Q&A: Foremost Group CEO Angela Chao on carrying on her family legacy and forging her own path

In this interview, Angela Chao talks about her experience becoming the CEO of Foremost Group, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global shipping industry, and her philanthropic efforts.

angela chao
Angela Chao

Angela Chao is the chairman and CEO of Foremost Group, a New York–based shipping company with worldwide operations. Founded in 1964 by her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, and his late wife, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, the company today is a global leader in the dry bulk shipping industry and has earned a worldwide reputation for its commitment to exceptional service and performance while always holding itself to the highest ethical standards.

Before joining Foremost Group in 1996, Chao worked in the Mergers & Acquisitions Department of Smith Barney, now Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. A frequent speaker at conferences around the world, Chao also serves on a number of public and nonprofit boards.

Chao will speak at SupChina’s Women’s Conference 2021, which is slated to take place virtually on May 12 and 13. Get your tickets here before they sell out!

Prior to the event, we sat down with Chao to talk about her experience becoming the CEO of Foremost Group, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global shipping industry, and her philanthropic efforts. 

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

SupChina: Tell us about Foremost Group. What is its focus and vision? How have you integrated your values and mission into the company structure? 

Angela Chao: Foremost Group is an American company engaged in international shipping. We are a global leader in dry bulk shipping, which means we transport major dry bulk commodities like wheat, iron ore, and grains. Through the transport of goods, we bring materials from where they are produced to where they are needed, and in so doing, build and feed the world!  

The company was started in New York in 1964, and was founded by my father, Dr. James S. C. Chao. But my mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, was his full partner, and so even though she did not go into the office like he did, he always raised us to know that she was his full and equal partner. They were a team.

My father studied navigation and was one of the youngest oceangoing captains ever. He is a pioneer in incorporating eco-friendly designs into the Foremost fleet. We now have one of the most modern and environmentally friendly fleets in the world. Our motto is “Honor. Integrity. Performance.” And I am honored to carry on the tradition of what my parents started in Foremost.  

I am lucky to have had parents who not only had strong values, but also truly lived deeply values-laden lives. They did not just talk the talk, but they really walked the walk. They were such magnificent examples of leading thoughtful, positive lives where you made a difference where and when you could, and always tried to help people along the way. They were not always in a position to be financially helpful — they were immigrants to America with very little monetarily, and so they always remembered fondly and treasured the kindness that so many people bestowed upon them. And they always made sure to be part of a virtuous cycle to bring more goodness into the world. And they did. They really did.  

SupChina: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the international shipping and transportation industry? How did Foremost Group respond to the disruptions and challenges?

Chao: As with all industries and walks of life, the pandemic has impacted us all in profound ways. When COVID-19 first hit, demand for goods and the movement of goods was significantly curtailed with no end in sight. What we were most concerned about was the safety of our employees worldwide and our seafarers. Creating safe work environments, creating robust business continuity plans so we could work effectively from home, etc. were all top of mind.  We had a difficult time getting seafarers repatriated in a timely manner.

SupChina: What sparked your interest in shipping? Tell us something that most people don’t know about the industry.

Chao: One of the things I love most about shipping is that we build bridges around the world. We build bridges over oceans, between nations, and among peoples. Not very many people know this, but over 90% of world trade is seaborne! Without shipping, our lives would grind to a halt.  

Shipping is also the first truly international industry, since we crossed oceans to do it! Shipping is the first industry to have had international law, because we were inherently cross-border. So our industry is wonderfully rich in its history and traditions, like one’s word is one’s bond and other such traditions that our fast-paced world could use more of! 

Angela w Dr. ChaoOCT 29 2019 (1)
Angela Chao’s last trip to Asia with her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, at age 93, for the launch of a twin book set made for the biographies of Dr. Chao and Ms. Chao’s mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, on 10/29/19 in Taipei, Taiwan.

SupChina: Did you always know you wanted to be a CEO? What challenges have you faced as a woman in your industry? How have you addressed them? 

Chao: I always wanted to make my parents proud. I always wanted to make a positive difference. And as many of your readers and members know well, yes, we faced challenges as women. But I tried to focus on the positives and work from areas of strength or positivity and optimism. I have found that to be much more productive and it generates much more energy and creativity! 

SupChina: Tell us about a person who has inspired or mentored you. What key lesson did you learn from them? 

Chao: Like my parents, I have many people to thank. Many people do not even know the lessons they have taught me — because I learn so much from people’s subtle actions and anonymous kindnesses. But the people who have most inspired and mentored me are, without question, my parents. They spent a lot of time on me! And with their patience and love, their lives and examples still inform me on how I want to live and how I want to carry myself every day.  

SupChina: Outside your business, you serve on the boards of many organizations and are deeply involved in philanthropy. What motivates you to keep doing charity? What’s your mission behind all this work?

Chao: I love my work. I am very lucky that way, but much of why I love it is because I love carrying on my parents’ legacy and values. My parents also cultivated in us a love of learning and a curiosity about all things. So as I learn more, I am curious to learn ever more, and charities are a way of learning and a way of trying to make a positive difference in the world. 

I support causes that I love, that have brought me joy, and that I hope will win the hearts and minds of others. While my philanthropy has always had an emphasis on supporting Asian-Americans/Asian issues/causes and women, after the horrific attack on March 16 in Atlanta, it gave me renewed vigor to concentrate my philanthropic giving on AAPI causes. I have asked many organizations with which I have been involved for many years what they are doing for AAPI — how we are dedicating dollars so that the community receives more of that support as well as to highlight the many multifaceted contributions we make to the fabric of our society and communities.   

I have found that when we ask the question, it makes the organization think of AAPI causes proactively in a way they have not hitherto. And so it is incumbent upon us to help our organizations bring attention to AAPI and women’s causes — and really SEE them. Then, of course, we must get them to act. 

A new initiative I am excited about is that I will be co-chairing the Advisory Council of The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), which is a new 501(c)(3) founded to respond to the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence. Our mission is to “serve the AAPI community in the pursuit of belonging and prosperity, free from discrimination, slander, and violence.” I hope your audience will all be involved and join!