Preparation, Service, and Respect: Critical Building Blocks for a Lifetime of Leadership: The Honorable Elaine Chao

March 16, 2020She Said/She Said Podcast with Laura Cox Kaplan

Laura: Hello, friends, I hope you are feeling well and taking some extra precaution to keep yourself and your loved ones very safe.  The uncertainty around the coronavirus is more than a little unsettling.  I am fully nestled in with my husband Joel and our kids for an extended period of precautionary social distancing, and I am grateful that we are well.  It is for sure a bit inconvenience for the sake keeping others safe, but it’s a small price to pay.  For so many, this will be very disruptive, scary, potentially life-threatening time, and I’m keeping all who are suffering in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope you will do the same.

This week the conversation is not focused on the coronavirus, and, hopefully, it will provide you with a bit of distraction.  It’s a very special conversation that I recorded with Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, just before all these social distancing measures were put in place.

Secretary Chao came to United States as an eight-year-old.  She likely could never have imagined all the opportunities that this country would hold for her and her family when she crossed the ocean, bound for this new life.  She also couldn’t have foreseen how the adversity and the struggles that she and her family faced would shape her and would give her the strength and the skills that have been essential to every role she has ever held.  Her resume is nothing short of extraordinary.  The first woman of Asian-American descent to hold a cabinet position, as Secretary of Labor, service in four Presidential administrations, leadership of the highest level of the United Way and the Peace Corps, a degree in economics, a Harvard MBA, and 36 honorary degrees.

Today as I sat with Secretary of Transportation, my conversation with Secretary Chao is wide-ranging, and it illustrates what is … I believe … a very different dimension of how we think about accomplishment and success.   For her, it is about respect, respect for her family, and for the country that has given her so much.  Here is our conversation recorded at the Department of Transportation in Washington DC, on March the 11th.

Secretary Chao, welcome to She Said / She Said.

Secretary Chao: Thanks for having me.


Laura: I’m so delighted to be here with you.

Secretary Chao: I am too.  Just so thrilled and honored.

Laura: Thank you.

Secretary Chao: For having this opportunity

Laura: Well you are very nice to take the time.  You have a truly incredible resume.  I know you are very modest about your accomplishments.  It is incredibly impressive.

Secretary Chao: It doesn’t feel like that to me.

Laura: (laughter) We’re going to talk about that.

When you combine your resume, with your personal story, it’s really an inspiring story.  I would love for you to talk a little bit about some of those formative threads that really contributed to your success and how your upbringing and coming to this country at eight years old, how that shaped the way you had, the kind of the leader you are.

Secretary Chao: I don’t think I’m a success, I just try to do the best I can in whatever opportunity I was given. I was always very grateful to whoever gave me the opportunity that I never wanted to disappoint them.  I want them to be proud of me and to feel they made the good decision for giving me that opportunity.  Having said that, I have a different perspective, I think, than most of people because I am an immigrant to this country.   I came when I was eight years old; I didn’t speak English.  My family had a very difficult time, like most immigrants when they first come to America.  I think it was impressed me then was the importance of family, the importance of setting goals, and the importance of having love, love of your family, love for your country, that was very important.

Laura: Talk to me about a little bit some of those early struggles and challenges.  You didn’t speak the language; your mom didn’t speak the language.

Secretary Chao: I was her interpreter.

Laura: You were her interpreter.  You were the oldest at the time of three, right she had a baby, and you were eight years old.


Secretary Chao: So I loved the story, because it’s part of who I am.  My parents have wonderfully inspiring and touching love story.  My father came from a small farming village of 10 families outside of Shanghai.  My mother came from a wealthy, prominent land-owning family in Anhui province, which is to the west.  Two young people with such different socioeconomic background would never have been able to meet under ordinary circumstances.  It was only because of the turmoil of the times, the Civil War that was raging in China at that time that my mother’s family fled to Shanghai in search of safety and security.  And she entered my father’s high school and was introduced through mutual friends.  My father has always said, in turmoil and in crisis, there are always opportunities.  And they had a very chaste relationship because they were so young.  Then in May 1949, at the culmination of the Chinese Civil War, each made their way to Taiwan.  My father looked for my mother for three years and finally found her.  They got married, and my mother had to persuade her parents to let her marry a young man whose background was so unknown to my grandparents.  And probably in her only act of defiance, she said that, she thought this young man had potential and that she wanted to help him.  And so they got married and my father became one of the youngest sea captains at the time at the age of 29.  And life was difficult because he was often away at sea.  So they decided to try a different occupation, and because my father was so young and being the captain, they thought they had a number of years that they can try different pursuits.  If things didn’t work out, he could always return to sea captain again.  So he took the national examination, only came once a year, he scored number one, he broke all the records, because of his achievement, which these grades that were posted nationally, he was able to have the opportunity to study abroad.  Where do you think he wanted to go?  For a couple who had never met white people, who had been outside of China and Taiwan, they knew about America.

