She was born September 6, 1954, in Austin, Texas, the middle child of a law professor and a portrait and abstract artist in an era when today’s dazzling, high-powered, life-changing electronic technology was only a figment of someone’s imagination.
Growing up she had no interest in the business world, primarily because her family never moved in those circles.
She found herself always striving to please her parents, but to others, she had a boring personality.
“I was a goody two shoes,” she says now.
When it came time for college, she opted for a liberal arts degree in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford University only to learn when she graduated that — caught in the middle of a recession — she was essentially unemployable.
In short order, she had a sour romance with law school, worked as a receptionist at a real estate firm (where two executives forever changed her outlook on life), moved to Italy to teach school, came back to the United States, earned her master’s degree and went to work for AT&T.
Although she didn’t know it at the time — and neither did the world — Carly Fiorina was set to become a pioneer in American business, doing what many had deemed impossible for a woman — rising to the top of the corporate ladder.
THE EARLY YEARS
“My parents both believed in the power of education, in the opportunity to build any kind of life you chose and what I remember and am so grateful for from both of them is they pushed hard,” Fiorina said during an hour-long exclusive interview with Truckload Authority.
“They pushed hard that I had to get educated, they pushed hard that I had potential and I needed to fulfill it, they pushed hard on integrity and honesty and ethics and we talked about all of those things at the dinner table. They wanted us to have a world view. I was blessed to have an upbringing where my sights were lifted and I was pushed to achieve whatever I was capable of and whatever I wanted.”
However, her desire to have whatever she wanted would later bring sadness to her father.
After she graduated from Stanford without a job, the only thing that seemed logical was to do what her dad wanted her to do — attend law school.
So she enrolled at UCLA — at her own expense.
LAW SCHOOL DAYS
“To my parents it was crystal clear I was going to graduate school
(and by the way it was crystal clear I had to pay for it myself). So off
I go,” she said.
But not for long.
“It was clear to me pretty quickly that I hated it,” she recalled. “I hated the emphasis on the past (law is very much about precedent) and I found that kind of constraining. Many lawyers would disagree with me when I say this, particularly my father, but I concluded that much of the law wasn’t necessarily about what was justice, it was what was legal and I just hated it.”
So as she tried to decide what to do, she found herself grappling with the likelihood of disappointing her parents.
At her request, her dad came to UCLA for a visit, only to remind her that no one in the family was a quitter. So she toughed it out for a couple more months until the anguish became too great.
“All of this mental anguish had physical manifestations,” she says, looking back on those years. “I had splitting headaches, I couldn’t sleep and finally one day it was just a revelation. I was taking a shower and the revelation that came to me was this is your own life. You must choose your own path. And it felt like a revelation. And the second I said that to myself, my headaches went away and I knew what I had to do.”
“My parents were stunned because I wasn’t a quitter, because I had always followed the path they thought was right. I had no plans,” she said. “I remember my mother’s first question was ‘what are you going to do?’ Answer, ‘I don’t know. Get a job.’ And my father’s first statement was ‘Carly, I am very disappointed.’”
But through the pain of disappointment, both Fiorina and her parents could see clearly a part of their relationship had changed. Carly Fiorina was no longer a child, she was an adult, choosing her own path.
“Yes, my relationship had changed in a profound way,” she says today. “But what didn’t change, and that was kind of a revelation, too, was they loved me just as much.” She paused for a second and said it again. “They loved me just as much. But now I was grown up.”
EMBARKING ON A NEW JOURNEY
In the wake of the law school debacle, Fiorina found herself part of a nine-person team at the real estate firm.
She was simply trying to make a living and pay the rent by doing anything asked of her, including filing, typing and answering the phone.
She may have thought she was working in obscurity, but not so.
The two men running the business came to her one day with a challenge.
“They said, ‘You can do more of this. Do you want to know what we do?’” she recalled.
She called it a huge turning point in her life.
“What I had realized prior to them coming to my desk was that this business like every business was about the people in it,” Fiorina said. “And this business like every business was about a team of people working together to serve other people. And that appealed to me. And the other thing I figured out was that I liked producing results.
