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Elaine Chao kicks off Presidential Speaker Series at Flagler College

Nov 3, 2023
by Anna Boone

This week, the Flagler College community heard from Elaine Chao, 24th U.S. Secretary of Labor and 18th U.S. Secretary of Transportation, about current trends in the economy and the workforce, her family’s immigrant story, insights from her time serving twice in the President’s Cabinet, the delays and congestion in our national air space, and the American transportation technology and innovation that she believes is on the horizon.

Her presentation, “Innovation & The Transportation System of the Future,” was the first of Flagler’s Presidential Speaker Series.

One of Chao’s early roles in the U.S. government was working as deputy secretary underneath Elizabeth Dole in the Department of Transportation. Chao shared that once, when Dole was asked why she hired Chao, Secretary Dole  responded, “My staff told me that she was incredibly hardworking, she was responsive, and she was quick, accurate, and thorough.”

Secretary Chao credits this work ethic for her professional success, as the first woman of Asian American & Pacific Islander heritage to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, but Chao said it never felt like hard work.

“I worked incredibly hard, but I didn't think I was really working hard,” Chao said. “I enjoyed what I was doing.”

This enjoyment was partially fueled by Chao’s experience as an immigrant, and her outlook on the opportunities she was given.

“I was so excited to do what I was doing,” Chao said. “As an immigrant, to be able to serve our country and the American people, what an honor, what a privilege.”

She spoke about her father, who was recently honored by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy with being the Reviewing Official at the Regimental Review and the Scientiae Cedit Mare award at the age of 96, and his resilient young adulthood.

Chao said her father grew up in poverty and relied on scholarships throughout his education. Eventually, he attended one of the best universities in Shanghai where he studied  navigation and marine engineering.

During the height of the Chinese Civil War, Chao’s father relocated to Taiwan, and became one of the youngest sea captains at the age of 29.  Life at sea meant months of separation from the family, so he earned a top score on a national exam that gave him the opportunity to go abroad and study. It was a hard transition, but she said her parents had no hesitation in deciding where her father would take their young family for his studies abroad.  

“If you had a chance to go to America, you went right away then,” Chao said. “We didn't want to miss that opportunity.”   He went to America first and the family was separated for three years before he could bring them to America.

In her speech, Chao said she believes we live in a country “where our potential is viewed as our birthright.”

One area where Chao thinks the U.S. has a great deal of potential is in our transportation innovation, a topic that was a central focus of Chao’s presentation. She explained that, during her time as Secretary of Transportation, she had three primary goals:

“First, safety is always number one,” Chao said. “Two, invest in the transportation infrastructure to ensure efficiency, economic vibrancy, and enhanced quality of life; and third, build the foundation for the transportation system of the future.”

And she believes Artificial Intelligence (AI) is our key to each one of those goals. 

“From self-driving vehicles, drones, management of traffic lights, road condition monitoring, license plate recognition, and traffic incident detection, AI is helping companies develop better tools and transforming our lives,” Chao said.

She discussed multiple innovative transportation technologies of the future from things like automated trucking that she believes could subsidize the shortage of truckers in the industry and streamline to the advancement of supersonic jets for commercial space travel and tourism.

She shared Florida is a cauldron of activity in mobility options and services and making advances not only in automated vehicles, but also in commercial space, connected vehicles, electric vehicles, and shared transportation technologies. The future will be defined by these technologies, and Florida is taking the lead and serving as a global role model for autonomous vehicles, supply chain logistics, e-commerce, and artificial intelligence.

“Transportation is a vital connector that enables our mobility, productivity, and quality of life,” Chao said.

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