James Si-Cheng Chao recalls his modest beginnings growing up in a small farming village outside Jiading, Shanghai, as being from a happy and educated family but, due to the wars that ravaged China at the time, as facing very difficult challenges. His mother had to borrow rice from neighbors, yet his family would still try to share with others when they could. His father, a tall and respected teacher, was generous and magnanimous in spirit and deed and encouraged his son to contribute to society. A framed photo of his family’s original home, now demolished, hangs in his company’s offices as a reminder of his humble beginnings. Despite growing up a self-described “country boy” in China, he excelled in school, was able to study and work abroad, and eventually founded the Foremost Group, a respected international shipping company based in New York. Today Dr. Chao and his six daughters support the family’s philanthropic efforts through various family and company foundations. Since 1984, the Chao family foundations are distinguished as being among the longest tenured Chinese American foundations. He attributes his motivation to help others to his parents’ upbringing, his own life experiences, and his faith.
Dr. Chao’s life continues to reflect many of the core ideals of America. He is the recipient of numerous awards recognizing him as a contributor to American society and commerce. He is the inaugural recipient of the Chinese American Academic and Professional Society Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award and the inaugural honoree of the Family Legacy Award from the Museum of Chinese in America. Also, he is the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor awarded simultaneously to him and his daughter, The Honorable Elaine Chao, current U.S. secretary of transportation and first Asian American woman in history to be appointed to the president’s cabinet. He is also an inductee to the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which is dedicated to recognizing the achievements of outstanding leaders who prevailed through hard work, integrity, and service to others in the face of adversity. Even with numerous accolades, Dr. Chao remains modest and grateful for his fortunes and the blessings he has received.
Dr. Chao and the Chao family philanthropic tradition place a high priority on education and the pursuit of academic excellence. Their giving is motivated by the belief in the transformative power of education. Dr. Chao recalls his parents instilling in him the belief that education is the best investment in life. The key focus of their giving is to help young people gain access to higher education and have opportunities to build better lives for themselves and their families. A second factor that motivates their giving is to encourage greater understanding and better relations between the United States and China. Regarding Eastern and Western cultures, Dr. Chao acknowledges that there are differences. “We do have big differences. Americans are different. They encourage you to be independent, special, different, and to be better.” From his perspective, American and Western development has also supported advances in the natural and social sciences. In contrast, Chinese culture fosters humility and a mindset of sharing among others. Ultimately, Dr. Chao sees the combination of both cultures as better than either alone. Finally, Dr. Chao views sharing with others as “the real blessing.”
From their foundations, significant gifts have been made to many institutions, including Harvard University. In 2012, one of the Chao foundations donated USD 40 million (RMB 240 million) to establish the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center for executive education at Harvard 223 This gift made in tribute to, in Harvard’s words, “the matriarch of this most prominent and accomplished Chinese American family,” was dedicated on June 6, 2016. It is the first building named for a woman, and the first building named for an Asian American on campus, in Harvard’s 380-year history. Ruth Chao, who came from a distinguished family in Lai’An County, Anhui Province, was a generous philanthropist who possessed a deep sense of altruism and encouraged James and their daughters to contribute to society. She herself obtained a graduate degree at the age of 53. Four of their six daughters eventually attended Harvard. Dr. Chao reflected on the influence of his wife and said, “The purpose of life is to share with others.”
In addition to supporting higher education in the United States, Dr. Chao also contributes to many academic endeavors in Asia as well. More than 5,000 students have been given the opportunity to improve their lives through generous scholarships. In 2014, at the 30th anniversary of the Shanghai Mulan Education Foundation, scholarship recipients who are now executives and leaders from a range of sectors gathered to honor the foundation's work as one of the earliest established foundations in China. When this scholarship fund was first established, the concept of a philanthropic foundation was new to China, and Dr. Chao was a pioneer in establishing charitable foundations in China. Many years later, reflecting on the letters Dr. Chao received from grateful scholarship recipients, he noted, “They are very touching... I thank the Lord.”
When considering how to counsel emerging philanthropists, Dr. Chao emphasizes that those with wealth should always try to be thankful and remember that wealth is impermanent and cannot be kept forever. If it is not used wisely, “it is a waste,” according to Dr. Chao.