Childhood & family
An immigrant to this country, Elaine L. Chao arrived in this country at the age of eight, speaking no English.
Her parents are Americans of Chinese descent. Her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, was born in a small farming village in Jiading District outside Shanghai. His parents emphasized the value of education. An able student, Dr. Chao won many scholarships. He was also a popular student leader and an outstanding athlete. Her mother, Ruth Mulan Chu, was born in Anhui province, to a distinguished and progressive family that believed in the education of women. Ruth and her sisters were educated at the well-known Ming De Christian Middle School for Girls in Nanjing.
Both her parents grew up in an era marked with political turmoil, societal upheaval, foreign invasions and civil war where life was fraught with hardships, instability, and uncertainty. All they sought was peace and safety. The war destroyed everything.
Subsequently, her parents separately relocated to Taiwan. There, they met again, got married and started a new life together. In 1958, Dr. Zhao shattered all previous records in Taiwan by achieving the highest score ever on the Master Mariner Examination. This accomplishment singled him out for further studies in America.
The family was separated for three long years before James was able to bring Mrs. Chao and their daughters, Elaine, Jeanette, and May to America.
Adapting to American life was difficult for the Chao family and third-grader Elaine. They didn’t know anyone and had no friends or family to turn to. Every day, Elaine went to school and sat quietly, not understanding anything her teacher or the other students said. When the teacher wrote information on the blackboard, Elaine dutifully copied the strange-looking letters into her notebook. Every evening, after a long day’s work, Dr. Chao would sit with his eldest daughter, patiently going back over each day’s lessons. And that’s how Elaine Chao learned English.
Despite many challenges, James and Ruth Chao never lost their steadfast belief in the promise of America. Throughout their lives, Dr. and Mrs. Chao emphasized the importance of family, faith, education, hard work, self -discipline, self-sacrifice, self-reliance, determination, service and contribution to their community and Society. Dr. and Mrs. Chao are lifelong inspirations to their daughters – Elaine, Jeanette, May, Christine, Grace and Angela.
Early Career 1983-89
After graduating from Harvard Business School, Elaine Chao embarked upon a career as a banker with Citicorp in New York City. While at Citibank, she learned about the prestigious White House Fellowship program. She applied to the White House Fellowship program because she wanted to learn about the government in her new country. From among a very competitive nationwide field, she was selected as one of 12 White House Fellows, assigned to work at the White House, and thus was able to observe first-hand how our federal government functioned at the highest levels.
After her White House Fellowship, she was appointed to be the Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration. Elaine was the first woman and the first Asian Pacific American to achieve this high a position in the Department’s history.
Grateful for the opportunities her adopted nation offered, Elaine Chao had a prodigious work ethic, often clocking long hours and taking assignments others sometimes dismissed as insignificant. But she persevered because she remembered the sacrifices of her parents for the family and wanted to blaze new opportunities for her community.
By 1988, Elaine Chao had proven so effective at the Maritime Administration that President Ronald Reagan appointed her to become Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. Again, Elaine was the first Asian Pacific American and youngest chairman in the Agency’s history. During her tenure, she established a strong record of enforcement against unfair trade practices overseas.
By 1989, Elaine Chao's abilities and diligence brought her increasing recognition as a rising young star and a position with even greater responsibility in the administration of President George H. W. Bush as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Transportation.
Peace Corps 1991-92
Elaine Chao’s tenure as Peace Corps Director coincided with a particularly eventful period in world history as the Baltic nations threw off the yoke of domination and the former Soviet Union Empire was imploding of its own weight. She is the first Asian Pacific American Peace Corps Director.
With the advent of the dramatic rise of new emerging democracies in that part of the world, Elaine Chao established the first Peace Corps programs in the newly liberated Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union to help its peoples adapt to the new free enterprise economic system.
Other achievements as Director included streamlining the Peace Corps Volunteer recruitment and application process. As Director, Elaine Chao also sought to have a Peace Corps of volunteers and staff that reflected the racial and cultural diversity of the United States.
United Way of America 1996-2001
The country was shocked when the Washington Post began reporting on the financial improprieties, mismanagement and abuse under United Way’s then President in late 1991.
The United way of America launched a nationwide search for a new leader. Out of more than 600 candidates, one name rose to the top: Peace Corps Director Elaine Chao.
She had a reputation for integrity, proven skill in leading large, complex organizations, and a seemingly boundless reservoir of energetic, can-do optimism and determination.
As the United Way of America’s new president and CEO, Elaine Chao hit the ground running by reaching out to local organizations to build a common vision to restore integrity and public confidence in the United Way of America. To show that a new era of responsibility and integrity had begun, she cut her own salary by half, and declined all perks and special benefits.
U.S. Department of Labor 2001-2009
On January 29, 2001, Elaine L. Chao became the 24th U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first Asian-Pacific American woman ever appointed to the President’s Cabinet in our nation’s history. The longest serving Secretary of Labor since World War II, she was the only Cabinet member to serve the entire eight years of President George W. Bush’s Administration.
Elaine L. Chao focused on improving the competitiveness of America’s workforce by restructuring department programs to empower workers and modernizing regulations to respond to the realities of the 21st century workplace. Under her leadership, the U.S. Department of Labor achieved record results in protecting the health, safety, wages, and retirement security of the nation’s workforce.
Recognized with innumerable awards for her public and community service, Secretary Chao is the recipient of 36 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities across the globe. Apopular speaker, she is currently a Distinguished Fellow at an educational and research institute in Washington, D.C. where she works on jobs, employment, and U. S. competitiveness issues.