“There were times when people were not very nice, because I didn’t come from privilege or wealth,” says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. “You hopefully take those bad experiences and turn them into good ones, by vowing to yourself that if you were ever in the same situation, that you would never do that to another person.”
The first Asian-American woman to hold a presidential cabinet position, Chao’s illustrious career includes stints heading the United Way and the Peace Corps, appointments in the past three Republican administrations, and a finance career with Citicorp and Bank of America. “This group is going to think I can’t hold a job,” jokes Chao, as she dispenses advice for young women at the 2018 Forbes Women’s Summit.
The eldest of six daughters, Chao immigrated to the U.S. on a cargo ship at age 8, speaking no English when she settled down with her family in Queens, New York. She didn’t find any mentors growing up—“Nobody paid us attention, because they didn’t think we were worth paying attention to,” she says—but her parents, who she describes as eternal optimists, instilled a sense of adventure in their girls and implored them to go outside their small community.
“They believed in working for something bigger,” says Chao. “If you only think about your own advancement, your own success, you run out of fuel pretty quickly. But if we believed in something bigger than ourselves, that kind of motivation is self-sustaining,” Chao advises. “Ultimately, it helps you endure and fosters stamina.”
Her father, James Chao, eventually became a wealthy shipping magnate. Chao honed her own entrepreneurship chops at Harvard Business School, but a fellowship at the White House later turned her to politics. She rose through the GOP ranks quickly, becoming the youngest chairman in Federal Maritime Commission’s history under President Reagan, then served as the Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush. She turned to nonprofit work during the Clinton years, but returned to become George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary in 2001.
Now, as the nation’s transportation head, Chao oversees a $76 billion budget and some 55,000 personnel but has largely flown under the radar despite her new boss’ headline-grabbing antics. She recently announced $1.5 billion of grants to roads, bridges and railways and another $677 million towards airports, though Trump’s $200 billion plan to overhaul the country’s infrastructure has languished in Congress. However, as the authority responsible for regulating drones and self-driving cars, her department will be a major player in shaping the future of commuting and travel.
“Think about the people with disabilities, or the elderly—if you have a self-driving car, they will reclaim their freedom,” says Chao, who pointed out that 94% of auto accidents involve human error. “[But] we have a legitimate concern about safety, privacy and security, because if any of these cars were hacked, they basically would be weaponized.” The Department of Transportation is trying to address these emerging issues, Chao says, without hampering innovation and creativity.
Chao, who was the longest-serving member of George W. Bush’s cabinet, advises young women to be aware of tradeoffs when they’re chasing success. She’s been married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for 25 years—“He is my low-maintenance husband—he does his own laundry; he cooks,” says Chao—but she never had any children. “We were taught … that it was okay to start late and that you can have it all. Well, it turns out that you can’t, that your biological clock sometimes works against you,” she reminisces.
“It’s important whatever choices you make, that you know the tradeoffs when you’re making them,” says Chao. “I think the worst thing is these sacrifices occurred and you didn’t know that you had to make those sacrifices, and those choices were beyond you.”