OAKLAND — From the age of 6, Susan Lieu was a powerhouse, answering the phone and removing customers' nail polish at her family's Bay Area nail salon. When she was 12, her world came crashing down when her mother, who had survived a harrowing escape from Vietnam years earlier, died unexpectedly of surgical complications. The experience took much from Lieu, but gave her something that sustains her to this day.
After her mother's seemingly senseless death, Lieu said, "I was determined to have a purpose." Since then, the Oakland resident has earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard, supported sustainable farming methods in Vietnam, worked with an AIDS project in an African refugee camp and started a successful Oakland chocolate business. She is 25 years old.
"After my mom passed away, I watched kids playing ball at school, and I couldn't understand why it was so important to them. I thought, 'People are suffering in the world,'" Lieu said. "My purpose is to help end suffering. That may sound pretentious, but I believe every one of us can make a difference."
It's certainly true of Lieu. At age 14, she read a story in her high school newspaper about a classmate who went to Nicaragua to help build a library there. Within months, Lieu scored a scholarship to follow in her classmate's footsteps. It was a precursor to what promises to be a lifetime of service.
The second-generation immigrant's compassion for the downtrodden isn't just academic. In 1981, her parents fled Vietnam in a tiny fishing boat before dawn with their two sons, ages 3 and 1. "My mother ran to the boat barefooted, with thorns in her feet," Lieu said. "It took a week for the boat to get to a refugee camp."
Lieu's sister Wendy, her partner at Socola, their Oakland chocolate business, was born in a Malaysian refugee camp in 1982. When the family first settled in Emeryville in 1983, Lieu's mother, Jennifer Ha, worked as a seamstress. Lieu's father, Tom Lieu, delivered newspapers.
"By the time I was seven, we bought our first house in San Pablo," said Lieu, who was born in San Leandro in 1985. Soon, the Lieu family was living in Santa Rosa and running a nail salon.
Although Lieu is imbued with a sense of purpose, having graduated from high school with a 4.86 GPA and having served as student body president, she's not lacking in humor. For example, a movie sparked her decision to apply to Harvard.
"I saw Reese Witherspoon in 'Legally Blonde' and I said, 'If Reese Witherspoon can do it, I can do it,'" Lieu said. Lieu was able to secure admittance to the Ivy League school with a scholarship covering 90 percent of her costs.
That same sense of whimsy is apparent in Lieu's chocolate business, with its truffles named "Notorious H.O.G," "It's Getting Hot in Hia" and "Give it to Me Guava." Not to mention the exotic flavors such as beer and bacon truffles.
"When we got our business license in 2008, we had only one grocery store account," Lieu said. Now, Socola chocolates are sold in five Whole Foods stores, four other Bay Area stores and a specialty chocolate store in Ohio, Le Chocolique.
While sister Wendy creates the chocolate recipes and runs the business, Susan is the marketing director. With her usual energy, Lieu was able to help grow the business in 2008 from Saigon, Vietnam, where she was researching sustainable cacao farming practices.
"I would go to different farmers and ask them, 'What succeeds for you?'" said Lieu, who speaks Vietnamese, Spanish and English. The six-month project was sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development as a way to help Vietnamese farmers succeed.
"She did an excellent job analyzing critical baseline information on our farmers, writing a 30-page report which we will use to improve our project impact," said Dinh Hai Lam, Lieu's former supervisor.
These days, Lieu is closer to home as a fellow with the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, a leadership training organization. She is currently working at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission as part of the training.
"She is really visionary, she has a bazillion ideas and gets people excited and re-energized about their work," said Minden Bennion, the director of the Coro Center. "Susan is working with the MTC on the re-branding of the TransLink card," a fare card that can be used on public transit all over the Bay Area. The name is being changed to Clipper, and Lieu is helping publicize the change and the card.
As the icing on the cake (or, perhaps, the bacon in the truffle), Lieu just celebrated her one-year anniversary with her boyfriend, Mike Cheng. Their first meeting was about what you'd expect from a firebrand like Lieu.
"He told me, 'I design video games.' I said, 'How does it feel to be responsible for the desocialization of teenage boys and encouragement of violence in this culture?'" Lieu said.
"We still argue about it, but he has pointed out that those games have created a whole community, the gamers' community, and it's a way to blow off tension without causing any harm," Lieu said. "He's super-supportive of the chocolate company. He's really good to me. He's a keeper."
As her fellowship with the Coro Center winds up, Lieu is thinking about jumping into her chocolate business full-time. Given the weak economy, she's a bit nervous, but she reassures herself with thoughts of what her parents survived.
"When I think of what my parents faced, this is nothing. They didn't speak English when they came here. At least I understand how things work in America," Lieu said.
"The saying isn't, 'Take a skip of faith,' it's, 'Take a leap of faith.' That's what they did, and I can do it too."
Contact Janis Mara at 925-952-2671. Follow her at Twitter.com/jmara.
Hometown: San Leandro
Current residence: Oakland
Education: Bachelor's degree from Harvard
Claim to fame: Supported sustainable farming methods in Vietnam; founded chocolate business
Occupation: Coro Fellow in Public Affairs and Co-owner of Oakland's Socola chocolates
Socola business license issued: 2006
Socola website: http://www.socolachocolates.com/index2.php