Elaine L. Chao Biography

U.S. Secretary of Labor

Elaine L. Chao

Born March 26, 1953, in Taiwan; daughter of James (owner of a shipping firm) and Ruth Chao; married Mitch McConnell (a U.S. senator), 1993; children: three stepdaughters. Education: Mount Holyoke College, B.A., 1975; Harvard Business School, M.B.A., 1979; also attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University.

Addresses: Office —U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20210-0002.


Senior lending officer, Citibank, New York City, 1979–83; White House fellow, 1983, 1984; vice president of syndications, BankAmerica Capital Markets Group, San Francisco, CA, 1984–86; Federal Maritime Administration, Washington, D.C., deputy maritime administrator, 1986–88, chair, 1988–89; Deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Washington, D.C., 1989–91; director, Peace Corps, Washington, D.C., 1991–92; president and chief executive officer, United Way of America, Alexandria, VA, 1992–96; public speaker, 1996–; distinguished fellow, Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1996–2001, chair of the Asian Studies Center Advisory Council, 1998–2001, also senior editor, Policy Review, The Journal of American Citizenship ; U.S. Secretary of Labor, Washington, D.C., 2001–.

Awards: Outstanding Young Achiever Award, National Council of Women, 1986; named one of Ten Outstanding Young Women of America, 1987; Harvard Graduate School of Business Alumni Achievement Award.


In 2001, Elaine L. Chao became the first Asian American to hold a Cabinet-level post in the U.S. government when she was named Secretary of Labor. She is the longest-serving member of President George W. Bush's original cabinet. A native of Taiwan, Chao had previously served as the chair of the Federal Maritime Commission as well as the head of the Peace Corps and the United Way of America.

Chao was born in 1953 in Taiwan. Her parents, James and Ruth Chao, had gone to Taiwan after separately fleeing China in the late 1940s, met, and married. Chao immigrated to the United States when she was eight years old in 1961. Her father had moved to the United States when she was five years old; he was a college student in New York who worked three jobs to bring his family there. Chao, her mother, and two younger sisters came to join him in Jamaica, Queens, New York, after a 30-day freighter voyage from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

Though Chao knew no English when she arrived in America, she learned it by copying all her lessons from the blackboard into a notebook. Her father helped her understand the words when he came home from work. Education was important to the family, which eventually included three more sisters, as was hard work. Culturally, the transition was also difficult. Chao and her sisters were alone at home on their first Halloween in the United States. When trick-or-treaters came to the door, the sisters believed they were being robbed and gave them all the food in the house.

Her father eventually graduated from St. John's University and founded a prosperous shipping firm. Chao herself earned her undergraduate degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975. She went on to earn her M.B.A. from Harvard University's Business School, graduating in 1979.

After earning her M.B.A., Chao returned to New York to begin her professional career. In 1979, she joined Citibank in New York City and worked as a senior lending officer. She specialized in transportation financings while working at Citibank. Chao left the position in 1983 to serve as a White House fellow for two years. During her time in Washington, she worked on the Domestic Policy Council. Chao specialized in transportation and trade issues, and became interested in politics.

After her fellowship ended, Chao returned to banking, becoming the vice president of syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group in San Francisco in 1984. This tenure was shortlived as she began working in the public sector a short time later. In 1986, Chao was named deputy maritime administrator for the Federal Maritime Administration. During her time in this office, she helped reform the Title XI Ship Financing Program. She also helped turn around a department which was losing $1.6 billion per year.

In March of 1988, President Ronald Reagan nominated Chao to become the chair of the Federal Maritime Commission. A vacancy was created when the previous chair, Edward V. Hickey, died unexpectedly. Promising to continue Hickey's plan to authorize enforcement proposals, automate the commissions's tariff-filing system, and continue to maintain a reasonable working environment in American ocean trades, Chao was confirmed and held the post until 1989.

During Vice President George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign in 1988, Chao served as the national chair of Asians Americans. When Bush won the presidency, Chao became the deputy secretary of transportation in his administration in 1989. She was second in command in the federal agency, and helped in the coordination of merchant marine and air defense fleets during the Gulf War. Chao was one of the highest-ranking Asian Americans in the Bush administration. In October of 1991, she became the director of the Peace Corps, an international volunteer organization. In the post, Chao oversaw a budget of $197 million and saw the expansion of Peace Corps programs in countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Moldova.

Chao took on tough new challenges when she agreed in the summer of 1992 to become the president of the United Way of America, the umbrella group for local United Way agencies located across the United States. She was chosen from more than 600 candidates to replace William G. Aramony, who had served as president for 22 years before being forced to resign in early 1992 due to a financial scandal involving money mismanagement and excessive personal spending. After the United Way of America restructured itself by implementing new bylaws and expanding the organization's board of governors to add a greater local voice, Chao formally took over in November of 1992 and her reputation helped its first post-scandal fund-raising drive.

Chao had to help re-build the United Way of America's image in the eyes of its skeptical branches who boycotted the parent agency as well as the minds of the public still reeling from Aramony's financial indiscretion. Upon agreeing to take the position, Chao told Wendy Melillo of the Washington Post , "When I join the United Way of America, my focus will be to respond to the needs of our members. To do that, my first priority always will be to listen to their concerns and act accordingly."

