When Elaine Chao's cargo ship made it to America in 1961, the young girl could have scarcely imagined that she would eventually become one of the country's most powerful women. She was eight years old and didn't speak any English. But since then, Chao’s life has represented a quintessential American success story. Chao's distinguished career includes being the director of the Peace Corps, president and CEO of United Way of America, and most recently she was named Secretary of Transportation by Former President Trump. Recognized with innumerable awards for her distinguished career in public service, she is the recipient of 36 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities across the globe.
Prior to her groundbreaking career in politics, Chao sought a Master of Business Administration degree at Harvard Business School, selecting a concentration in finance. Never one to shy away from hard work, Chao was able to balance her academics with her ongoing responsibilities as an employee of the Gulf Oil Corporation, a major global manufacturing company. In return, Chao's hard work earned her some of the top marks among her Harvard classmates. In 1979 she received her MBA, while also becoming the first woman elected a class officer and class marshal at the prestigious program.
Speaking of the importance that Harvard has had to her amazing career, Chao explained, "The culture that I grew up in didn't place a premium on verbal communication, so I was terrified during my first year. But I found the School to be such an exciting place, and I learned to voice my positions... It was a seminal experience."
Since then, Chao has been one of her alma mater's brightest stars. In 1993, the accomplished leader was given a Harvard Business School Alumni Achievement Award, one of the program's highest honors for distinguished graduates who have contributed significantly to their communities. Then in 2002, Chao returned for that year's orientation of MBA students, this time addressing the new students as the U.S. Secretary of Labor. In addition, she served on the Harvard Institute of Politics Senior Advisory Board Committee from 2002 until 2016.
But it was in 2004 that Chao and her family dropped a bombshell on the Cambridge campus when they announced the donation of $40 million to the Harvard Business School, funds that would be used to establish a both a fellowship and the construction of a new Executive Education facility. Called the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, after Chao's mother, Chao took place in the ceremonial ribbon cutting upon its completion in 2016. It is the first building named after a woman on the Harvard campus and is another sign of Chao's ongoing commitment to a life dedicated to education and public service.