Redefining the Road: Q&A with Elaine ChaoThe Honorable Elaine L. Chao
As Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao plays a vital role in shaping the industry. She oversees the formulation of national transportation policy and serves as principle advisor to the president in all matters relating to federal transportation programs.
Redefining the Road magazine recently caught up with Secretary Chao to talk about her personal career journey, her perspective on gender diversity and her insights on the industry today.
RTR: What inspired you to begin working in the transportation industry?
EC: Transportation has been a big part of my life. I immigrated to the United States on a cargo ship when I was eight years old, not speaking any English. When we settled in this country, my family and I learned about America through family road trips on our national high- way network. I never could have imagined then the opportunities that America would hold for my family and me.
My first job out of business school was working as a transportation banker. Then, I began my career in public service working on transportation issues at the White House. I went on to serve as Deputy Maritime Administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, and Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
I have always been grateful for the trust and confidence people have had in me to give me a job. In each position, I’ve been propelled by a desire to learn, a wish to do good, and the ability to have a positive impact. The fact that transportation systems connect people and provide access to needed goods and services has always resonated with me.
RTR: What have been the greatest challenges you faced in entering and rising through the ranks?
EC: Among the challenges I faced as a young staffer, was mastering the subject at hand, as well as learning to speak up and be taken seriously in meetings. Having a mastery of the subject matter gave me a better chance to “command the floor,” so to speak.
Women were something of a novelty in the upper levels of government and the private and nonprofit sectors at the time. Asian-American women were rarer still. I worked very hard. Each day, I tried to do what was asked of me with enthusiasm and resourcefulness.
It’s been my experience that if you do a good job, people take notice. The transportation sector is still very male-dominated today. I’ve always been a strong advocate for more inclusion of women and other under-represented communities in this sector.
RTR: Why do you think it’s important to incorporate more gender diversity in our industry?
EC: Today, more and more women are leading the way in some of our nation’s top industries,
including transportation. At the U.S. DOT, we’re proud that nearly 160 women occupy senior executive positions throughout the Department and the modes.
But women are still substantially underrepresented in the trucking industry. Data from the Women In Trucking Association indicates that women account for just 10.2 percent of the trucking workforce. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is committed to exploring new ways to recruit and support women behind the wheel of our trucks and buses. A diverse workforce, at every level, will benefit the entire industry.
RTR: Given your experience and back- ground, what advice would you share with women interested in pursuing transportation careers?
EC: Go for it! Transportation is the lifeblood of our economy. Transportation systems connect people and provide access to much needed goods and services. It’s an exciting sector!
Truckers play a critical role in keeping the supply chain open – and that’s never been more evident than in the wake of COVID-19. We have all seen the contributions that truckers make each day to support our economy in delivering needed goods and supplies all across America. I hope that the examples of these American heroes inspire the next generation of women to pursue careers in the transportation field.
RTR: How would you encourage women who are considering starting a business in the industry?
EC: My single biggest piece of advice is to never give up. America is truly the land of opportunity and entrepreneurial spirit. As with any new en- terprise, you need a solid business plan, a good accountant, and – as your business expands – to surround yourself with talented people who share your passion and commitment. With hard work, determination and tenacity, good things will happen.
At the U.S. DOT, we’re committed to creating ladders of opportunity for women-owned businesses. In fiscal year (FY) 2018, we award- ed more than 9 percent of contracts to women-owned small businesses.
In addition, during FY2018, the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program helped ensure that women-owned small businesses won a share of contracts awarded to firms working with recipients of Federal Aviation, Highway and Transit Administration funds. They won 54 percent of these federally assisted contracts, for a total amount of more than $2.5 billion.
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