By: CAPA JRC reporter Doris Wang
[An Asian American businesswoman and former government official, Elaine Chao has been a remarkable figure in private and public sectors. Chao served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 2001 to 2009, later serving as Secretary of Transportation from 2017 to 2021. With an impressive career list, including Director of the Peace Corps, Chair of the Federal Maritime Commission, and CEO of United Way, Chao has a notable leader and trailblazer.]
Q: What were your experiences as a young immigrant in America? Were you able to communicate well with your peers?
Terrible…not only because I couldn’t speak English, but because I was very shy. I didn’t know how to express myself. So you learn. You grow older, and you learn. This is a country in which it is very important to learn and express yourself. Don’t be shy, say what you want to say. [Though you want to] think about it; don’t say whatever comes out of your mouth like some other people do…learn to express yourself.
Q: To have become the leader you are now from the shy girl you once were, did you have to proactively take initiative to put yourself in uncomfortable situations?
Every single job I’ve had, I wasn’t 100% sure that I could do the job, but I wanted to try. I always push the envelope in terms of challenging myself, and I think that’s very good. It came from my father, who always encouraged his daughters - six daughters - to explore our own potential, to look at the bigger world outside of our home, and to always learn, to observe, and to listen.
Q: What’s an example of a job that you think pushed you and made you grow more as a person?
Every single one of them. I went to college, 450 miles away. We used to have Chinese food every day, and now I [was at] this school with no Chinese people. I have to use forks and knives - I don’t know how to use forks and knives! It was like a surgery tray when you went in for dinner, and I didn’t understand that you have to go from the outside in. So if you ever go to a Western meal and you see all these utensils, keep in mind the guiding principle is: always go from the outside in. Then you just watch other people…[and] learn.
Q: You’ve held various high profile positions in government and business. How did you background in banking and international finance prepare you for public service? Being in public service means you have to listen. You have to try to understand a lot of different points of views. Having a varied background, not just in government, is very useful. Everything you do is going to be useful to you. It’s how you thread them together to be useful to you. Every kind of background is helpful in government. It’s how you take those experiences and translate them into the government mission at hand.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to go into public service? It is a privilege to serve. I came [to America] when I was eight years old. I am very appreciative of the opportunity to serve my country. Government is not about the applause, it’s not about the glamour. It’s really [about] contributing yourself to your country - that’s the proper attitude.
Q: During your tenure as the US Secretary of Transportation, what were some key achievements and initiatives you took to improve the country’s infrastructure that really stand out to you? Number one: we were hit with COVID, and we kept the supply chain open, moving, and safe. There were no shortages on grocery shelves, and people were able to buy things safely. Secondly, I also promoted innovation. I encouraged the development of the transportation system of the future, such as autonomous vehicles, drones, and commercial space. They’re going to be the transportation system of the future.
Q: As an influential figure in politics, do you have any advice that you want to leave for women and minorities seeking to pursue careers in government and business?
I think it’s very important to be yourself and pursue what you love. If you love what you’re doing, there’s no fear. You just want to do it because it’s so interesting. In my career, there were lots of people who were very mean, but I didn’t let them affect me, because I loved what I was doing. I was learning about America and the federal government. It was so exciting to be doing, every day, what I was doing. The daily indignities didn’t really bother me. Also…I knew I had a bigger goal: serving the country. I was leading the Asian American community.
[On another note,] this is a little bit too much [and] I wish I didn’t think that way…it was too serious a burden to place on myself…but when I was advancing in my career, there were so few Asian Americans that I felt if I didn’t do a good job, I would [hurt] the opportunities of other Asian Americans. I think that was too serious and too heavy a burden for a young woman to carry…[but] that’s how I felt at the time.
So what I want to say is: Don’t be afraid, explore, and if you don’t have a mentor, it doesn’t matter. You can learn on your own, which is what my parents taught me. They said it was really important to learn on our own because when we first came here, nobody paid us any attention. Nobody listened to us…nobody mentored us. We weren’t important enough to be mentored. So how did we learn? We watched other people. We listened. If you watch enough and you listen enough, you learn to pick up things. You learn to see patterns, and that’s how you teach yourself.
Chao recently published a book on her experiences as an Asian American woman in the United States, exploring her career throughout the decades. She currently serves as a member of the board of directors in multiple organizations.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.