Sujuan Ba locked eyes with the job interviewer and knew, in that moment, she had a monumental decision to make. She could tell him what he wanted to hear, or she could tell him the truth.
Sitting across from Sujuan was Dr. Michael Griffin, the Vice President of Research and Development for ARCO Chemical Company, where she was attempting to land her first job after graduating with Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Griffin asked Sujuan where she wanted to be in five years, a question never before posed to her, and she knew immediately it was not in a laboratory conducting research as she had in school and theoretically would be in the role she was interviewing for. Using all the cliché buzzwords she knew, Sujuan hesitantly expressed to Dr. Griffin that her long-term interests actually lied more on the business side of science than in research.
“He was really surprised,” Sujuan recalls, “asking me, ‘Why do you think you can do that? You don't have the business background.’ I said, ‘I love working with people, I'm very persistent and I can learn.’”
Dr. Griffin was impressed, so impressed that even amidst company layoffs, he instructed his team to find Sujuan a job. And after several years with ARCO’s R&D team, she followed through on her five-year plan and transitioned from the R&D department to a more business-oriented role. More than 30 years later, Sujuan still finds herself at the convergence of science and business as President and CEO of the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), a nearly 50-year-old charity dedicated to supporting discoveries and breakthroughs in the critical fields of cancer research to treat, prevent and ultimately cure cancers of all kinds.
“We always try to identify the unmet need,” Sujuan says. “Today's investment into the new ideas and any new field could be leading to the breakthroughs of the future. We are always at the forefront. As an organization, we have an obligation, responsibility and mission to research those areas that for-profit organizations will not dare to do and don't want to do.”
True to her own background, NFCR has excelled on both the scientific and business fronts under Sujuan’s stewardship. Since moving into her current role in 2019, she has spearheaded a pair of initiatives that have placed NFCR at the center of the global fight against cancer — GBM AGILE, an international coalition of organizations coming together to research therapies for the highly lethal glioblastoma, and the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, a charitable investment fund launched by NFCR to support entrepreneurial oncology startups and generate sustainable revenue for future research.
“I have a very unique skill set of convening people,” Sujuan says. “People like to work with others who are transparent, who are sincere, helpful and always try to have a win-win approach. I'm able to look at the big-picture strategy, and once I decide on the strategic direction, I'm able to zoom in on the operation side. Many people said that kind of skill is hard to come by — strategic vision plus sharp focus on operation.”
Though her gifts have long been evident, Sujuan’s future success was far from guaranteed when she was born the oldest of three girls into a family with spartan resources in central China’s Henan province. Both her father, an English professor at Henan University, and her mother, a self-taught quality control engineer at a bearing manufacturing plant, dealt with persecution during China’s Cultural Revolution due to their intellectual and ethnic backgrounds, respectively, and the family often struggled for even basic necessities.
“The country was in a dark time,” Sujuan recalls. “We didn’t have enough food. It was a big deal if I got one piece of new clothing during the Chinese New Year.”
As devastating as any persecution or economic struggle for Sujuan’s parents, however, was their only son passing away as an infant. From a young age, Sujuan heard her parents express a feeling of inferiority compared to other families simply because their only living children were daughters. Those feelings provided all of the motivation a naturally competitive Sujuan needed.
“From the moment I started to realize that sentiment, I felt that I'm going to do so much better than any of the boys on the block in school that I will be better than any of the other families’ sons,” Sujuan remembers.
Sujuan’s parents spent much of their time away from home providing for the family as best they could, often commuting hours via bike for work. This often left Sujuan as the de facto matriarch.
“I played very minimally, because I had to take care of my sisters,” Sujuan recalls. “I learned to cook, wash clothes, go to the well and carry heavy buckets with a stick to get water. One time, snowing, cold and icy. I got my water out, but I slipped by the edge of the well and thought I was going to slip into the well. That was the moment I thought I was going to die. I thought I would drown in the well and nobody would see me.”
Despite her less-than-idyllic childhood, Sujuan thrived in school. And she caught one of her first big breaks when the U.S. opened relations with China and began accepting its students at American universities in the early 1980s. Immediately, Sujuan knew that America held opportunities she wanted to explore, even though she did not know much about America at all.
