“My parents raised us to be self-sufficient and productive members of society. Our gender was never an issue,” Chao told Fairplay. “We just took it for granted that we would get an education, work hard in school, and then work hard afterwards to succeed.”
That philosophy paid off. After graduating with an MBA from Harvard Business School in 2001, Chao rose through the ranks of Foremost Group, a New York-based, privately held shipping company started by her father, Dr. James S.C. Chao, and mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, in 1964.
In 2018, she was named chairman and chief executive officer of the company, overseeing the management and operations of a dry bulk fleet of five million DWT.
Chao realizes, of course, that not everyone receives the kind of support she and her sisters did growing up. “[That] is why I like to speak publicly about the role of women in business. I do think there’s a gender gap that’s represented not only in shipping but in business as whole, as well as a pay gap that goes along with that. It needs to be talked about more.”
Chao has considered shipping a “big, exciting world” for as long as she can remember, with a dose of encouragement from her father. “He used to let me go onboard ships when I was young, complete with a mini hard hat,” she said. “I would check out everything – the bridge, the cargo holds, the ballast tanks. At home, I also loved answering the telephone, because I knew the person on the other end could be anywhere in the world. I found it all very glamorous and fascinating.”
Chao remembers that while her father was technically the head of his company, he always considered her mother not just his wife but an equal partner in the business. “I grew up thinking that’s the way the world was – that women and men should be on equal footing,” she said.
That philosophy found its way into Chao’s adult life as Foremost Group’s onshore workforce is 50% women. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision,” she admitted, “because we have always just been focused on picking the best and brightest.”
Chao considers new and developing regulations to be one of the biggest challenges for the industry, and has the experience to navigate through them. Earlier in her career at Foremost Group she oversaw the implementation of the company’s safety management system to comply with the International Safety Management Code, as well as the fleet’s vessel security plans to comply with the International Maritime Organization’s International Ship and Port Facility Security Code.
Regulatory compliance is made easier when the average age of your fleet – as is the case with Foremost Group – is five years or less. “We’ve always maintained a young fleet and invested in new technologies,” she said.
While she believes that the global sulphur cap deadline in 2020 and carbon emissions reduction to be “extremely important” for shipping, she also noted that meeting these aggressive targets will require forward thinking on the part of all players, not just shipowners.
“We’re very much in favour of reducing our footprint, but one of the questions [regarding the sulphur cap limit] is, will there be enough low sulphur fuel available? We want to do our part, but we’re also going to need the co-operation of the oil majors.”
Speaking on issues that affect shipping comes easy for Chao, but she wants to use her high-profile position to motivate more women to rise in the industry as well.
“I’d like to think I’m making a difference in my own small way, and I hope I can inspire women to strive higher in any business by working hard and having a positive outlook,” she said. “As my mother always liked to say, ‘Don’t complain, prove them wrong’.”