Like so many other Americans, Elaine Chao began her life in this country with nothing. She arrived as a child with her family, traveling 30 days on a freighter from Hong Kong. She spoke no English and spent her first Halloween terrified that she was being held up by "little monsters" who kept ringing the doorbell and demanding candy.
Today, Ms. Chao is one of an elite few who have made it to the top in all three sectors of the workplace - governmental, private, and nonprofit. She resurrected a floundering organization as president of the United Way of America and provided direction to an institution in flux as director of the Peace Corps. She also worked as a banker and as US deputy secretary of transportation, and recently became a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Chao spoke last weekend at "Women and Leadership: Pathways to Power." The 18th annual professional-development conference is sponsored by the Simmons College Graduate School of Management Alumnae Association.
Her experiences give her an unusually broad perspective on the competing demands of a global economy, government downsizing, and pressing social needs.
Her advice? Look to women for solutions and don't neglect this country's unique history of volunteerism.
"It is such a part of us as Americans that we have a strong and valuable tradition of giving to others unconnected by blood or marriage," she says. "And as we look forward to a nation of increasing diversity, where people from all over the world with different cultures and different identities come together to realize this great phenomenon called the American dream, we need to understand much, much more our respective differences and our respective commonalities. It's through the act of volunteerism that you will find this occurring."
Valuable role in nonprofits
Women have an especially valuable role to play in the nonprofit sector, says Chao, a petite woman with a calm yet upbeat voice, and a subdued sense of humor.
Nonprofit leadership draws on skills that she says are in tune with women's tendency to build consensus. "In the nonprofit sector, there are so many diverse groups that come together to try to accomplish a greater goal," she said in an interview. "Women, because again, we're better at building alliances, better at listening, and hearing what other people are really saying, possess great skills in dealing with this sector."
Many observers feel Chao has set a high standard for what women can accomplish.
"This little woman was sent in to do a man's job, again and again, and she's always done it well," says Joyce Kolligian, the Simmons conference director.
When Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and then received her MBA from Harvard University in 1979, the working world was a much less friendly place for women than it is today. Women made up fewer than 4 percent of middle management. Her graduating class at Harvard Business School was only 29 percent women.
But today, Chao sees the tables turning. "I think the workplace is changing in our favor. We are now into an ... environment in which women's natural managerial skills - focusing consensus, seeking compromise, motivating, cajoling - that's much more important now.
"The work force has been changed by the economic climate - it's a much more competitive, global environment. The traditional women's managerial style is very emblematic of how Asians manage - not top down, very conciliatory, very polite, very group-oriented. So, as [the nation] becomes more international and part of a larger community, ... women find their skills are very valuable."
Moving to the top
The challenge for women now, says Ms. Kolligian, is to move into business's top jobs. Only 2 percent of women are executives in the nation's largest companies.
Kolligian calls Chao a powerful role model for women on that track. "Women relate to her with awe, because her accomplishments were not in just one sector. What she has is, first of all, an incredible intelligence and secondly, an incredible way of knowing an organization and figuring a way to manage in whatever setting." But Chao warns that the path to the top does not come easy to anyone. "Life is not without trade-offs for men and women, and when we make our choices, we should be aware of the path we are choosing and attendant paths not chosen."
In the end, though, Chao says volunteering must not fall by the wayside.
"Always be willing to lend a helping hand," she says. "All of us, sometime or another, feel swamped with all that we have to do. But being part of a community means reaching out and helping others. It's energizing. It's rewarding. And, who knows, we may see our actions reciprocated when we need it as well."