When Elaine Chao, who has served in some of the highest levels of the federal government including the U.S. Secretary of Labor and most recently as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is asked what she is going to do next, she speaks of both her private and public life.
“I’m decompressing,” Elaine says. “I have a 94-year-old father whom I’ve not been able to spend much time with during the past few years, and I’d like to devote some time to taking care of him. I’ve joined a think tank to keep me in the flow of information and ideas and a number of private and public boards. I’m interested in the future of transportation infrastructure and thus am involved with new economy companies. Of course, I am on the public speaking circuit.”
Not surprising she is in demand as a speaker, given her killer resume. She was the Secretary of Labor for both of George W. Bush’s two terms, becoming the longest serving cabinet secretary since World War II. Before that, she was director of the Peace Corps, and President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of America. She is also a former board member of Independent Women’s Forum, and IWF’s second Woman of Valor 2005. Who can forget her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell declaring Elaine “the love of my life” at the gala?
Elaine’s father is James S. C. Chao, who came to the United States with very little and has gone on to success as founder of a global shipping company. He lives in New York and his daughter hopes to resume helping him with his many philanthropic activities. To understand Elaine Chao, start with James Chao, who was born in a small farming village of 10 families outside of Shanghai.
Elaine’s heartfelt pride in her father is evident. “Most recently, he made a major gift to National Taiwan Ocean University, building a new building and establishing a major program in that university,” says Elaine. “So, I hope to work with him on other philanthropic projects that he’s working on as well. He’s very inspiring. At age 94 with all his infirmities, he maintains a positive and optimistic attitude; he lives every day with a grateful heart, always encouraging of others and always thinking of contributing to society.
“And I’ll tell you a little story. We had not seen him from March 8, 2020, to June 6, 2021. So, one of my nephews asked my father, his grandfather, how have you been able to cope with the isolation during COVID-19? My father answered in two ways. First, he said, ‘I was a merchant mariner earlier in my career. (My comment: He was the youngest sea captain at the age of 29.) So, he said, ‘After my shift is over on the bridge, I would go back to my cabin, and I would plan for the future. So, I know how to use my time wisely and prudently.’ And he’s still planning for the future. I mean, he’s 94 years old!
“Secondly, he said, ‘When I first came to America, I came alone because I didn’t have the documentation for the family. I didn’t have money to bring your grandmother and your older three aunts to America. We had to wait three years before we were reunited in America. So, this one-year period of COVID is nothing. So, you can tell how inspiring, grounded and forward-looking my father is.”
James Chao’s father was an elementary school principal, so he grew up in a family that prized education. But, being subsistence farmers, they had limited financial resources. Fortunately, he was smart, diligent, and was able to obtain scholarships to pursue his studies. Ruth Mulan Chu, the woman he would marry, came from a very different background. “My mother, on the other hand, came from a very prominent and distinguished family in Anhui Province,” says Elaine. “Anhui Province is an inner province west of Shanghai. My mother’s family had vast amounts of land. My parents met in the winter of 1949, and it is a reflection of the chaos and the turmoil of the times that two young people of such disparate socioeconomic backgrounds could even meet. That had not been the norm in China. Young people were generally matched and introduced by their parents and people from different economic backgrounds wouldn’t have had a chance to meet.”
Ruth Mulan Chu (maiden name) and her sisters had been educated at the prestigious Ming De Christian Middle School for Girls in Nanjing. But, after the Japanese invasion of Nanjing, the family fled for the safety of Shanghai where the national government was stronger. Ruth lived during the week with a schoolmate’s family in Jiading, outside of Shanghai to continue her high school. “One winter day a handsome, ‘big man on campus’ from one of the best universities in China, Jiao Tong University, returns to visit his high school alma mater in Jiading, and that was my father. They were introduced by mutual friends. So, my parents met when they were 21 and 18 years old,” says Elaine. It was a romance against a background of upheaval and civil war.
“We have 25 wonderful black and white photographs of my parents with their friends during that time,” their daughter says, “You can see these are just a bunch of young people hanging out with one another.”
