June 2021 | Angela Chao AB '95 MBA '01

Angela Chao AB '95 MBA '01 has quickly made a name for herself in both the shipping and philanthropic worlds since graduating from Harvard College with a degree in Economics. After working with the mergers and acquisitions team at Smith Barney, she entered Harvard Business School and during her tenure wrote the case study ‘Ocean Carriers’, which has been added to the first-year curriculum for current HBS students. She currently serves as Chair and C.E.O. of Foremost Group, an American shipping company with worldwide operations.

Ms. Chao is the youngest daughter of Dr. James S. C. Chao and Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, and one of four daughters to attend Harvard Business School. Ms. Chao is well-known for her philanthropy and support of the arts, serving on multiple boards including Harvard Business School’s Board of Dean’s Advisors, as Co-Chair of The Asian American Foundation Advisory Council, The Metropolitan Opera and the Chairman’s Council of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has become a recent and generous supporter of Harvardwood, with a gift supporting Asian American artists for the coming year. 

Ms. Chao credits her family for both inspiration and motivation. “I am very fortunate that I come from a wonderful, loving family, and I have always worked to make them proud. My parents lived values-laden lives.  My mother passed on August 2, 2007, and we still try to honor her in every way we can.  My parents always emphasized curiosity, learning and contribution back to society and our communities.” These values quickly led her to both Harvard College and Harvard Business School.  “Matriculating to Harvard was a dream, and I still feel fortunate every day for my experiences there, which were hugely influential. It was without a doubt because of the people. As a female Asian American with a business career but also deeply involved in organizations that make a positive difference in the world, my leadership style is a direct result of my upbringing, my Harvard education, and the enduring friendships and inspiration from my classmates, many of whom are doing incredible work in fields that are very different from mine. This broad network and the multi-disciplinary approach to education, growth and leadership inform me every day.”

These friendships led her to the arts at Harvard. “I was involved with the arts, but mostly through my friends who were either musicians, artists, or performing artists. I was also involved through my coursework which I treasured. In fact, I nearly declared Art History as my concentration, but I later decided to pursue economics with an emphasis on women’s studies because as a child of first-generation immigrants, I was told I needed a more practical concentration to be able to find a job! I know that is something many of your members will relate to.  My experience demonstrates why Harvardwood is so important – because it gives more people the chance to explore opportunities in arts and media, especially when they don’t have family or other financial means to take such chances and pursue their passions.”

Ms. Chao agrees the past 15 months have been difficult for many in the arts community. “This has been a tough year. So many of our arts organizations are wondering how they will survive. I think it is crucial that we support artists and our arts organizations as much as we can. What I have always loved about art in all its forms is its ability to transcend and to help us see the world and our lives from different perspectives. Arts organizations like Harvardwood play an important role in fostering this creativity and can be a critical part of a necessary dialogue to improve understanding of our community and among communities to build a better, more inclusive world.”  

Ms. Chao continued, “I felt great pride when Chloe Zhao, a woman of Asian descent, won for best director and Nomadland won for best picture. Arts and media have always served as a strong bridge between many cultures, peoples and ideas, and that is especially true today. Sadly, we Asian Americans still face a lot of ‘otherness’, and so it is so critical that our fellow citizens understand our contributions and commitment to our country. We need to break free from old stereotypes and showcase the leadership that Asian Americans are providing across a host of industries. Harvardwood members can be goodwill ambassadors in this regard and help promote a more accurate and positive narrative of our community through their work.”

Ms. Chao’s gift to Harvardwood supports this effort with scholarship seats for Asian American members to each of Harvardwood’s key programs. When asked if supporting Asian American artists was a part of telling her own Asian American story, Ms. Chao agreed. “Absolutely, I hope it supports so many Asian American stories, and the stories of millions of Asian Americans who are proud of our heritage and contributions to this country. It is more important than ever that we boldly tell our stories, given the rise in violence and hate facing our community. Harvardwood plays an important role in this broader effort by magnifying AAPI voices and celebrating our achievements through the arts. It means that current and future generations will have a better understanding of the challenges that still exist across ethnicities, which will help strengthen the fabric of our nation.”

Ms. Chao’s passion about supporting Asian American voices has led her to support multiple organizations doing this work. “I am deeply involved in a new organization called The Asian American Foundation which is a convener, incubator, and funder committed to accelerating opportunity and prosperity for AAPI communities. We strive to be a catalyzing force for belonging for the 23 million AAPIs across the U.S.  Our Advisory Council includes actor and producer Daniel Dae Kim, as well as journalists Lisa Ling and Fareed Zakaria and producer Melvin Mar, who is producing the new Doogie Howser reboot which will star a mixed-race young woman. I look forward to their continued success and their growing popularity, as it is a sign of acceptance and growth that is so desperately needed.”

When asked what she hoped to see from arts and media organizations in ten years, Ms. Chao echoed what many in the AAPI community have expressed in light of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts throughout the industry. “I hope we will see more Asian faces shown and stories being told – and the stories that are real and not based on divisive and negative stereotypes of the past. I hope that Asians become more mainstream, not ’othered,’ and are recognized and celebrated for being part of the beautiful tapestry that makes up this country and our world. I hope art continues to help us grow stronger together instead of being separated by the color of our skin or our facial differences.”

When asked what movies or television shows she enjoyed during lockdown, her new state had a large influence! “I moved to Texas last year, and so I binged Friday Night Lights from start to finish.  That show still stands the test of the time and is among my top 5 television shows of all time!”

Finally, we asked Ms. Chao what advice she would give to her 21-year-old self:

“Savor every moment; stop and smell the flowers. It will go by faster than you can imagine. Enjoy every step of the journey. The journey is, indeed, more important than the destination. But along the way, realize that each one of us can make immeasurable contributions to the lives of others and to making our world more tolerant, caring, and enjoyable. It’s certainly worth the effort.”

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