Chao planned to continue to put sensible fiscal and management policies in place as well work to convince slow-paying local United Ways to make payments to the national office more quickly. She was successful in her efforts to reform the organization, including the addition of new ethical guidelines, and made it more publicly credible. Donations increased each year Chao served as the head of the group. In 1995, contributions to the United Way topped $3.1 billion.

In May of 1996, Chao announced that she was resigning as president and chief executive officer of the United Way of America effective September 1 of that year. In a press release put out by PR Newswire, Chao was quoted as saying, "I was brought in nearly four years ago to help an organization in crisis. Today, United Way of America is a transformed organization. With new reforms firmly in place and the conclusion of the strategic plan to take United Way into the 21st century, my job is now completed."

After resigning, Chao helped with the 1996 political campaigns of her husband, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell whom she married in 1993, and the Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, She also launched a public speaking career. For example, she spoke at professional development conferences about women and leadership. In addition, Chao served on the alumni board for Harvard University.

Chao also said she would join a political think tank after leaving the United Way and to that end, she became a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. She later became the chair of the foundation's Asian Studies Center Advisory Council. This group focused how the Asian Studies Center handled Asian policy and security issues. For the Heritage Foundation, Chao also served as the senior editor of Policy Review, The Journal of American Citizenship .

Chao also served on the board of directors of several companies. She joined the board of Lotus Development Corp. in 1994 and Millipore, a high tech company, in 1998. At various times, Chao also served on the board for Dole Food Company, Northwest Airlines, National Association of Security Dealers, and C.R. Bard, Inc.

In 2001, Chao left the Heritage Foundation when she was selected by President George W. Bush to become his Secretary of Labor. She was Bush's second choice for the post. His first choice, Linda Chavez, withdrew from the nomination after only two days due to controversy. As Labor Secretary, Chao oversaw more than 25 internal divisions, 17,000 employees, and a multibillion dollar budget. She was also in charge of labor issues including worker safety, job training, overtime pay, and retirement benefits.

Despite being a conservative Republican, Chao's "Washington insider" status helped her credibility among many labor groups, including certain unions, when she took office. Upon her nomination, Communications Workers of America president Morton Bahr stated, according to George Lardner, Jr., and Frank Swoboda of the Washington Post , "I can attest to her leadership skills, her integrity, and her ability to bring together diverse interests…. I believe she will be responsive to the needs of working families." Yet she soon was criticized by some labor leaders for siding with business-related interests over workers and their families, especially in the area of worker protection.

Chao also immediately had to deal with other issues, including recently introduced safety regulations intended to decrease the number of ergonomic injuries in the workplace, potentially expanding the guest worker program, and affirmative action. As a conservative, Chao did not support racial quotas or numbers to promote affirmative action, but instead wanted increased outreach and greater access to jobs. She told Elizabeth Becker of the New York Times , "The American philosophy is equal opportunity for everyone, but you can't guarantee results. We are a meritocracy." Chao also believed she had empathy for workers, telling Stephanie Armour of USA Today , "I understand what it's like to be an outsider and not know anybody and not even know where to turn for help. Everything I do in this department is with an eye to helping those who are disenfranchised."

Two years into her term of office, Chao worked to make significant changes to 54-year-old federal laws related to overtime pay for white-collar workers. She was successful in updating the laws, which added additional overtime protection for many workers. Chao also wanted to change old financial disclosure requirements for large unions, a measure fraught with controversy, but one which went into practice in 2004.

A few years later, Chao was successful in increasing the enforcement of labor laws for a number of businesses, resulting in the recovery of many pension assets and back pay for workers. This enforcement also extended to reservist soldiers returning from the war in Iraq who by law could return to their jobs or similar positions with the same pay and benefits. Over the years, Chao also continued to push health and safety regulations for workers, Bush's Social Security plan, pension reform, job training, and the president's immigrant guest worker program.

No matter how successful Chao became, she never forgot her roots as a young immigrant in the United States and how that experience affected her. Former colleague Nancy Kennedy told USA Today 's Armour, "She once showed me a picture of her parents and sisters. She said, 'This is when we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and I thought we were rich.' Her background instilled in her that she could succeed in anything."


Business Wire, May 26, 1994; February 7, 2001.

Christian Science Monitor , May 8, 1997, p. 12.

Houston Chronicle , April 18, 2003, p. 1.

Journal of Commerce , May 2, 1988, p. 12B.

New York Times , August 27, 1992, p. A18; February 26, 2001, p. A10.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , October 19, 2005, p. A11.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), December 5, 1992, p. 1B; August 19, 2004, p. B3; February 3, 2006, p. C3.

PR Newswire, May 17, 1996; September 24, 1998.

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), May 14, 1996, p. 34A.

St. Petersburg Times (Florida), April 20, 2005, p. 1D.

USA Today , January 12, 2001, p. 8A; August 29, 2003, p. 1B; October 28, 2005, p. 5B.

Washington Post , August 27, 1992, p. A16; May 19, 1996, p. A22; May 24, 1996, p. A1; January 12, 2001, p. A23.

Weekly Standard , January 15, 2007.

Workforce Management , August 1, 2005, p. 41, p. 44.

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