Laura: This is what year?

Secretary Chao: 1958.  My father had the chance to go study, he wanted to go to America, they both did, and upon basically two weeks’ notice, he packed up, and he left for America.  My mother was seven months pregnant with their third child.

Laura: You are the oldest.

Secretary Chao: I am the oldest.  There was number two and number three was not yet born.  It was an incredibly courageous move because many families were separated by not years even, by decades.  It was faith, that they would somehow be reunited as a family.  It took my father three years before he was able to bring my mother, my two sisters and me to America.

Laura: Do you remember being separated from your dad during that period?

Secretary Chao: Very much so.

Laura: How did you think about that as a child?  You were a little girl.

Secretary Chao: I was five years old, when he went to America.  I don’t remember that as much.  I do remember when three years later, my mother was very excited because we had received word from my father that we were able to go to America.  I still remember the overnight train ride from Taipei to Kaohsiung, which is the city located at the southern tip of the island of Taiwan.  Then from there we boarded a cargo ship, went up to Tokyo Bay, and then we went across Pacific, went to Los Angeles, that was the first time I set foot on American soil.  There is a wonderful picture of my mother, my two sisters and me, beside the huge sign that says “Port of Los Angeles”, and that was the port of entry in the United States.  Then we got back on the ship, went down to Baja California, went through the Panama Canal, through the Gulf of Mexico, up the East Coast, and landed in New York 37 days later.

Laura: So you had really not been around with Americans, you had not been around with people who didn’t look like you, what was that like as a child?

Secretary Chao: Yes, what I learned the most important thing was if the child is loved and feels secure, it didn’t really matter what the outside influences were and the environment.  By today’s term, I was bullied.  You know people, kids were mean.

Laura: You tell a great story about starting school, and the big culture differences between how you had been taught to show respect to your teacher and how young children in America show respect to the teacher.  So tell me that story.

Secretary Chao: My father took some time off from work, which is a big deal and accompanied me to school.  So I greeted, uh, I saw my classmates coming in to the classroom in two by two, column of two by two’s, and the teacher was at the head of the column.  Like any little self-respecting Chinese girl, I bowed from the waist, the depth, the deeper the bow, the more respect there is.  The teacher is the most respected person in Chinese society, so I bowed very deeply from the waist.  At which point, my classmates just broke out in complete laughter.  It was a very embarrassing moment, and then there was a young boy whose name was Eli.  They would do a role call and I could not distinguish “Elaine” vs. “Eli”.  When he was called, I would get up, once again, to the utter laughter of the whole class.

Laura: One thing that I had not realized as I was doing the preparation for the interview, your name “Elaine” was not the name you were called the first 8 years of your life.  Elaine was a new name that you were trying to get accustomed to.

Secretary Chao: It was actually given to me by a pastor my father knew.  And they thought that Elaine sounded like my Chinese name.

Laura: What was your Chinese name?

Secretary Chao: Actually, it was Xiaolan, which means, the colloquial is like “little orchid” or a more sophisticated interpretation is “elegance and grace”.  But, I am like little orchid.  This is very relevant now because there’s a film called Mulan, my mother’s name is Mulan, so I am her daughter, so I am Xiaolan, which means “little orchid”.  Mulan means “orchid”.

Laura:  Interesting.  Fair to say, there were a lot of cultural differences and a lot of challenges, that could have been devastating for lots of people to constantly encounter this adversity.  How do you think this shape your story and trajectory?

Secretary Chao: I don’t think it affects you too much, like most Asian-American families were very insular, close.

Laura: Sticking together.