Throughout a rigorous college admissions testing process, Sujuan overcame immense pressure and stress-induced sleep deprivation to emerge as one of the top students from her entire province, and she went on to complete her undergraduate studies at Peking University, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. Having further proven her academic prowess at Peking University, Sujuan moved to a nearby university for her master’s studies beckoned by Professor Tingli Cao, one of the renowned inorganic chemistry professors in the country, but greater opportunity intervened before she had a chance to complete her master’s degree.
While studying for her master’s degree, Sujuan was applying to Ph.D. programs at American universities. She did not have money for application fees, so she instead relied on the one copy of the American graduate school directory in the city’s library to tell her which schools she could apply to for free. Sujuan eventually received an offer to enter the Ph.D. program for Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, but she again struggled about quitting the master’s program and finding the money to get to America. Sensing Sujuan’s vast potential, her professor agreed to pay the 3,000 Yuan it would take for Sujuan’s flight to JFK airport in New York City.
“He basically said, ‘Sujuan, I'm disappointed that you won't finish your degree with me, but I think it's the right thing to do,’” Sujuan reflects. “Three thousand Yuan is almost my father's whole year's salary. He was so kind. He said, ‘Don't worry about paying me back. Don't bother your parents. I know it's hard for your parents.’ I owe my life to Professor Cao.”
Sujuan arrived in America to begin her Ph.D. studies in the summer of 1986, and recalls the moment she first stepped onto American soil as one of the most defining moments of her life.
“I still remember landing in JFK,” Sujuan says. “I had $30 in my pocket, but I felt the freedom. I just absolutely fell in love with American culture.”
Although she had little money and at times struggled with cultural hiccups as she acclimated to America, Sujuan loved her time at Penn. She was fascinated by the breadth of topics studied at the school, the different backgrounds of those who attended and the friendliness and helpfulness of her professors and fellow students — the latter a stark contrast from the hypercompetitive environment she was used to in Chinese schools. Sujuan spent much of her time at Penn conducting laboratory research, and she quickly learned she wanted to spend her career in a more interactive role that allowed her to use her people skills and natural business savvy.
“Research is hard,” Sujuan says. “I realized you don't know where the research can take you, and you think you are going toward a certain direction but may not end up there. It's frustrating for me because I have always been very goal-orientated. I had a period of time that was very dark. I had no discovery results from my dissertation research. You’ve got to publish in a top-notch publication in order to get a Ph.D. and get a job. I remember there was one week I was so depressed that I didn't want to get out of the bed. I actually thought I may not be good enough.”
Sujuan overcame her self-doubt to complete her degree and land her first job at Arco Chemical Company after her impressive interview with Dr. Griffin. After her stint in the R&D department, she found another critical mentor during her time with ARCO’s technology development center. Her boss in the department took her under his wing, teaching Sujuan valuable leadership lessons and, perhaps even more importantly, boosting her self-confidence. The boss forced Sujuan to continue making service calls to potential customers, one of her least favorite parts of the role, to improve her communication skills, and he even went as far as to force Sujuan to eat lunch with his colleagues instead of her own peers in R&D in order to acclimate her to settings with fellow leaders.
“That is an epic time of my learning,” Sujuan says. “I was very grateful that, in a way, he dragged me out of my shell. I was very aware of my accent and my appearance as not mainstream. But he told me, ‘People respect knowledge; people respect accomplishment.’ That was very critical advice and gave me confidence.”
Sujuan moved on after six years at ARCO to Technology Catalyst International (TCI), a privately-owned consulting firm in Northern Virginia where she once again had to prove herself. Though she was recruited by a former ARCO colleague who was vacating his role at TCI, Sujuan did not have experience with the particular subject matter she would be working with at the new company, and the owner had his doubts about her ability to do the job well.
“The owner actually said to me, ‘I like your desire to learn, but I'm not going to take a risk on you because you are unproven in the field,’” Sujuan recalls.
He agreed to hire Sujuan with two stipulations: first, she would have to take an approximately $30,000 cut in compensation from her job at ARCO, a gut-wrenching blow after years of hard work by Sujuan to grow her salary. Secondly, if Sujuan lost two particular clients that the owner deemed most valuable, she would be immediately terminated. Perhaps expecting Sujuan to balk at the low-ball offer, the owner was surprised when she accepted with a condition of her own: if she met her agreed upon goals in one year, she would receive her previous salary plus a 20 percent increase.
