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Harvard Business School gets $40 million family donation

Dr. James Si-Cheng Chao sits next to a portrait of his late wife, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao. Four of their daughters attended Harvard Business School. From left, Angela, Elaine (a former US labor secretary), Christine (who did not attend the school), May, and Grace.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

Harvard Business School is significantly expanding its mission of training current business leaders with the addition of a second executive education center, funded by a $40 million gift from the family of Elaine L. Chao, a former US labor secretary.

At a ceremony Friday the school announced the donation from Dr. James Si-Cheng Chao, a shipping magnate, and his family. Four of Chao’s daughters, including Elaine, attended Harvard Business School. The center will be named after his late wife, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao.

“My mother was an incredibly inspiring person,” Elaine Chao said. “She was a positive, optimistic person who believed in the transformational power of education regardless of gender in developing leaders for the world. Throughout our formative years, she always emphasized our responsibility to contribute to society and being kind and generous to others.”


Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria said that the gift “speaks volumes” about the Chao family.

“Giving back in the way they have through public service and philanthropy speaks in equal measure to their individual and family values,” Nohria said.

The Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center will be the second Harvard Business School project devoted to training corporate executives. The school is building Tata Hall with a $50 million donation from the philanthropic arms of the Tata Group, India’s largest company.

But while Tata Hall will consist primarily of dormitory and classroom spaces, the Chao center will feature meeting places, offices, and some dining facilities. The Chao center will be designed by the architectural firm of Goody Clancy and replace the existing Kresge Hall on the Allston campus. Construction is expected to begin 2014.

The donation includes $5 million for a fund to provide financial assistance to deserving students of Chinese heritage.

Harvard Business School’s executive education programs have proved to be a major business. The classes attract many more students than the school’s flagship two-year master’s of business administration program — more than 10,000 students last year, compared with just 1,800 in the MBA program.


“Executive education is a key element in our strategy to be a global business school,” said Patricia S. Bellinger, executive director of executive education at Harvard Business School.

“It gives the school an opportunity to reach people who are already leading companies and nonprofits.”

Bellinger estimated the addition of the two centers, along with two small existing facilities in India and China, will increase enrollment in its executive education program by 30 percent in the next five or six years.

The programs range from just a few days to eight weeks long, and attract an international student body; 65 percent of the students are from outside North America.

James Si-Cheng Chao is the founder and chairman of the Foremost Group, a shipping and trading company based in New York.

Elaine Chao, his eldest daughter, was secretary of labor from 2001 to 2009, under President George W. Bush.

D.C. Denison can be reached at