Secretary Chao: Sticking together.  My parents never like me going to after school activities.   The Asian-American household as much more geared toward family time together.   So the only thing they really emphasize is studying.  This is when I was growing up; they are a little better now.  As soon as you get home, finish school, you come home.  You don’t interact with other kids and do other kinds of stuff.  I had kids came home to my house after school and I would go to their house, but it wasn’t like, it was under very close adult supervision, so it hurt to be bullied and to have other kids being mean to me, but it really didn’t impact me because I knew my place in life.  I was very secure in the love and security my father and mother offered.  So these other people, it didn’t matter, also we had hope, so we knew that the current adverse situation, the difficulties we were facing were not going to be forever, because we were going to be OK, because we were going to face much better times.


Laura: Where that hope comes from?  I understand that your father was a person of the deep faith.

Secretary Chao: My mother as well.  My mother was among the very few women of her generation, because she came from a wealthy family, to receive an education.  So she actually received education from the missionaries.  She went to a boarding school.  And she received an education from American missionaries, so she actually knew English, she knew how to write.  In fact, this is a very cute thing that actually I only learned myself recently.  She and my father in an effort to elude adult supervision, actually communicated to each other in the language of love, which to them meant English.   Isn’t that sweet?

Laura: That’s sweet, very lovely.  Looking back on that relationship, how did that shape you and give you great confidence as a child, you felt very loved and you felt part of the close family, but thinking about your own relationship later.

Secretary Chao: I think their relationship was very inspirational to my sisters and me, and they were an example of what true love is all about, helping and supporting one another, sacrificing, and working together on a common goal.  These are just wonderful life lessons which they never told us in words, but which we observed every day.

Laura: Okay you’re one of six girls; obviously you had three other sisters who were born once you all came to America.

Secretary Chao: And I think it showed that our life was getting better.  So, my parents had confidence to start having children.

Laura: A big family.

Secretary Chao: It’s a wonderful statement about America.

Laura: Absolutely.  You are the eldest of the six girls.   Was there pressure on you as the eldest?

Secretary Chao: You know I never thought there was pressure.  I just felt that, no, I never all this pressure, I mean, I don’t put very much store on that.  I felt an obligation, a responsibility.

Laura: It’s different than pressure.


Secretary Chao: It’s different than pressure.  I felt an obligation and responsibility to help my parents, in whatever they were doing, and being a good child and also in taking care of my sisters.   So my duty, as the first daughter is to be a good daughter to my parents, and then to be a good example to my sisters of being a good daughter to my parents, and to take care of my sisters

Laura: Do you equate that with an achievement?

Secretary Chao: No, you know people will probably think that is all about achievement, but I actually didn’t set out to do all this stuff for achievement’s sake.

Laura: I think people would be very surprised by that.

Secretary Chao: No.  How boring, to focus on yourself.  I think one of the truth or joys of life is to think about others.   You do it because you love other people; you want to help other people. That’s what brings you true happiness.  So in everything that I’ve done, I’ve actually not done it for myself.  I’ve done it to bring honor to my parents, to my family, to my community, and to help lift them up, so that they can have more opportunities in mainstream America.

Laura: A great segue into this topic, much of your career has been spent in public service and in serving others.  But you didn’t start there exactly.  Right? You started in banking, you studied economics, you got an MBA from Harvard, started out in banking, worked your way up, but then ultimately got this great opportunity.  So talk about the appeal of going into public service?

Secretary Chao: I majored in economics because I had to make a living.  I wasn’t one of those people that I can somehow coast, or that I could just rely on my parents.   My responsibility was to be financially independent, to help alleviate the financial burden on my family, and also to help my younger sisters.  So I had to find a job.   In fact, I make a joke, I said one of my goals when I was graduating, was I’ve got to find a job, and I’ve got to get my own apartment.

So I wasn’t totally a saint, I mean I am I was a little bit of a rebel from that point of view.  But I was a banker because my family was in the private sector, so when I was growing up, the only opportunities I thought that was possible was in the private sector.   That meant did not know I studied economic, so I can get a job, so I can get a good job in the private sector.  I never understood about opportunities in the nonprofit sector, nor the public sector.   It wasn’t until much later that I realized that this country has so many opportunities, and there were so many different ways to find one’s place.


Laura: Where did that public service spark?

