Our Interviews

Interview with Elaine Chao

May 29, 2013

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the publishing of Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Rosie the Riveter” painting on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  Rosie became a symbol for a movement as the number of working American women nearly doubled in the short time between 1940 and 1944.

Today, working American women look to examples of real-life Rosies as models of success in the workplace. At Minute Mentoring®, we strive to be a forum for young professional women to interact with their accomplished female counterparts and learn their top tips for success.  With both in-person sessions and a growing number of online opportunities, we try offer many young women access to insights  from today’s Rosies.

So, what better way to celebrate Rosie’s anniversary than with a Q&A with former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao?  She is unquestionably a role model for working women and we are grateful that she took the time to share her experiences with us.

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Elaine L. Chao, the 24th U. S. Secretary of Labor who served from 2001-2009, is the first American woman of Asian descent to be appointed to a President’s Cabinet in our nation’s history.  She is also the longest tenured Secretary of Labor since World War II. 

An immigrant who arrived in America at the age of eight speaking no English, Secretary Chao’s experience transitioning to a new country has motivated her to devote most of her professional life to ensuring that all people have the opportunity to build better lives.

Secretary Chao has a distinguished career in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.  As the first Secretary of Labor in the 21st Century, she focused on increasing the competitiveness of America’s workforce in a global economy and achieved record results in workplace safety and health.  

Prior to the Department of Labor, Secretary Chao was President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of America, where she restored public trust and confidence in one of our nation’s premier institutions of private charitable giving after it had been tarnished by financial mismanagement and abuse.  As director of the Peace Corps, she established the first programs in the Baltic nations and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. Her government service also includes serving as Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. She has also worked in the private sector as Vice President of Syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group and Citicorp.  

Secretary Chao earned her MBA from the Harvard Business School and an economics degree from Mount Holyoke College.  Honored for her extensive record of accomplishments and public service, she is the recipient of 34 honorary doctorate degrees. 

A popular speaker on jobs, the economy, and U. S. competitiveness, Secretary Chao is a Distinguished Fellow in at the Heritage Foundation.  She currently serves on a number of nonprofit and corporate boards including News Corp; Wells Fargo; Dole Food Company; Harvard Business School Board of Global Advisors; Harvard Business School Board of Dean’s Advisors.  She is married to the Republican Leader of the United States Senate Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.  Her website is: www.ElaineLChao.com.



You are the eldest of six daughters, and you have always been very close to your family. Was there anything in particular that your parents instilled in you and your sisters that stands out as helping you achieve so much in your life?

My parents and I are immigrants to this country. Even though my parents were not familiar with the culture– and could not have imagined the opportunities available for their daughters to succeed– they believed America was the land of opportunity! They imbued us with the belief that, regardless of our gender, we could accomplish anything if we were willing to study hard, work hard and dream beyond the confines of our environment at the time.



You have had lots of different high-profile positions – First in the financial sector, then at the Department of Transportation, followed by the Peace Corps, the United Way of America, the Heritage Foundation, and eventually the longest serving cabinet member of the George W. Bush administration as the Secretary of the Department of Labor (and we’re sure we’re missing some!). When you were starting out, did you have a career path in mind? And was there a mentor you met along the way that gave you guidance on how to manage such significant roles?

When I was starting out in my career, I had very simple wishes. I wanted to get an apartment on my own i.e., move out of my parents’ home– isn’t that every young person’s dream!  And I wanted to get a good job, so I could be financially independent and make my family proud of me.

By working hard, persevering and maintaining a positive attitude, I won many mentors along the way.   Most people want to help young people who are eager and willing to learn. But while mentors are helpful, it is even more important to have some idea of where you want to go in life, to possess drive and to cultivate inner motivation.



As the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a president’s cabinet, did your confirmation to that position break through one of those perceived barriers to achievement?

As the first Asian Pacific American woman ever appointed to a president’s cabinet in our country’s history, I was very aware that whatever I did reflected on the Asian Pacific American community.  I worked very hard to be worthy of that tremendous honor. During my career, I have also tried to help others along the way, as a way of giving back to those who have helped me.



American women have been making major strides in the workforce and today we remember that icon we’ve all come to recognize instantly, Rosie the Riveter. While there is a long way to go in certain areas, the progress has been remarkable in many ways. For young women starting their careers or wrestling with those tough decisions about balancing work and family, what are the most significant issues that women in the workplace will contend with in the next 10-20 years?

Today, the workplace is much more accommodating than it was 30 years ago. Both women and men, however, still have to wrestle with the tough choices of balancing work and family. It is important to understand life’s major choices, and to make these choices carefully and mindfully, in order not to look back with regret.



At Minute Mentoring®, we ask our Mentors to provide Mentees with their top three tips for success. What are yours?

My 3 tips are:

1. Never give up!

2. Love what you doing! If you love what you are doing, you have a greater chance of excelling and succeeding.

3. The true treasures of life are: family, friends, and love.