BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE '19
President Elect Donald J. Trump named Elaine Chao ’75 as his pick for United States Transportation Secretary.
Chao is no stranger to the White House; she served as a White House Fellow in the Reagan Administration, was the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Transportation under George H.W. Bush, and was the Labor Secretary under George W. Bush. Chao was the only member of the Bush Administration to serve for all eight years.
Not only was Chao the first Asian American woman to hold a Cabinet position — she moved from Taipei, Taiwan to the United States at age eight with her family — but she was also the second Mount Holyoke alumna to hold the position of Labor Secretary. Frances Perkins, class of1902, was the first.
Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 as an economics major. She was also part of the Mandarin Chinese program, a student recruiter, a forward on the Field Hockey team and editor-in-chief of the yearbook in her junior year.
After Mount Holyoke, Chao attended the Harvard University Graduate School of Business where she was the first woman elected a class officer and class marshal. She graduated in 1979 with a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in finance and general management.
After her fellowship in the White House, Chao was the Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission where she led efforts to combat commercial malpractice in the Far East and Latin America. In 1991 George H.W. Bush named her the Director the Peace Corps. While director, she established the first outreach programs to the newly independent states of the Soviet Union. In 1992, she became president of United Way where she helped to restore the credibility and finances of the national charity following a scandal.
Chao has also held a position as a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Pending confirmation by the Senate, Ms. Chao would play a vital role in helping to pass Trump’s major infrastructure bill to rebuild roads and highways, given her wide-reaching experience in both the public and private sectors.
In a statement regarding Chao’s nomination, Mr. Trump announced: “Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner,” said president-elect Trump. “She has an amazing life story and has helped countless Americans in her public service career.”
Chao’s private sector work could serve as another important asset to Mr. Trump. Prior to her time in government service, Chao was the vice president of Bank of America capital markets group and was a banker for Citicorp where she helped close transactions involving transportation financing.
As Labor Secretary, Chao was criticized that her department favored business and did little to enforce existing laws on wages, overtime and workplace safety, according to Politico.
In 2003 the New York Times reported that Wells Fargo, of which she is a board member, was tainted by accounts that its managers allowed and promoted its employees to sign customers up for unsolicited services.
Though many are excited to see what Chao will bring to the table, some remain worried about the looming prospects of the Trump administration. “While I’m all for Asian and Mount Holyoke representation in politics,” Nabeeha Noor ’20 said, “the fact that she’s going to be part of an administration that will be so harmful to many definitely puts a damper on the whole thing. I get nervous thinking about what the administration she is a part of will do.”
Many, however, are hopeful that her years at Mount Holyoke prompted her success. “The position of Transportation Secretary is very important, and the fact that Chao is an alumna of the College is a great manifestation of the College’s enduring commitment to public service,” said Professor Emeritus of politics Vinnie Ferraro. “Let’s hope that she does a great job.”
Elaine Chao’s leadership was honored early on in her career. In Feb. 1984, Chao was the first alumna to receive the Alumnae Association’s Mary Lyon Award, which is given to young alumni who have been out of college 15 years or fewer and who demonstrate “promising or sustained achievement in their lives, professions or communities consistent with the humane values which Mary Lyon exemplified in her life and inspired in others.” The Alumnae Association credited her as “an outstanding role model for young professional women.”
The Mount Holyoke College Twitter page posted on Nov. 29: “Congratulations to Mount Holyoke alumna Elaine Chao ’75 who has been named next Secretary of Transportation!”