Secretary Chao: I’m an immigrant, and I’d never been outside of New York at the time when I was growing up.   So I credit my parents with imbuing within all their daughters a tremendous sense of possibilities, and it’s especially poignant if you consider that my parents did not know what opportunities would be available in this new country, because they were so close to their own Community. But, they had confidence that this country would offer great opportunities for their daughters.  So they always encouraged us to think broadly, to think outside of our little community of immigrants, and to try to understand the larger world that’s out there.  We were always encouraged to think outside of box, to explore in a responsible way.

I didn’t understand the government, I didn’t understand this country, and I didn’t understand democracy.  I didn’t understand how things worked here, because in Asian culture there’s always somebody in charge.   Even today I have Asian immigrants who would come and talk to me.  They will say, “Okay, you’re now the establishment.”  Although I don’t think I’m.  “You can tell me who is in charge.”  Then I would tell them: “There is nobody in charge.  This is America.  No one is in charge.”  They could not understand that.   For a long time I couldn’t understand that.

And then I was a banker at Citicorp.  If I ever did a deal it would take four people and be concluded in 2 hours.   It would be me, the banker, the borrower, his (and it was mostly “he”) lawyer and my lawyer, four people it would take an hour to two hours to finish the deal.  That was it.

I happened to have also gotten involved in government financing called Title 11 financing US Maritime industry, which will prove later on to be very helpful.  If I ever did a government loan, it would take like 3 months to close.   The government would have 35 lawyers on their side while I would only have my one lawyer.   The documentation would fill a whole room, and I just could not understand.  I said, “How do people work like this?”   So I wanted to learn about government, and I wanted to learn about democracy.

Laura: What makes America tick?


Secretary Chao: Why is it that we have the wonderful country that we have, and so that led me to apply for the White House Fellowship.

Laura: And from there your career kind of took off in public service.

Secretary Chao: Yes, it did.  It wasn’t because I was planning it.  I think people are watching all the time looking for talent.  If you do a good job, you don’t have to brag too much about it.  People, they notice, people who are important they know.  I’m constantly looking for talent.  And I noticed who is doing real work and who’s not, who’s really hard-working, you know, who’s really smart, who really is enthusiastic, energetic and resourceful.  I’m watching them all the time.

Laura: What’s your advice for somebody who wants to really illustrate to a boss, maybe to you, that they are ready for that next step.  They’re trying to figure out how to create their own leadership Journey.  What’s your advice for that young person who’s jumping into it?

Secretary Chao: Do what’s asked of you with alacrity, enthusiasm, diligence and resourcefulness.  If you do a good job, people notice.  Now, there are unfair people in this world and I certainly acknowledge that.  If your listeners feel as if they are not being respected and paid attention to, this is a free country, have the courage to look for something else.   In this country with the unemployment rate of 3.5%, which is pretty much full employment, there are lot of opportunities available, and the average American has about 10 jobs by the time they’re forty years old.  So we are a country that has a lot of people who are moving on to new jobs, new opportunities.  It’s unlike Europe.  Europe is different.  They emphasize security, what that means is that there’s very little job turnover, and the opportunities are not as plentiful as they are in this country.

Laura: One of the other things that is really unique about your resume, sort of touches on this concept that I think was coined by professor Joseph Nye, who’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “tri-sector athlete” is what he calls it, which is essentially somebody who’s worked across sectors from the public, the private, to the nonprofit sector.  You’ve done that.  Talk about what benefit having that diversity of experiences gave you in terms of your own leadership journey.

Secretary Chao: I think every sector is different, every organization is different, and because I’ve had the opportunity to enter so many different organizations, I have learned to respect the culture, and the culture is the unwritten rules that govern how people act, how they relate to one another in a particular organization.  It’s like a soul of an organization.  There is something called the soul, S-O-U-L, you know, every organization has a soul, and they have traditions, unwritten rules, core values that characterize what they value and what is wise not to step on without knowing.  If you are going to be a change agent, you want to bring a change, you must understand the culture.  What is acceptable, what is not acceptable, what you can tackle in the short term, what you need to tackle in the long term?  What you need to do to lay the predicate, and the case for going forward.  That’s extraordinary helpful for me.

Laura: You really deployed that knowledge in so many different ways, including the Department of Labor, where you were fearless in taking on something that had been untouchable for a long time, which was the Fair Labor Standards Act, and you fearlessly tackled it.

Was that sort of the way that you thought about how to tackle that and how to get buy-in and how to work across the aisle … was that informed by that diversity of experiences that you had?