“I never had a plan to be a CEO. I didn’t start out saying, ‘I’m going to go to the top.’ But what I did was look for jobs that were challenging. The harder they were, the better I liked them. To me if it’s hard and challenging, it’s fun.”
REALIZING HER POTENTIAL
If hard, challenging work was what Fiorina wanted, she sure got it upon earning her master’s in business.
Try giant telecommunications company AT&T.
She zoomed up a corporate ladder normally dominated by men despite her gender.
From starting as a management trainee, she rose to become a senior vice president overseeing the company’s hardware and systems division. In 1995, Fiorina led corporate operations for the spin-off of Lucent from AT&T and eventually reached the office of president.
“The biggest obstacle someone who is different has to overcome is you are not presumed to be competent,” she said. “So if everyone in the workforce is a man and you are a woman, you are not given the presumption of competence. You are not given the benefit of the doubt. And that’s true if you are a minority of any kind. And that burden is real. It means you have to prove more. It means you have to work harder.”
However, the business world is about proving results, and when one demonstrates capability, when one proves they can produce results, “then in my experience whatever people’s doubts were in that particular circumstance, they are willing to let go of them,” she said.
In July 1999, the course of American business was about to be changed forever. Fiorina was courted by one of the great American companies, Hewlett-Packard. Taken with her smooth tongue, charming business acumen and bold leadership ability, Hewlett-Packard named her as president and CEO, and eventually chairman of the board, thus becoming the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company.
Fiorina rode into HP on a title wave of soaring headlines. Wall Street and Silicon Valley worked itself up into a frenzy about her seemingly unlimited potential to not only lead HP, but there was also widespread belief she could even one day lead the nation from the Oval Office. The sky seemed to be the limit for her. But all stars burning brightly come under the microscope. In Fiorina’s case, being the first woman in American history to hold such a position in business leadership came with unprecedented levels of scrutiny. It wasn’t long before her activities were being erroneously reported, she says. In her book, “Tough Choices,” she pushes back against the “caricature” she believes she was made to be.
She writes, “Vanity Fair, despite being warned numerous times that they were writing fiction about me, continued to report that I traveled constantly with a hairdresser and a makeup artist. There was a persistent rumor, bolstered by commentary in the local press, that I’d built a pink marble bathroom in my office. (I had actually moved into my predecessor’s office and neither built nor bought anything for it.) There were no private bathrooms or even doors in executive offices. The CEOs of Lucent, Cisco, IBM, Dell, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Compaq, Oracle, GE, 3M, Dupont and so on all flew in corporate jets, and HP had owned them for 30 years. Nevertheless, my travel on a company plane was reported as evidence of my disrespect for the HP Way, my ‘regal’ nature, my ‘distance’ from employees.
“I was alternatively described as ‘flashy’ or ‘glamorous’ or ‘diamond studded,’ which frequently was translated to mean a superficial ‘marketing’ type.”
She goes on to describe further erroneous assertions this way: “In the chat rooms around Silicon Valley, from the time I arrived until long after I left HP, I was routinely referred to as either a ‘bimbo’ or a ‘bitch’ — too soft or too hard, and presumptuous, besides. Certainly, beyond my gender, I was not a typical Silicon Valley CEO. Where the archetypal leader was an introvert, I was an extrovert. Where the Valley loved to dress down, I loved to dress up. While Valley leaders talked about the bits and bytes of technology, I talked about the human impact of technology. I hadn’t grown up in the Valley; I came from the East Coast and I’d grown up in big, brick-and-mortar, old-economy companies, not small, new-economy start-ups.” Fiorina describes her preparation for the media onslaught as “laughable,” in retrospect.
Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett-Packard was unquestionably fraught with challenges from the day she walked through the door.
She was hired to set the company’s course for a new decade — and for that matter the next century — and she knew she’d have to upset the company applecart. When she tried to institute changes, she often heard “that’s not how we do it at HP.”
