Who Is Elaine L. Chao?
Born in Taiwan, Elaine L. Chao grew up in the U.S. and received an M.B.A. from Harvard University. After a stint in the financial sector, she took positions with the Department of Transportation, the United Way and the Peace Corps. Chao also joined the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. She served as U.S. Secretary of Labor for President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009 and was appointed Secretary of Transportation under President Donald Trump in 2017. Chao has been married to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell since 1993.
Early Years and Education
Born on March 26, 1953, in Taipei, Taiwan, Elaine L. Chao arrived in the United States at the age of eight without knowing any English. However, she adapted to her new country and excelled as a student, earning a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and a master’s of business administration from Harvard University in 1979.
Early Career: Banks, Transportation Department, Peace Corps
At first, Elaine L. Chao worked in the financial sector for such banking giants as Citicorp and BankAmerica. By the mid-to-late 1980s, she began her involvement in public affairs as the deputy maritime administrator in the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Chao went on to other posts in the transportation department as well as a stint as the chair of the Federal Maritime Commission. A loyal Republican, Chao was selected to serve as head of the Peace Corps in 1991 but soon lost her post after President George H.W. Bush failed in his bid for reelection.
United Way Chief to Heritage Foundation
Elaine L. Chao became the president and chief executive officer of the United Way of America in 1992. She joined the charitable organization after claims of financial mismanagement had damaged its reputation. With her work cut out for her, Chao took on the challenge and accepted a lesser salary than previous presidents. She restructured the organization and cut staff to rein in its finances and restore the public’s trust.
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After leaving the United Way in 1996, Elaine L. Chao joined the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research institution, as a distinguished fellow.
Cabinet Posts: Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation
In 2001, President George W. Bush selected Chao to become a member of his Cabinet as Secretary of Labor, making her the first Asian-American woman to serve at this level of government. As Secretary of Labor, she worked to improve overtime regulations for millions of workers as well as update regulations related to union disclosures of financial information.
Chao returned to a Cabinet position when she assumed office as Secretary of Transportation under President Donald Trump in early 2017. Chao resigned from the post in 2021 amid the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill. Chao said it “deeply troubled me in a way I simply cannot set aside.”
In 2021, ChargePoint, an electric vehicle charging company, appointed Chao to its board of directors.
Politics and public service are a family affair for Elaine L. Chao. She has been married to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky since 1993.