Secretary Chao: Absolutely.  And also I had a great team, so it’s not a singular effort that makes it successful.   It’s a team effort, and I don’t really care who gets the credit.  I’m constantly throwing bouquets of flattery and compliments to people because I want them to feel that it is their mission, and when people feel that way, there’s so much more enthusiasm, energy, and buy-in toward working, toward a goal.

What I found out is that people want to do something meaningful, and in fact, when the going gets tough, people actually get energized because we know, we knew, that it was a worthwhile mission, that we were making a real difference, and the difficulty of the challenge actually brought the team together even more.

Laura: You had amazing accomplishments, but you said at the beginning you don’t feel particularly successful or you don’t really think about your life that way.

Secretary Chao: No, I don’t.  So I think this is so important. Because life is a journey.  I never feel like as if I am successful.  That’s not the goal.

Laura: How do you feel about your accomplishments?  I mean you, your resume.

Secretary Chao: My accomplishments are nothing.   I think about all these other people ­­­– I’m really into K-drama these days.   And I just think it’s so amazing how talented these actors are, how skillful they are in showing the range of emotions across their face, and their faces, you know I mean, that’s one example.  Or I may go to a concert or I may go to a ballet, I see all these artists who are so talented.  I mean I think that’s really, you know, really impressive.   So I don’t think you can be too happy chalking up your accomplishments.

At the end of one’s life, I think the most important things are love, of those who you care about, your reputation, and the respect of your peers, and a feeling as to how you’ve made a difference.

That’s different than accomplishments.  It’s much more how much have you contributed versus how much can I record as to what I’ve done.  And I’ll tell you, stepping down as I did from Secretary of Labor, I have all these wonderful pictures, and they are meaningful, but after a while, they fade with time.  I don’t want to sound pessimistic.  Or be a downer.

Laura: You don’t sound a downer at all.

Secretary Chao: I’m very forward-looking.  I don’t look toward achievements.   In fact, as I get older and older, what I find most meaningful is how I’m able to use what authority I have to help others.

Laura: There’s a very special guy in your life who is a very prominent individual.  I don’t like to talk about people’s husbands, especially when I’m talking to a very accomplished prominent woman such as yourself; however, you are married to the Senate Majority Leader, the wonderful Mitchell McConnell.  You all are both very high-profile roles.  You have been married for 30, almost 30 years?

 Secretary Chao: 25, 26

Laura: 26 years, it is a long time, you’re both in high-profile jobs and you’re in a bit of a fish bowl.

Secretary Chao:  27 years.  Oh no!

Laura: I was going say; I thought it was close to 30!  See, I did my homework!  OK, talk about how you make a dual career-marriage work.  Especially, when you’re at such a high-profile job, both of you are incredibly high-profile roles.  How do you make that work in a place like Washington?

Secretary Chao: I really respect Mitch, on top of my love for him as well.  I think he’s incredibly competent, thoughtful, wise, calm and steady.   And I think he is a wonderful leader for our country.  So both of us are very fortunate in that we are able to have work that we both enjoy and find fulfillment.  We both have heavy schedules, but then the most important thing I think is to always make time for one another.


Laura: He has a great track record of both keeping very senior women as part of his leadership team.   In fact, I think his leadership team has been dominated by women has been a really long time.   Do you think you had an impact on how he thinks about talent in his office?

 Secretary Chao: I don’t think so.  He was always supportive of women, he has three daughters, and he looks for talent.  I actually learned a lot about leadership from him.  He is a very steady, very calm presence, and he draws the best talents to him.   He trusts his people, he gives them a lot of leeway, and he is very open to taking advice, regardless as to the age of that staffer.  He has very young staffers whom he has the confidence to listen to, and they’ve always steered him very, very well.  He’s also a very low-maintenance husband.  He does his own laundry, he cooks, and he’s actually a very thoughtful, very considerate person to live with, which is very nice.

Laura: You know a lot of our listeners are just beginning to start their journeys.  They’re just launching careers many of the them, and we really have a range of listeners that range from 18 all the way to 65 or 70, maybe beyond.  It’s really great, but an awful lot of her listeners are just launching their Journeys.  What advice do you have for them and in terms of building leadership skills early on?

