asian, or the only female, that I would be excluded.
So I decided in fourth grade that if nobody was ever going to pick me for their sports teams, I would be so good in every sport that I would be the captain and I would do the picking. That’s basically what happened. Sports are the greatest equalizer because it doesn’t matter if you’re short or tall or skinny or fat. If you’re good in the sport, you wind up being a member of the team. They may not invite you to their house, but you are a member of the team. It helped me deal with the bullying and exclusion.
Whether it was school or career, I was always facing discrimination. In fact, in 1969, when applying for college scholarships, I was told that I did not qualify for financial aid, even though my financial status was worse than most of the applicants, because I was not African American or Puerto Rican or Native American. When one reflects back on the troubles of the childhood years, one wonders if the life lessons made a difference, and if they had an impact on others. All the characteristics that made me who I am today, made me successful beyond my imagination, were the result of two immigrant parents who had no education, who had no professional jobs, except to be the best parents that circumstances would allow.
I am forever grateful to my father, that he did not abandon me like so many other Chinese men who deserted their families in China for new families in America because they had female children. Even though he was ridiculed his entire life for having six girls, he did not feel ashamed of himself or us. I am forever grateful that he gave up his life of being a seaman, traveling around the world, to settle down in a job where he was constantly looked down upon and harassed for having such a terrible stutter. He had great difficulty speaking, which caused him not to have many conversations with his children. It was my mother that explained to us the reason my father was afraid of water. During the war his ships were blown up three times, and he was stranded at sea for days, with sharks swimming all around him.
I am forever grateful to my mother, who by her blunt, short answers helped me deal with the life challenges of being the only Chinese, or the only Asian, or the only female in the room. Because she gave me direct and honest answers that I understood, that we were poor and could not afford many things, but that we were lucky to have food on the table and a roof over our heads. Because she gave me the strength, perseverance, and knowledge that I was different, which helped me persist through constant prejudice and discrimination, sometimes obvious and sometimes latent, as I climbed the corporate ladder.
Lastly, I am forever grateful to Wallace, who recognized and appreciated my character, values, integrity, work ethic, persistence, and perseverance. He gave me opportunities and challenges to reach my full potential. Only in America—only an American who was dedicated to the guiding principles of American democracy, could entrust his entire fortune to an immigrant—a Chinese woman immigrant! I'm just truly fortunate to have been given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by a fantastic American, Wallace H. Coulter.
In fact, you can read more about Wallace and the impact of his invention downstairs in the American Enterprise exhibition on the first floor of the National Museum of American History.
An unedited transcript of this oral history is available for scholarly research through the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History.