From Immigrant Outsider to D.C. Insider

By Jonathan Pont

Aug. 2, 2005

S ecretary of labor Elaine Chao recalls arriving in Los Angeles by freighter from Taiwan in 1961 with her mother and two of her sisters. She was 8 years old, and she spoke no English.

    As a new immigrant, she was struck by the way Americans smiled and greeted one another. “It was frightening to someone from a culture that doesn’t have a tradition of strangers coming up and talking to you,” Chao says.

    Her father, James Chao, had come three years earlier to work and study and, she says, because “he knew it was a land of opportunity.” The young family settled in a Queens neighborhood in New York not far from Kennedy Airport. She says she sat through the entire third grade not understanding a word of what was going on in the classroom.

    And there were other difficulties. Chao says her father occasionally was the target of ridicule because of his ethnic background, but that he continuously set high standards for his daughters–there eventually were six–and encouraged them to seek opportunities outside the immigrant community.

    Chao says one of the happiest times in the family’s initial years in America was the day in 1964 when her father graduated from St. John’s University in Queens. The family borrowed a car to get to the ceremony, and the commencement speaker was Sargent Shriver, then-director of the Peace Corps.

    Chao herself would be named director of the Peace Corps in 1991.

    After her father started a shipping business, he moved the family to suburban Westchester County. Chao and her five younger sisters all attended Ivy League schools and now work in politics, law, social work or the family shipping business.

    Chao earned a degree in economics at Mount Holyoke in 1975 and an MBA at the Harvard Business School four years later. She had two jobs in banking before becoming a White House fellow in 1983. It was that experience that crystallized her interest in politics.

    She says that while she is proud of becoming the first Asian-American woman to serve at the Cabinet level, her path to public service is more rooted in her curiosity about how the federal system functions and its overlap with nonprofit groups and business.

    “I think I’m a much better leader now than I ever was before,” Chao says. “You work, you live and you learn. My early life experiences have been pressed upon me very deeply. The suffering people go through, the sacrifices and the fear that newcomers face when they come to this country.”

    She and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the second-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, were married in 1993. The couple has no children; McConnell has three daughters from a previous marriage. On weekends, Chao says she and her husband like to go home to their townhouse in Louisville, Kentucky. She says she and McConnell particularly enjoy ordinary activities like tailgate parties and college football games, as well as attending the Kentucky Derby.

    Chao and her father recently were honored together at Ellis Island for outstanding contributions to American society, with the elder Chao celebrated for his volunteer work with immigrants and service to St. John’s University.

Workforce Management, August 2005, p. 44Subscribe Now!

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