Secretary Chao: I believe that leaders are developed and trained, so I always encourage young people to take on leadership roles as early as they can in all different ways, and in low-risk situations.   When they start out young assuming a leadership position, not too much is at stake, it’s okay. If they make some mistakes, it’s okay.  I’m a strong proponent of helping out nonprofit organizations and taking on some leadership roles there.  I make a joke.  I said, “If you don’t do that well.  What are they going to do?  Fire you? You are a volunteer.”  But you know the combination of skill sets that can be learned in a nonprofit organization is so broad and useful.  It’s a great experience.  Also you would be helping people, too!

Laura: Of course!  As you look back on your career where if there is an experience or maybe a couple of experiences in which you really felt like you stretched and grew?

Secretary Chao: Every time, every day.  Absolutely! Every job that I have had, I wasn’t 100% sure that I can do it. But I was propelled by curiosity, a desire to learn, and a wish to do good, and to have an impact.


Laura: Is that how you overcame self-doubt, whatever self-doubt you have.

Secretary Chao: I have self-doubts to this day.

Laura: But how you were overcoming it, what’s your toolkit?

Secretary Chao: Put your big-girl pants on!  As Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education, used to say, she’s from Texas, you know her, I love her, she would say, “Just put your big-girl’s pants on!”

So a lot of times you’re going to have to just swallow your fear, and just go for it, and it’s that cusp where you’re not quite sure, you’re going to be successful, and what you’ve been told to do, but you want to try, that’s really the point that you want to be.  Because a lot of times you can’t be completely comfortable, then it gets boring. And you can’t be so audacious that you’re just leaping off of a cliff and there’s like no safe landing.  So you kind of have to be self-aware too. But I have found that every single job I’ve had, I always had a little bit of doubt, sometimes a lot of doubt.  Like, you know, like put some of these larger beginning leadership positions, but I knew that I wanted to try, also that I believed in the mission, and I wanted to help if I could.

Laura: Really being focused on what you really are there to do.

Secretary Chao: Absolutely.

Laura: Okay, so when you have the experiences, which you just get knocked on your can -.

Secretary Chao: Fortunately, I have not been knocked on my can which is actually.

Laura: So why is that?

Secretary Chao: Because I prepare. I work really, really hard, and I love my work.  So working hard and being prepared didn’t seem like work, because I was interested, and I had this curiosity, I wanted to know the end of the question.  I wanted to find — I would pursue the answer to its very, very last possibility, and then I would feel good.  And then also if it began to be confusing, I would tell myself, I refuse to be confused until I understand what this is all about.  So you just kind of discipline yourself.

Laura: Give me perspective on this topic, it relates to what tends to be, its not an absolute thing, but women do tend to be more prepared than men — to spend more time preparing I should say.  For some women, that can be, not always, but can be an excuse, for not been putting themselves out there.  “I’m not quite ready, I’m not a hundred percent, and I can’t run for office because I’m not quite ready to do that well.   Maybe I don’t have a hundred and ten percent of the answers.”  How do you get the balance right between being prepared and appropriate amount of preparation versus preparing as a reason for not going forward?

Secretary Chao: I think a lot depends on the individual, but you will never be 100% prepared, and you need to do some preparation.  I think it’s a matter, see I view it not a matter of preparing myself.   It’s a matter of respect that if I have a meeting with somebody, it is respectful to them that I do my homework and understand at least like which ballpark they’re talking about.   You know I get my analogies and idioms all mixed up, too, but I think you understand.  So you know that I show respect to them.  I do my homework and know their background, what they want to talk about, then we can engage in a higher-level conversation right from the get-go rather than my finding out where they’re from, where they want to come in and talk to me about, so I think it’s a level of respect.  Then beyond that, then you know, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to engage with other people, and interact, and that’s what the whole human interaction really is all about.

Laura: I love the descriptor of it about being respect.

Secretary Chao: Absolutely.  That, that’s why when I go to different places, I am often met at the door by people who are participating in that event.  I don’t know how other people deal with it, but I actually want to know who they are.  I asked my advance staff to tell me their names, what their titles are, and what their positions are, because I remember when I was one of those little people who could not even get in the receiving line.  I was like probably in the back there, watching the, you know, the VIP arrive, what is thrill it was for me.  And if the VIP ever even smiled in my direction, it would have made my day, if not week or month.  So I think it’s another show respect, you know, that these people thought highly enough of me to want to line up and receive me when I enter their premise or their facility, at least I should know who they are, what they do, and give them their due respect.