“One picture shows them rowing on a lake which still exists in Jiading County and they’re blissfully unaware of the change in government that their country will soon experience. Subsequently, my father goes on a ship to finish his seagoing requirements for his diploma because he majored in marine engineering. Then the government changes; the ports are closed. And his ship set sail for Taiwan. My mother’s family, realizing that they would not fare well under a Communist regime, left separately to Taiwan. And there my father looked for my mother for two years before he found her.”
After James found Ruth, they married and started a family. James launched a career as a merchant mariner, becoming a captain at the astonishingly young age of 29. Elaine was born in Taiwan. Seeking to enhance his career prospects, James took a 4-day National Master Mariner Examination, making the highest score on the test ever recorded. Encouraged by this, he decided that he could make a better life for his family in the U.S., where he relocated. His wife was seven months pregnant with their third child. It took three years for James to reunite his family, and he did not see his third daughter until she was three years old in the U. S.
Elaine Chao was 8 when she made the 37-day crossing to the U.S. in a cargo ship. Her website “elainechao.com” describes the early years in New York: “Adapting to American life was difficult for the Chao family. They didn’t know anyone and had no friends or family to turn to. Other kids made fun of Elaine and her sisters. Every day, Elaine went to school and sat quietly, not understanding anything her teacher or the other students said. When the teacher wrote on the blackboard, Elaine dutifully copied the strange-looking letters into her notebook. Every evening, after a long day’s work, James would sit with his eldest daughter, patiently going over each day’s lessons. And that’s how Elaine Chao learned English.” Elaine became a U.S. citizen at 19. Ruth Mulan Chu Chao died in 2007. The Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center at Harvard is named in her honor, the first building named after a woman on campus.
“For the longest time – and I want to say this to people who are unsure of where they’re headed in their own lives –my family and I wondered if we would ever find our place in America, because times were so tough,” Elaine says. “This feeling of vulnerability, of insecurity, of anxiety, stayed with me for a long time. But I think it made me a better leader also. Because it enabled me to be more empathetic and to understand the experiences that other newcomers are experiencing as they enter our country. So, jumping ahead a little bit, when I was Secretary of Labor, I made sure that labor law requirements and regulations were translated into a multitude of languages because I think most people want to obey the law, but they need to know what it is first. And some of them have language barriers. And so, if we want people to truly comply, to fully comply, we need to make it easier for people to understand what the law requires.”
Elaine Chao graduated from Syosset High School in Syosset, New York on Long Island. She was a great student, but assimilation was difficult. “I didn’t go to my senior prom. I didn’t go to my junior prom. Nobody asked me to go,” she remembers, it should be noted, without even a hint of bitterness. Elaine was accepted at Mount Holyoke College, the prestigious women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
“When I got to college, I wasn’t very experienced in eating with forks and knives,” she recalls. “When I was growing up, we ate Chinese meals, with chopsticks. I looked at the intimidating array of table settings, and to me it looked like a row of surgical instruments laid out for an operation. It was a tradition of the School to sponsor ‘gracious living nights,’ and that is where I learned to use a knife and fork properly.”
Safe to say that Elaine Chao has since wielded her knife and fork at the most powerful tables in the land.
Elaine earned an A. B. in economics from Mount Holyoke where many Asian and Asian American students nowadays apply because Elaine Chao went there! Then onto Harvard Business school for an MBA. She was popular at Harvard, elected Class Secretary and Class Marshal; if there had been a prom at the business school, Elaine would have been belle of the ball.
Elaine Chao was working at Citicorp in New York when she was selected as one of 12 White House Fellows. Being picked as a White House Fellow is highly competitive and Fellows learn about the inner workings of government at the highest levels. Alumni include the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot, Colin Powell, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Senator Sam Brownback. After her White House Fellow days, Elaine has had a number of top positions in private financial institutions and government.
