Elaine L. Chao, 24th U.S. Secretary of Labor (2001-2009)—and first Asian- American woman to be appointed to the president’s cabinet in our nation’s history—told Sacred Heart University students, faculty, alumni and visitors recently that she believes no one can “have it all.”
Chao was Linda McMahon’s featured guest for the latest session of the speaker series, “Women Can Have It All.” McMahon, a member of SHU’s board of trustees, asked Chao a number of questions about her perspectives on life and work, including her thoughts on the series’ topic.
“No, of course not,” Chao said. “I don’t think anyone can have everything in life. It’s just part of life. Life has trade-offs, life has sacrifices, and the paths not taken occur despite the best planning and the best preparation. I think it’s just really important to know when you get to a fork in the road, that you realize you’re at that point and you realize you’re making decisions.”
Chao went on to say that she does not look back and has no regrets. “I think how you handle life is up to you,” she said, noting that young people have so many choices nowadays, that life and decision-making are more difficult for them. Chao didn’t have as many options when she was young. “We just wanted to survive,” find a job, support the family and eventually get an apartment, she said.
Chao came to the U.S. from Taiwan at age 8 with her mother and two younger sisters. After nearly 40 days on a freight ship, they reached New York and joined her father, who had arrived in the states three years earlier for advanced studies. The family settled into a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y., and she soon started third grade.
“I learned English by copying whatever was on the blackboard into my notebook,” Chao said. At night, her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, would go through her notebook and teach her how to speak the new language.
While her surroundings were new and different and she often felt vulnerable, Chao said life was good. “We had the security and love of our parents and we were in America—the best country in the world.”
Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and an MBA from Harvard University. In 1993, she married Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the current senate majority leader.
Her positive attitude, sense of curiosity and parents who taught her she could do anything she wanted if she worked hard enabled Chao to obtain leadership positions in the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors. As president and CEO of the United Way of America, she helped restore confidence in the organization after financial mismanagement damaged its stature. During her tenure as director of the Peace Corps, she established programs in the former Soviet Union. She also held executive positions in banking before moving on to government roles.
When McMahon asked about Chao’s top jobs, she said most of the time she knew each position was going to be a challenge. It wasn’t until she joined the cabinet in 2001 that she felt truly confident in her abilities.
“That was one job I wasn’t hesitant about,” she said. “I really thought, given all my past experience, I was ideally positioned in terms of my own mind and confidence.” Even so, throughout her career, she constantly was learning how to be a good leader, she said. “Leadership is hard, and it doesn’t come easily. It’s a skill that takes time to acquire, and so I encourage young people to learn and practice their leadership skills.”
Responding to McMahon’s final question, she said would she tell her college self, “You have wonderful opportunities to lead an impactful life…don’t worry so much. You’re so lucky to be in this country.”
Junior Nicole Cote, who is studying marketing and sport management, said she appreciated Chao’s honesty. She asked Chao the final question of the afternoon and handed her a gift before they posed for photos together.
“She has a different background from some of the other speakers who came here,” said Cote, who has attended all of McMahon’s Women Can Have It All events. “She had a tough childhood…it was definitely inspiring to hear.” Cote also appreciated Chao’s honesty about women not being able to have it all. “It was a different view, very real. I liked that about her.”