Laura: Beautiful! I was recently introduced to this term called “Zone of Genius”.  It’s essentially what you do well that comes to you naturally.  You don’t have one?  Oh, you do, too!  You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I think it’s such an interesting question.   Someone asked me, I had to think about it.  You should talk with people around you, and ask them what they think about your Zone of Genius is so, maybe if we ask your dad or maybe we asked leader McConnell.  What do you think they would say your Zone of Genius is?

Secretary Chao: That’s a great way to put it; I think it’s a cultural difference as well.  To this day, I still have a lot of hesitancy speaking about myself, because that’s not my culture.  The Asian culture is very self-effacing.  It’s reserved; it is very modest, so you always give the credit to the other person.

Laura:  And you’re also a woman.

Secretary Chao:  It’s a gender issue as well.  You know, I can try to be like more bombastic, but that’s not me.  Because I’m very secure knowing who I am, and I wouldn’t be comfortable that way, too pushy or overt.   Having said that, though, the way you phrase the question, it’s very well done!  So my staff tells me that my Zone of Excellence will be one, being able to spot talent.  If I find the right people for the right jobs, my life is so much simpler.  My quality-of-life increases.  If I don’t have the right people in the right jobs my life is miserable, and I’ll be micromanaging with very sub-optimal results.   Second thing I think someone just said to me, I have very high emotional intelligence.  My job is to understand people.  The ideas are important, but unless we implement them and the policy is … relatively speaking … the easy part.   It’s the People!  Persuading them to go in one direction, building consensus, and forging a path forward.  That takes the active participation and agreement of other people.   That’s hard!

Laura:  How much does ethnicity for you play into that?  Sort of getting buy-in, the respect piece that you talk about several times.

Secretary Chao: Anything sustainable must have consensus and agreement in moving forward.  Because even in this day of technological advances, I always remind my young colleagues that it is people who make things happen.  So we have to understand people, understand their motivation, present ideas in a way that appeal to them.   I used to work with the United Way of America; I never felt I was asking people for money, never!  I was giving them a gift.  I was giving them the opportunity to participate in something really worthwhile that would enrich their lives, create their legacy.  I’m doing them a favor.


Laura:  I love that.

Secretary Chao: And so with that, number one, your confidence goes up because you’re giving them the gift, you’re not begging for anything.  And number two, you really are giving people an opportunity to do something meaningful, and I think most people look for that.

Laura: We talked about your role in the Department of Transportation.  Yet you have a very big job, a lot of responsibility.   People I think would be very surprised to know how much time and energy the Department is focusing on innovation and technology.   Talk a little bit about your biggest challenge.

Secretary Chao: We have three priorities.  Number one: safety is always number one. We want people to leave their homes and come back home safely.  Number two:  As the president has mentioned, we need to address our infrastructure needs for overall international competitive reasons, for the economic vibrancy of our economy, and also for the quality of life of our citizens and residents.  And the third part is we have a responsibility to prepare for the future, so we need to be engaging with these new emerging transportation technologies to address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation.   Over-regulation has a cost.  You know, we can make things very, very safe, we can just tell everybody get out of your cars, don’t use cars, stay in your garage, obviously that’s unrealistic.   So how do we balance these issues about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation?  Because innovation is part of America’s national identity.  We are the most creative, most innovative people on Earth, that’s why we had cities like Austin that can say you know “Keep Austin Weird!”  I mean if you took this moniker to any other country, they would think that is like so strange.  We take pride in our unconventional nature and nonconformity, in our innovation, and innovative and creative mindset.

Laura: Driverless cars and drones, all these sorts of things.

Secretary Chao: We don’t call them driverless cars, because actually 71% of Americans feel anxiety if you say that you’re putting them in self-driving cars.

Laura: Ok.

Secretary Chao: And if you use the word driverless cars that anxiety actually moves the needle and it goes up to 74%.

Laura: What do we call it?

Secretary Chao: Self-driving cars.  Automated driving system, drones, flying taxis, commercial space, these are all transportation modes of the future.  How do we, how do we do away with the barriers, that impede the development of these new technologies, but still pay attention to safety, security, and privacy, and we are very focused on ensuring the public safety.  They’re concerns about security because these automated drives systems can be hacked; that’s a risk.  And then thirdly, people are concerned about privacy issues, drones flying outside of their windows.

