Asian-American and Pacific Islander Transportation History: Secretary Elaine L. Chao, US Department of Transportation

When she was sworn in as the 18th U.S. secretary of transportation in January 2017, Elaine L. Chao became the first Asian-American woman and the first Chinese-American to hold that position. (During her tenure as U.S. secretary of labor from 2001 to 2009, she was the first-ever person in both of those categories to be appointed to any U.S. president’s cabinet.)

Chao, who is married to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was born in Taipei City in Taiwan in 1953. When she was eight years old, Chao immigrated with her family to the United States. They lived on Long Island, with Chao earning a B.A. in economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School in 1979. At the age of 19, Chao became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Chao’s initial career entailed working for several financial institutions in the private sector. Her areas of expertise during this time included transportation financing. In 1986, Chao was appointed deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). She served in this role until being named chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission in 1988. In 1989, Chao was named deputy secretary of transportation at USDOT. She remained in this position until 1991, when she became director of the Peace Corps. After stepping down from that position in 1992, Chao served as president and chief executive officer of the United Way of America until 1996. She has also served on several boards of directors.

A little less than two months after becoming transportation secretary, Chao spoke at an open house commemorating USDOT’s golden anniversary. “It is so exciting to celebrate the 50th birthday of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and to preview the exciting new trends transforming the transportation system today,” Chao told those in attendance. “When I first came to the Department so many years ago, smartphones and drones were part of the Star-Trek universe. Well, they’re not science fiction anymore!”

During the remainder of her remarks, Chao further highlighted both USDOT’s achievements and its ongoing objectives. “In the 50 years since the Department first opened its doors on April 1, 1967, we have seen an amazing transformation of our country’s infrastructure,” Chao said. “Change, however, brings many challenges. And the Department of Transportation will be at the forefront of shaping this change, by focusing on the three priorities at the heart of our mission: enhancing safety, refurbishing infrastructure and preparing for the future.”

For more information on USDOT Secretary Elaine L. Chao, please check out

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