The late Ruth Chao with three of her daughters, including future Secretary of Labor Elaine, aboard the cargo ship that brought them to America
In 1969, Ruth Chao boarded a cargo ship bound for America from Asia. With her three daughters in tow, Chao endured a difficult and sometimes terrifying journey that nearly cost the life of one of her children. After 37 long days over 11,000 nautical miles, they arrived in New York and Chao was reunited with her husband, James Si-Cheng, who had left to seek a better life for his family in America three years earlier.
On Oct. 12, Dr. James Si-Cheng Chao and his family foundation announced a $40 million gift to the Harvard Business School. The gift was given in tribute to the life and legacy of his late wife, who he described as “the love of my life and my soul mate.”
Although Chao and his late wife are not alumni of Harvard Business School, four of their six daughters have attended the MBA program at HBS, including former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao who graduated from Harvard in 1979. Mrs. Chao, in fact, received the news of her lymphoma on the day of President Bush’s announcement that he had nominated her daughter, Elaine, to the cabinet post. Yet. She didn’t say a word, not wanting to dampen the happy moment for the family. Ruth fought valiantly for seven years before she succumbed to the disease on Aug. 2 of 2007.
The $40 million gift from this prominent Chinese-American family is among the largest pledges ever made to the Harvard Business School. It follows a $50 million gift from India’s Tata Group and its philanthropic interests in October of 2010. The Tata pledge was largest gift HBS had ever received from an international donor in the school’s 102-year history and is being used to put up the 34th separate building at Harvard Business School, a new academic and residential building for participants in the school’s executive education programs.
Mr. and Mrs. Chao with their daughter, Elaine
Harvard said the Chao gift will support both students in the MBA program and participants in the school’s executive education programs. Some $5 million of the gift is being used to establish the Ruth Mulan Chu and James Si-Cheng Chao Family Fellowship Fund, which will provide financial assistance to deserving students of Chinese heritage. The remaining $35 million will support the construction of a new Executive Education facility - The Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center. The architectural firm of Goody Clancy will design the new building, which will stand on the site where Kresge Hall now stands. The School plans to break ground for the new building in 2014.
“Ruth and I had an extraordinary life for 60 years before she returned to the Lord,” Dr. James S. C. Chao said in a statement. “I am eternally grateful for the unconditional love, trust and confidence she showed in me throughout our life and for always supporting and encouraging me in all our endeavors. I would like to dedicate this contribution to memorialize and honor my beloved wife and soul mate, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao.”
Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria called the Chao saga “the embodiment of the American Dream.” A former sea captain based in Taiwan, Chao arrived alone in America the day after Christmas in 1958. It took him three years before he was able to save enough money to send for his family to join him. Even so, the only passage he could afford for them was on a cargo ship. After their arrival in New York, the family of five lived in a small one-bedroom apartment and Chao worked three jobs to make ends meet.
In 1964, after graduating with an MBA from St. John’s University, he founded Foremost Maritime Corporation (now a part of Foremost Group) in New York City. His company was the major agent for shipments of rice to Vietnam during the war, and Foremost carried A.I.D. cargo for the United Nations during the Bangladesh war. Today, Foremost is a well-established, much respected international organization with activities in shipping, trading, and finance.
‘The Chao family is the embodiment of the American dream’
“The Chao family is the embodiment of the American dream, and we are humbled by their generosity,” said Nohria in a statement. “The new center will be the gateway to Executive Education at the School, and where we welcome the more than 10,000 managers and leaders who come to HBS each year from around the world. What is also very special about this gift is the story of the Chao family. To come to this country, and to rebuild their lives and achieve so much, speaks volumes about Dr. and Mrs. Chao’s courage and fortitude. Giving back in the way they have through public service and philanthropy speaks in equal measure to their individual and family values.”
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao (HBS MBA ’79), U.S. Secretary of Labor from 2001 to 2009 and the first Asian-American woman ever appointed to the President’s cabinet in American history, added in a statement accompanying the news release on the gift: “My mother was an incredibly inspiring person. She was a positive, optimistic person who believed in the transformational power of education regardless of gender in developing leaders for the world. Throughout our formative years, she always emphasized our responsibility to contribute to society and being kind and generous to others.”
The first photograph taken of the Chao family after Ruth arrived in America with their three daughters
“My family and Harvard Business School have had a remarkable relationship spanning four decades,” said Angela Chao, the youngest daughter of the Chao family (Harvard AB ’95 and HBS MBA ’01). “We are so pleased to be able to further the School’s work of educating leaders who make a difference in the world while at the same time honoring our mother – the woman who inspired us with her selflessness and courage.”