Secretary of Labor addresses APIA businesses
By Ethen Lieser
On the 30th floor of the Crown Plaza Union Square building in the heart of San Francisco, around 100 Asian American business men and women gathered to hear U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao address issues of utmost importance in the Asian Pacific Islander American labor community.
Sponsored by the Asian Business Association, the round table discussion was set beneath candle-lit chandeliers and whispering talk from those who attended. Television cameras and photographers lurked. Reporters were restless. The chair for Secretary Chao was positioned in the middle of the head table, in the foreground of U.S. and California flags, where she would be in best view from any angle of the room.
When Secretary Chao did finally reach the top floor of the Crown Plaza, she was several minutes late, but needless to say, no one was disappointed, as the awaiting crowed stood up and greeted the nations 24th Secretary of Labor with roaring applause.
Chiling Tong, the president of the International Leadership Foundation, helped introduce the Secretary: She has remembered her friends, and most importantly, she has helped many Asian Americans to break the glass ceiling into a better life.
Chao, 47, the first APIA woman appointed to a Presidents cabinet in U.S. history, spoke for about 30 minutes on issues such as immigration, affirmative action and the minimum wage. The former president and chief executive officer of United Way of America and Peace Corps heads the $44 billion-budgeted U.S. Department of Labor.
President George W. Bush appointed her for the cabinet position after his first choice, Linda Chavez, withdrew from consideration after she came under fire for sheltering an illegal immigrant in her home. Chao was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Jan. 29.
Born in Taiwan, she immigrated to the United States when she was eight years old, without knowing English. She attended Mount Holyoke College and received her MBA from Harvard Business School. Chao is married to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
I am overwhelmed by the tremendous outpouring of support from the Asian American community, she said. After fumbling with the microphones, she finally located the one she was supposed to use and joked, They can send a man on the moon, which triggered raucous laughter.
In an era of American history where APIAs are making unprecedented ground in government and business, Basilio Chen, the president of the Asian Business Association, applauded Chaos presence at the round table discussion. Chen noted that although Asian Americans only make up four percent of the nations population, the community has still become an important voice.
It is a known fact today in the United States that Asian Americans are the fastest growing community in America, with 3.5 percent growth per year, Chen said. If you would put all Asian Americans in a new territory called the Asian American Nation, our combined economy would be ranked as the 15th largest economy in the world.
Throughout her brief term in office, Chao has tried to recruit more APIAs into the White House and leadership positions. Chao said she will continue this work to diversify workplaces on a national basis.
Asian Americans as career professionals are underrepresented, she said. I have asked the Department of Labor to take up a study and propose a plan on how we can address that.
Her budget also includes a possible tax credit for those who are in work training programs, more lenient immigration laws that dont just afford amnesty to Mexicans and laws that give people with disabilities and the elderly more labor opportunities. Though bombarded with questions on the national economic slump, Chao remains optimistic. The prognosis looks good for the future, she said.
One of the most controversial topics Secretary Chao brought up was the issue on affirmative action. She believes quotas can hurt the APIA community by leaving talented people outside the working door.
I am very concerned about the quota system, which can hurt Asian Americans, Chao said. We are a very talented community and there are many, many instances in which we are not getting our fair share because we are only four percent of the population. I believe this will be a large issue in the community, and I think we have to work together on how to work this out.
At the end of her speech, Chao was escorted out of the room. Many attendees stayed afterward to talk candidly about her. In most part, the business men and women were pleased about what they heard. For others, it was wait-and-see.
I think its too early to tell, but I strongly believe that by having one of the big chops in the White House counseling President Bush, Im sure well have a chance to be heard, because Secretary Chao seems to be committed to the entire Asian American community, said Dominic Fong of Chinese Information Network Associates. We need to continue to support her, and to move the building block one by one, and also raising awareness so she knows what needs to be done for us.
Even though Chaos discussions focused on the overall picture of the economy and business, the conference still struck a chord for Richard Yuen, the Assistant Dean of Students at Stanford University. Yuen said the decisions Chao makes today will affect his incoming students four years down the road.
I was very happy to see her come here to address the Asian Business Association, he said. But the most telling statement she made, which I think was a very important one, was that for the first time Asian Americans do have two role models in the cabinet, [Secretary of Transportation] Norman Mineta and Elaine Chao. I am very heartened to see this develop.
How important for APIAs is her position?
Everything she does has a tremendous effect, Yuen concluded.
Reach Ethen Lieser at firstname.lastname@example.org.