Sue Hough, President Octavo Designs

Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.

One of the truest gifts in Sue Hough’s life has been family, in all its many forms.

Born in Seoul, Korea, Sue was abandoned as a baby. “My adoption form said I was given up because I had “double lids” which signified that I wasn’t full-blooded Korean. This meant my only future in Korea would have been as a prostitute.”

Sue’s fortune shifted at the age of three. “I was very lucky to be adopted by a loving and supportive family that had two kids of their own.”

Growing up in the Midwest, however, she experienced few children of color and no one in her community that looked like her. “The name calling started for me on the playground in Kindergarten. Even now, I struggle hearing certain words and saying them out loud makes me cringe.”

Much of these early school experiences Sue equates with pain, embarrassment, and humiliation. “This kind of bullying shapes your personality and what you think of yourself. I grew up not only hating what I looked like but also my Korean heritage and myself.”

While these negative experiences affected me, they’ve also made me resilient.

“I was told, ‘Just Ignore it,” but that’s hard to do every day for years, when you’re young and just want to fit in.” Then, after a particularly bad day of name calling, Sue came home with a plan. “I was going to be smart and get straight A’s so that even though they could call me names, they could never call me ‘stupid.’”

Yet the bullying continued until the seventh grade when Sue’s family moved to the east coast where suddenly she wasn’t the only minority in school. She began to make friends and life got easier.

“While these negative experiences affected me, they’ve also made me resilient.”

As a teenager, Sue began to experience a safer sense of community and began to discover her passion for design. “Focused on my appearance, I would never leave the house without makeup and was always attentive to my clothes.” While these interests led her to seek a degree in fashion design, Sue gradually shifted her focus towards graphic design.

Sue’s gift for aesthetics shines through in her business, Octavo Designs, a boutique graphic design firm she founded in 2000. At Octavo Designs, Sue is described as the queen bee with a humbleness defined by the borrowed words of Saint John Chrysostom: “The bee is more honored than other animals, not because she labors, but because she labors for others.”

This conviction towards service and a heart attuned to empathy lies at the core of Sue’s leadership gifts. “How are you going to help others solve their problems if you can’t put yourself in their position or understand what they need?”

As a Type A personality, where Sue is more likely to get snagged as a leader is in her drive towards perfection. “I started my own company because I was frustrated working for someone else. I wanted to have my own thing and do it my way.” Not surprisingly, one of the taglines for Octavo Designs is, “If it ain’t smart it ain’t creative.”

Part of what she’s had to seek as a leader is balance between high standards and empathy for her team. “I grew up used to being alone and doing everything myself, so I’ve had to learn to trust others. I’m passionate and want to do the very best for our clients. It’s very important to me.”

As a way of managing this tendency Sue has kept her team small by design. “I’ve got a terrific team and they’re really pumping out some great things, so that’s exciting. I really want to see the smaller businesses that we’ve been working with succeed in their dreams.”

While sometimes she can be overly directive, her team is like family, “I care about them, enjoy their successes, and encourage them to play to their strengths.” Sue has learned to gauge when she’s in balance by seeing the great work that is being developed and feeling the sense of happiness within her team, “We have more fun creating the creative, and not being overly focused on the bottom line. I want to enjoy the projects we do and be proud of the work we create. And I am.”

How are you going to help others solve their problems if you can’t put yourself in their position or understand what they need?

She labors not only for her clients and her team, but also for the community she cares so much for. In addition to long time involvement in the Rotary and support of the local arts and advertising communities, Sue has recently focused her efforts on bringing awareness to diversity and inclusion initiatives. She’s active in the local chamber’s Women and Business Committee and Racial Equity Leadership Team and has helped draft and set policies to support minority-owned businesses.

Through these acts of service, Sue has forged deep roots. This is an unexpected twist for a self-described introvert who experienced such pain and isolation as a child. “I’ve found I do better if I go into an event as a volunteer, that way they’re seeing my face and I don’t have to carry on so much conversation. I enjoy helping, so it’s a win-win and I’ve made some great friendships along the way.”

Through these efforts Sue has developed symbiotic networking relationships. Serving as a conduit of success for smaller businesses and nonprofits in her community feeds her team’s success. “I absolutely love when I’m able to hook up my clients through the network I’ve created. Nothing makes me happier than when I’m seeing that my relationships are benefiting them.” Her network has similarly supported Octavo Designs over the past twenty years as Sue has woven it into her sales process, building a cadre of strong advocates for her company.

Sue credits her Dad as being a role model for her. He was successful as a president of multiple companies. She’s admired the way his team worked very hard for him, and yet they always enjoyed being around him. That’s the kind of leadership she’s tried to model, “A good leader is able to inspire their people while making change, and do it with empathy to make sure that you’re taking care of everyone around you, and that you’re lifting others up with you.”

Naomi Shihab Nye has written “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” Sue’s penchant for kindness is a living example of this.

“These experiences I had as a child will always be a part of me. I hear something on the radio, or someone says something inappropriate or hurtful to me, and it’s just, it will always be there. But there’s also that cognizant part of you that knows that you have to move forward and carry on, that you can’t wallow in it.”

In some ways Sue’s journey to becoming a leader has mirrored her childhood, both with its challenges as well as its blessings of family as she’s forged deep connections within her team and extended community. “It takes courage and inner strength to move forward. Then again, there’s those times where I feel you get some lucky breaks. You come across some great people who are there to help, because you definitely don’t do it alone.”

You can learn more about Sue Hough and Octavo Designs at


Know someone who’s risen from ashes of adversity to become an amazing leader — learning to leverage their gifts while continuing to soften up the rough edges?

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Originally published at on October 22, 2020.