In 1992, the board of directors of the United Way of America came to Elaine and asked her to take on a tough assignment: restoring the tarnished name of the United Way, which had been embroiled in widely-publicized financial improprieties. Former president William Aramony was sent to prison. The board had vetted 600 candidates in a nationwide search and wanted Elaine Chao.
Says Elaine, “I was not 100 percent sure that I could do the job – and this is a very important lesson to women – you do not have to be 100 percent sure that you can do it, because no one is ever that sure. But you’ve got to challenge yourself and you’ve got to push your boundaries. So, even though I wasn’t that sure if I could do the job perfectly, I had been a volunteer, I loved philanthropy, and I didn’t want to look back and regret that when I had the chance, I didn’t step up to help a venerable American institution.” Elaine installed a system of financial safeguards, established a code of ethics and got rid of bloated expense accounts. By the time Elaine Chao announced that she was leaving four years later, donations had recovered to pre-scandal levels and it was generally agreed that the organization had been rebuilt and was on a firm footing.
Elaine has had a fascinating career, but inquiring minds want to know: Hey, how did you meet Mitch?
They were introduced by a mutual friend, the first Asian-American U. S. Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch who was appointed to Nepal. “Our first date was pretty heady,” Elaine recalls. “It was at the residence of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud. Roberta Flack was the evening’s entertainment, and it was a small intimate gathering in honor of then Vice President George H. W. Bush.” Just one problem: Elaine didn’t want to be seen with Mitch, the powerful U. S. Senator from Kentucky who has served as Majority Leader of the Senate and is now Republican Leader. No, she’s not a closet liberal who was afraid Nancy Pelosi would cut her dead in public.
She explains, “I didn’t want to be seen with Mitch because I had my own career, and I didn’t want people to think that I was a groupie. Mitch thought that was hilarious because most women who went out with him, wanted to be seen with him in public. I liked him from the very beginning because Mitch had a reputation for integrity, and for being a very principled leader. And he’s just a really nice guy. He’s also quiet. He’s not a back-slapping, glad-handing politician. He’s very thoughtful. And as indicative of his success as a leader now of the Republican conference, he is constantly listening to his members, to others, to see how he can build bridges, bring consensus about. Now, this seems very different from what the media paints him to be. But he’s constantly learning.
“He’s constantly listening to see where there are similarities, commonalities, between people that he can forge a path forward. He’s a great reader of American history. You can ask him anything about American history. For example, like, what was the House elections of 1852, like? He’ll be able to tell you. And he has granular understanding. Like if there was a key race during that year, he’ll know about that as well. He’s a great student of this great democracy that we live in.”
The couple picked February 6, 1993 for their wedding. The date had a two-fold significance: it was Ronald Reagan’s birthday, and it was just before a Senate recess. They were married in the Senate chapel with only family present. The couple then went to Kentucky for the appropriate festivities. Elaine, who had never been to the south before, had to quickly introduce herself to McConnell’s constituents since he was running for re-election.
Since then, Elaine has become an unabashed fan of her adopted state.
“Having lived on both the East Coast and the West Coast, when I came to Kentucky, I felt as if I had come home,” she says. “People are really, really nice. And I’ll give you an example. I had a car accident in Louisville. I was on Bardstown Road which had two lanes in each direction, four lanes overall – there was a bus going in the same direction on my right. And there was an opening to a parking lot, and I looked at the driver and the driver of the bus waved for me to go ahead. Thinking it was safe, I drove ahead, and this car came out of the parking lot, hit my car, spun me around and basically pushed me to a telephone pole in the opposite lane which stopped my car.
“Now coming from an East Coast metropolis, I thought to myself ‘Oh my gosh, this driver’s going to come out of his car and he’s going to yell at me for being in his way’. Indeed, a driver did come out, but he said oh my gosh, I am so sorry ma’am. Are you okay? Kentuckians are wonderful. I’ve traveled throughout the Commonwealth and just love it. I am a proud Kentuckian.”
Elaine Chao may deserve some “decompressing time,” but we’re already waiting for the next chapter of her great American story.