Early Career 1983-89

At Harvard Business School, Elaine was elected by her classmates to be the Class Secretary and the Class Marshal to lead her graduating class during the Commencement Ceremony.

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Elaine Chao embarked upon a career in commercial banking as a banker with Citicorp in New York City. While at Citibank, she learned about the prestigious White House Fellowship program. When it was time for her next assignment, rather than go overseas with the Bank, she applied to the White House Fellowship program because she wanted to learn about the government in her new country. From among a very competitive nationwide field, she was selected as one of 12 White House Fellows, assigned to work at the White House, and thus was able to observe first-hand how our federal government functioned at the highest levels.

After her White House Fellowship, Chao resumed her banking career and moved to San Francisco to help establish the West Coast Syndications unit at BankAmerica Capital markets Group as Vice President of Syndications. But within two years, she returned to Washington, D. C. when she was appointed by then U. S. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole to be the Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration, the second in command. This agency promoted the U.S. merchant fleet and supported America’s water-borne transportation system, including ports, shipbuilding, and repair facilities. Elaine was the first woman and the first Asian Pacific American to achieve this high a position in the Department’s history.

Grateful for the opportunities her adopted nation offered, Elaine Chao had a prodigious work ethic, often clocking long hours and taking assignments others sometimes dismissed as insignificant. But she persevered because she remembered the sacrifices of her parents for the family and wanted to blaze new opportunities for her community.

By 1988, Elaine Chao had proven so effective at the Maritime Administration that President Ronald Reagan appointed her to become Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, an independent regulatory agency that oversees international ocean-borne commerce and reports directly to Congress. Again, Elaine was the first Asian Pacific American and youngest chairman in the Agency’s history. During her tenure, she led the congressionally mandated review of the Shipping Act of 1984 and established a strong record of enforcement against unfair trade practices overseas.

By 1989, Elaine Chao's abilities and diligence brought her increasing recognition as a rising young star and a position with even greater responsibility in the administration of President George H. W. Bush as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Transportation, the number two executive in a federal department with a budget of $30 billion and 110,000 employees.

“I think my first interactions were when she first came to be interviewed to serve as a White House fellow and I was very impressed; a very bright individual, great interpersonal skills and dedicated to excellence. ”

Elizabeth Dole
Former U.S. Senator from North Carolina