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Elaine Chao and the Peace Corps and United Way
Elaine Chao and the Peace Corps and United Way
Nationality: Chinese, American
Ethnicity: Asian American
Occupation: Secretary of Labor
Table of Contents
The year is 1961. President John F. Kennedy has just created the Peace Corps. He speaks idealistically of creating world peace and promoting friendship, of encouraging American volunteers to learn how to work side by side with citizens of developing nations.
In one of those developing nations, Taiwan, eight-year-old Elaine Chao plays in the red earthen clay with her sisters, while her parents, James and Ruth, dream of a better future. James, at the time, was studying at St. John's University in Queens, New York. Later that year, Elaine, her mother, and sisters board a freighter from Taipei to join their father in America.
"It was a wonderful trip for a small child of eight," Chao told Geraldine Baum in a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, shortly after then-president George Bush named her director of the Peace Corps. "My first port of call was Los Angeles. That's where I laid my first foot on America."
Though Chao had never served as a Peace Corps volunteer, her appointment to head the agency in late 1991 seemed like a natural fit: an immigrant from a developing country heading an agency in the midst of transition. A Republican loyalist who'd campaigned for Bush, California governor Pete Wilson, and other Los Angeles-area Republicans, she represented a new, young and refreshing political face.
The limelight faded quickly, however. Chao lost her job as head of the Peace Corps when Bush lost his bid for reelection. But she had too many skills to disappear entirely. In mid-1992, she was named president of United Way of America, a job that has perhaps stretched her well-touted management skills and experience with nonprofits to the limit.
When Chao took over the job of United Way director, the agency was in turmoil. Former United Way president William Aramony had been pulling in a $390,000 annual salary. He had spent agency donations on first-class airline tickets and had hired a friend with questionable bank dealings as the agency's chief financial officer. As these disclosures became known, local United Way agencies began withholding dues. As the scandal hit the headlines, Aramony resigned under fire. United Way donations plummeted by $140 million between 1991 and 1992.
Chao's job was to reform the agency and help it regain credibility. Selected from a list of 600 candidates, she was praised for her integrity, honesty, and management skills. She did not seek the position, but after accepting the job, called it too good to pass up. "United Way of America is a challenge that I could not decline," she said in an August 1992 interview with the Washington Post.
Born in Taiwan, she emigrated to the United States with her mother and sisters in 1961. The family, rejoining her father, James, settled in Queens, New York. After her father completed college, he formed a shipping and trading business, Foremost Maritime Corporation, which today is well known in international shipping circles.
Chao remembers her father as hard-working and driven, a man who taught his daughters how to fix toilets and apply tar to driveways. He passed on conservative values, stressing the importance of hard work and education in achieving one's goals. As the shipping business prospered, the family moved from Queens to Long Island and eventually to an affluent New York City suburb in Westchester County.
Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received her master's in business administration from the Harvard Business School. She also studied at such prestigious institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University. After completing her schooling, Chao began to climb the corporate ladder. With a background in international banking and finance, she worked from 1979 to 1983 as an international banker at Citicorp in New York. She was selected as a White House fellow to serve at the White House in 1983 and 1984, and joined BankAmerica Capital Markets Group in San Francisco as vice-president of syndications.
After moving to California, she got involved in Republican politics, campaigning for Bush, Wilson, and local politicians. She served as national chairman of Asian Americans for Bush/Quayle in 1988 and spoke briefly at the GOP convention.
Her work was rewarded with an appointment as deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration, which launched her on a slow but steady climb through federal government bureaucracy. After two years as deputy administrator, she became chairperson of the Federal Maritime Commission and then was appointed deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. As she climbed the ranks, she gained a reputation as a confident, hardworking manager. She also gained insights into Washington D.C.'s inside political network.
Chao attended luncheons with Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, dated various political insiders, and networked heavily. This networking, along with her hard work, made her the highest ranking Asian Pacific American woman in the executive branch in U.S. history.
But some of her stances occasionally infuriated other Asian Americans. For instance, she joined Bush in opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1991 because it promoted quotas, a concept she felt inhibited minorities' meritorious achievements.
Nevertheless, when first appointed Peace Corps director, she spoke of her immigrant roots with pride. At her swearing-in ceremony, she talked about playing with red earthen clay as a child because there were no other toys and of eating duck eggs because chicken eggs were unavailable. "These memories of living in a developing nation are part of who I am today and give me a profound understanding of the challenges of economic development," she said in a January 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
The Peace Corps, at the time, was in the midst of transition. Bush wanted the organization to develop more specialized training for less-poor but highly needy emerging democracies, such as Hungary and Bulgaria. It also was fighting to overcome an image of arrogance that had been fostered through its thirty-year existence. Chao felt she could understand this arrogance well. "I still remember ... how valuable tissue paper was and how rich Americans seemed because they would use it up and throw it away so easily," she said in a 1992 interview with American Shipper magazine. "It's an attitude thing, born out of naturally acquired affluence. It's hard to explain, but it stays with you and you understand the feeling."
United Way Challenge
When she joined United Way, she approached the agency much as she approached the Peace Corps. Just as she visited nearly half of the agency's active volunteers worldwide, she spent much of her first year as United Way director visiting local affiliates from Maine to Oregon, trying to determine what they felt was missing. She felt strongly that making the national organization more sensitive to local needs would be a key to turning United Way around. "This is a redress that is badly needed and is long in coming," she said in a May 1993 interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
To restore public confidence in the agency, Chao started at a salary of $195,000, half the salary of her controversial predecessor. She imposed new travel and expense controls, and restructured programs to put more emphasis on training, field regulation, and service. Before she joined United Way, the agency had increased its board of directors from thirty to forty-seven members to include more local affiliate representatives. To directly serve local agencies, she established a member-services division.
Like most restructurings, the changes at United Way were painful. Nearly one-third of the agency's staff was let go, and its budget was cut by one-third. But Chao is slowly getting results. As of late 1993, most affiliates who had withheld dues had returned to the fold. And, although a difficult economy caused a slowdown in charitable contributions, Chao said her prognosis for 1994 was "cautious optimism."
On January 31, 2001, Chao was sworn in as the nation's 24th Secretary of Labor, making her the first Asian-American woman appointed to a President's cabinet in U.S. history.
Family: The family, rejoining her father, James, settled in Queens, New York. After her father completed college, he formed a shipping and trading business, Foremost Maritime Corporation. Education: Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received her master's in business administration from the Harvard Business School. She also studied at such prestigious institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University.
* Baum, Geraldine. "An Insider Moves Up." Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1993.
* Canna, Elizabeth. "Free Market Peace Corps." American Shipper, March 1902.
* MacLachlan, Suzanne L. "United Way Hit by Weak Economy, Old Scandal and Competition." Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 1993.
* Melillo, Wendy. "United Way Names New President." Washington, Post, August 27, 1992.
* Scala, Richard P. "Chao to head United Way of America." Fund Raising Management, October 1992.
* United Way. "Elaine Chao." Biographical materials, 1994.