Sujuan took the challenge head-on and proved the owner of TCI wrong. Over her two years as a consultant at TCI, she helped the current group of clients and also grew her client base, helping traditional chemical companies to explore ways to branch out into specialty chemicals and pharmaceutical services, a fulfillment of her goal to make an impact in more ways than just the company’s bottom line. And it was her work at TCI that eventually led her, even if by accident, to her career at NFCR.
In the late 1990s, Sujuan caught wind of NFCR hiring for a C-suite position and, not wanting to surrender her successful career in the for-profit sector, sensed an opportunity to pitch the chairwoman of the organization’s board on becoming a consultant for the non-profit to help fill the gaps.
“I said, ‘Oh, NFCR can be my client because I run the cancer sector for my consulting business,’” Sujuan says. “We interviewed for three hours. At the end, she said, ‘No, we don't want you to be our consultant.’ And I thought that she really didn't like me because she was very stern. Then she said, ‘What would it take for you to become our CSO (Chief Scientific Officer) full-time?’ They pursued me three months before I finally decided to join.”
Since joining NFCR in the late 1990s, Sujuan has held just about every C-suite position within the company, including CSO, COO and President. She credits this willingness to always pursue new opportunities and avenues of learning for her ability to see how each action she takes in her current role as President and CEO affects the entirety of the organization. She also is quick to point out that she still prioritizes learning, a quality that is central to her advice to younger professionals and leaders.
“Work hard and learn,” Sujuan advises. “Don't try to seek instant results right away. If you prepare yourself by working hard, by learning more, eventually you will get rewarded. Pay your dues. Many people felt like they have to get rewarded before they do anything. Entitlement is no good. And when you get help from others, you pass on.”
NFCR has played a huge role not only in Sujuan’s professional life, but her personal one, as well. Sujuan’s husband, Franklin Salisbury, Jr., is a longtime CEO of the organization himself, and Sujuan credits his partnership and support for helping her accomplish all she has during her own tenure at the non-profit’s helm. Together, Sujuan and Franklin co-founded the Asian Fund for Cancer Research, another non-profit that seeks to help scientists in Asian countries pool their resources and work together with scientists in the West more efficiently to move toward discovery of new cancer treatments and prevention methods.
Together with another friend, they co-founded the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, a non-profit research affiliate of NFCR that leverages charitable funding and private investments to help speed up the translation of discoveries made in the academic labs. Sujuan recognizes that too many scientific breakthroughs remain on the bench and are not being translated into next-generation cancer therapies, diagnostics, and prevention strategies effectively due to the lack of seed funding. Over the past three years, AIM-HI has funded a portfolio of 16 oncology startups with critical investments from AIM-HI and co-investors who want to “do good and do well.” The AIM-HI Fund has helped several innovative therapies enter into Phase I and Phase II clinical trials.
“Franklin is passionate about helping scientists and cancer patients,” Sujuan says. “We share the passion of making a difference in life. I may have a strong personality, but he has never been intimidated by me. I value how he appreciates me. I don’t have to try to accommodate or be shy about being a strong woman.”
Sujuan has always wanted to make her parents proud, and though her childhood was not easy, she credits them for instilling the work ethic and compassion for others that have driven her success. And while she will always feel a strong connection to her homeland and those there who provided crucial help as she built a better life for herself, Sujuan also feels a deep appreciation for America and all of the opportunities it represents. Her most prized and memorable possessions are two passports — the Chinese passport she used to enter America on July 23, 1986, and her first U.S. passport she received shortly after officially becoming an American citizen on October 14, 1996.
Sujuan was chosen by the immigration officer over hundreds of candidates to give the speech at her naturalization ceremony, an honor despite her fear of public speaking. Embarrassment swept over Sujuan when she messed up the opening line of her prepared remarks, but she quickly corrected herself and conveyed her message to the audience: “It is a day of joy.”
Years later, Sujuan still experiences days of joy through her work in cancer research. She finds great fulfillment in the work she does funding research to fight cancer, which ultimately could one day help bring about cures to the disease. Of course, that is a daunting task. But that’s never stopped Sujuan before.
“I wanted to do something special and impactful,” Sujuan says. “If it's important, I still want to do it even if it doesn’t move tons of products. I will walk through a wall, walk through fire to do what I set out to do if I believe in it. That is my strength. I don't give up easily; if I believe in certain things, I won’t give up no matter how hard it is.”