Laura: How far away are we from flying taxis?

Secretary Chao: I know isn’t it amazing.

Laura: How far away are we from that becoming a reality?

Secretary Chao: I think a lot will all depend on consumer acceptance, which is why the Department is not top-down, command-and-control.   We want to let a thousand flowers bloom, so to speak, while we oversee safety, security and privacy.  But we want the consumer, the private sector, to determine the best technology, and let them decide.

Laura: I got two final questions.  If you would think back over your career, what is the impact that you hope you will have had when you look at all of these, your experience, across all of these different sectors and all of these different roles.  What’s the impact you will have had?

Secretary Chao:  I hope that I would have had a positive impact in improving the quality of life for Americans in whatever position I was in.   When I was Secretary of Labor, we had the best health and safety record of any previous administration.   In Transportation, I hope that we continue to keep the traveling public safe, but that we will be also laying the template for the future transportation system that will enrich and improve the quality of life for our people, so that they can spend their precious time with their families, with their loved ones, in pursuits that they find most meaningful.

Laura: One final question.  We asked everyone who comes on the podcast for a single piece of advice, a life hack or a mantra.  Maybe it’s something that you would tell eight-year-old Elaine, maybe it’s something that you would tell other young women who come to you and ask you for advice.  What would yours be?

Secretary Chao: I smiled because my usual advice, number one, never give up. This country is a wonderful country; there are so many opportunities.  So long as you have a dream, you keep on working, you never give up, good things will happen.  And I think this is particularly of relevance, perhaps to a lot of young people, young immigrants, when we first came to America, we were so anxious that we would not be able to make it in America.  We didn’t understand the culture, we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t know anybody.  And our little family of 5 lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York.  We just wondered whether we would ever be able to find our place in America, and there would be times during those early days when we would miss an opportunity of some sort, and literally it would ruin my week because I would, I would be so panic-stricken that somehow I missed the opportunity, and it would never come again, and I will never make it in this world.  And then what I’ve learned is that there are so many opportunities that if we miss one opportunity, don’t worry, there’re many, many more opportunities to come.   Again, this is a wonderful country with so many opportunities, and so long as the person doesn’t give up, good things will happen.

And I look back upon those times of great adversity when I was young, and I don’t regret them.  I think they made me a better person, they’ve made me a better leader, because I’m much more understanding of other people’s plights.  I am much more empathetic, and I can understand so much more what other people are going through because I’ve been an outsider, I’ve been a newcomer to this society, I have worked my way up, so I have seen all different layers of society here.  And that has given me tremendous insight into how people live, and the difficulties and challenges that other people have, and how I can — in my positions of responsibility — help to bring a better life for people who are vulnerable, who are outside mainstream America, to help them access opportunities that will improve the lives of themselves and their families.

So when I was Secretary of Labor, and currently Secretary of Transportation, I initiated a lot of programs to help underserved communities because I understand what they’re going through.  And I’m here to tell them, that they’re going to be okay.

Laura: Thank you so much.  I really appreciate you being here and spend the time with me.

Secretary Chao: Thank you.

Laura: Friends, thank you so much for listening.  I’ll include links to the Secretary’s official bio as well as some photos from our visit today.  And remember if you’re enjoying She Said / She Said podcast, be sure to let me know, I’d love an email from you with your feedback and suggestions.   You can reach me on the website, the link is in the show notes for this episode — episode 91 or you can email me directly at

A big, big thanks again to Secretary Chao for joining us and to our executive producer Adam Belmar, who was on site with me at the Department of Transportation to record this episode. And most of all, a big thanks to all of you, our friends and our listeners, thanks so much for being here, and for being part of this growing and incredibly inspiring group of women, who like secretary Chao are breaking barriers and having a positive impact on others, and on the world, every single day.

The next few weeks are going to be very challenging, so we ask for your indulgence as we try some different approaches to recording these conversations. I have always taken the tact of only recording conversations in person and often times going out on location in order to get to somebody so that we could sit down together. Under the circumstances, that likely will not be possible, so we’ll see what we can do, and we’ll do our best to make sure that the audio you’re listening to is as good as we can possibly get it.  So thanks again for being with us, and for listening.  Until next time.  Stay safe!
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