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HBS Alum Series: Q&A With The Honorable Elaine L. Chao, Class of 1979 Section C

The Honorable Elaine L. Chao, the 24th U. S. Secretary of Labor who served from 2001-2009, is the first Asian Pacific American woman to be appointed to a President’s Cabinet in American  history.

An immigrant who arrived in America at the age of eight speaking no English, Secretary Chao subsequently achieved a distinguished career in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Prior to the Department of Labor, Secretary Chao was President and CEO of United Way of America, Director of the Peace Corps, Vice President of Syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group and Citicorp.

The recipient of 34 honorary doctorate degrees, she currently serves on a number of boards including News Corp; Wells Fargo; Bloomberg Philanthropies; the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government; HBS Board of Dean’s Advisors.

A popular speaker on U. S. competitiveness, Secretary Chao is chair of Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Foundation, named after her late mother.   She is married to the Republican Leader of the U. S. Senate Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.  Her website is:

What was your experience while at HBS that has impacted the way you work today?

HBS taught me to be a leader.  Coming as I did from an Asian American cultural background, I was not used to speaking out and expressing myself.   Yet, in a democracy like ours, the ability to communicate clearly, persuasively, and sometimes forcefully is a very important trait of leaders.  Through the case method of instruction and from watching my section mates, I learned about group dynamics, how to frame my points in a clear, persuasive manner and gained confidence in my verbal communication skills.

What are some of the things you wish someone had told you during recruiting season?

Don’t be afraid to interview for positions you might not think you’d be good at.  In other words, don’t be afraid to over-reach.  HBS is about the only time in a students’ life when there is such a large supply of interviewers who are ready and interested in attracting you to their company.  Of course, the candidate should be prepared, do his or her homework on the company, but don’t be afraid to try for more interviews.   At HBS, the interviewers will sift out the ones they are interested in or sift out those they are not interested in.  Don’t be discouraged; just keep on trying.  You’ll never see such a rich environment of employers probably again in your life.

EC's are figuring out what career move they should make, how do you present a case for going into a career of service?

I think the most important thing students owe to themselves in this Society is to figure out what they are really interested in doing.  If a person is interested in something, he or she will have the tenacity, the patience, and the motivation to excel and succeed.  Being an immigrant to this country and having gone through the difficult assimilation and adaptation process myself, I wanted to make a difference in my new world and to help others find their way in this dynamic, opportunity-filled country!

What is the most important piece of advice you can give a new HBS graduate?

1. Find what you are really interested in doing.

2. Never give up.  The old adage is indeed true: Nothing of value comes easily. Nothing comes      without hard work, sacrifice, and trade-offs. So, it’s really important when you make your           choices that you know what the consequences are.

3. The true treasures of life are not monetary and they cannot be bought. They are the love and   respect of family, friends, and society.

4. Be fair and generous to others.

5. It’s people who make things happen in this world.  Even in the age of advanced technology, interpersonal skills and building human relationships are important.

How did your family become mission driven?

Our family’s values are instilled by my parents, Dr. James S. C. Chao & Mrs. Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, who I presume received their values through their parents.  My parents’ early lives bore witness to China’s domestic turmoil, political collapse, civil wars, and victimization by foreign invaders.  They left the land of their birth when they were in their early 20’s under circumstances beyond their control.  My parents were incredibly inspiring.  They possessed determination, hope, optimism, faith, and profound sense of altruism.  Having seen the worst of mankind, they, nevertheless, still believed in the best of humanity.

My parents didn't set out to accumulate financial wealth.  They believed in certain core values and principles.  They believed they were providing a valuable service in their company for the world.  Because they were providing a needed and valuable service, financial success followed.  But, it was not their goal.  I think my parents are incredibly inspiring and successful people, not because of their financial might, but because they knew who they were, they were true to their values, they raised a wonderful family with each child able to realize their own potential.  They have the love of their family, their community.  They were highly respected and known for their integrity and contributions to the world in which they lived. At the end of a long life, I believe that is the definition of real success.

Every HBS student would become alumni at some point and they would be vetted for giving. Why did your family choose to give?

My parents had always been generous philanthropists throughout their lives.  They started one of the first charities in China as soon as China opened to the west in 1979 after a 30 year period of isolation.  They led a very modest, humble lifestyle.  As soon as they began to achieve their financial success, they gave to the Church, to their Alma maters, to the Asian American community, and to causes within our community.  They gave anonymously believing that all blessings came from the Lord and it was their responsibility to share what they had achieved, even though they worked very hard to attain such success.  You know, there are charities that asks donors to support a child for $x a month or so and with each appeal comes a photo of a child in need.  My mother had six children, yet she found time and money to contribute to charities that sponsored children in need in developing countries.  I even have memories of her writing letters to these children and sending them along with her donation to the charity.  In addition to giving financially, my parents were active, devoted volunteers in their church, community, Alma mater and Asian American groups. We love that four of you went to HBS, are there any secrets or family values that created this path for all of you?

We are all very different but we love each other and are very supportive of one another.  This sense of family, or teamwork, was cultivated and emphasized by our parents.  They had a saying:  one for all; all for one!  With 8 people in the family, it’s really important that we don’t always think of ourselves but think of others.  For example, when Angela, my youngest sister, graduated from Harvard, we all went to her graduation and we knew it was HER special day.  So, each of the sisters had a responsibility to try to make the day special for her.   On another occasion, it would be another sister’s event and we all took turns celebrating each others’ successes and helping to make it truly memorable in a good way. What was the decision process to move from banking (CitiBank) into a career of service?

One of the greatest gifts my parents gave their children is to challenge us to find our true talents and interests.  They wanted us to constantly learn and to grow, to become better people and to take a larger and longer view of the possibilities in life!   My parents and the first three daughters (out of six) are immigrants to this country. We didn't understand so much about America when we first arrived.  Yet, despite the initial adversities upon their arrival, my parents never lost their hope, optimism, determination and courage.  They believed America would offer their children so many more opportunities, even though they could not imagine at the time what these future opportunities could be.  At the same time, they always emphasized to us that with opportunity comes obligations – a duty to help others, to contribute to Society and to be grateful for all of life’s blessings!

I remember how difficult it was to adjust as a newcomer to America.  We didn’t speak the language, understand the culture and customs and traditions of this new country.  My own experience transitioning to a new country was propelled me to try to help others access the opportunities to improve their lives and that of their families.

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