She took over at the height and beginning decline of the dot com bubble at a time when making money in technology had become much harder than it was in the 1990s.
By all accounts, the most consequential strategic decision of her tenure was HP’s merger with Compaq, a move she called an “extremely successful integration.”
But the merger plan was opposed by both Walter Hewlett and David W. Packard, sons of the founders of the company who cited concerns about a focus on the PC side of the business and the potential massive layoffs the merger would bring.
The merger has been the subject of numerous books and countless articles. It’s fair to say capable business minds still debate the wisdom of it from HP’s vantage point. Whether right or wrong, good or bad, any discussion of Fiorina’s HP tenure will include opinions about the timing and wisdom of the merger, as will the fact that during the time she led HP, she was widely regarded as the most powerful woman in business.
BLAZING A TRAIL
But despite her dismissal in 2005 after a dispute with the board over the company’s performance, Fiorina had blazed a trail millions of women will benefit from for decades to come.
“I truly hope so,” she said when asked whether her experience would make it easier for women to reach the boardroom.
“There’s no question that women and minorities have made great progress in business. As an example, when I became CEO of Hewlett Packard there were seven women running Fortune 500 companies. Today, there are 22 or 23. Is that progress? Yes. Is it as much as we might have expected? Candidly, no. So there’s no question there are still hurdles and barriers and prejudices out there, but there’s also no question that women can achieve, anyone can achieve with the tools and the opportunities, anyone can achieve what they really want to. So the question is, are people given the tools they need and do they have the opportunities they need?
“To me, every success of anyone is not simply about the person’s capability,” she said. “It is so much about the team around them, and who takes a chance on them. All along the way, I had people who took a chance on me. The people who took a chance on me by giving me an opportunity by asking me to try something new, by presenting me with a tough challenge; the people who took a chance on me are as responsible for my success as I am.”
Those two men who took a chance on her also instilled in Fiorina a belief that more than being a good manager, a person must be a good leader, a philosophy that helped make her a success at HP.
“Leadership is hard. It is hard,” she said when asked to advise young executives, including many young men and women who are heading trucking companies. “And leadership is different than management. Management is producing acceptable results within known constraints and conditions. And management is hard enough and management is really important. But it’s not leadership. Leadership is making a positive difference and leadership is changing the order of things for the better. The reason leadership is hard is because it always requires some opposition to the status quo. And the status quo is powerful, always.”
Even when the status quo isn’t very good it’s powerful because somebody is doing OK in the status quo and whoever is doing OK in the status quo wants to keep what they have, she warned.
“So the first thing I say to leaders is recognize that it’s hard,” she said. “Don’t get discouraged when it gets tough because that’s part of it.
“The second thing I’d say to leaders is everybody and anybody can lead. You’re not born to it. You’re made a leader. Anybody can make a positive difference.
“The third thing I would say is nobody leads alone. You’re not leading if nobody is following. There are people around you who will help you, who will also help you see the benefit of changing things for the better and you have to find those people, gather those people, motivate those people, reward those people.
“And I guess the last thing I would say is a leader’s job in order to motivate the change that’s necessary, the positive change that’s necessary, a leader’s job is to be able to prescribe.”
CHAMPIONING SMALL BUSINESS
In her post HP years, Fiorina has remained active. Today she’s a champion for entrepreneurship and innovation.
Innovation and entrepreneurship would help the get the economy moving, she believes, setting forth a four-part plan — a radical simplification of the tax code, comprehensive immigration reform, zero-based budgeting and creating a small business task force to take a look at every regulation that exists.
She is especially vocal about tax reform and immigration reform.
“The tax code is unbelievably complicated, 27,000 pages roughly,” she said. “And the complexity has occurred in many cases because special interests, whether those are big companies or others, have put loopholes into the tax code. What happens to entrepreneurs and small businesses is No. 1 they can’t navigate that complexity. And No. 2, they don’t have the time or the money or the political power to negotiate all those loopholes. So they get hurt the worst. The little guy gets hurt the most with our tax code. So today, the burden of proof is on the people who say ‘Let’s get rid of the loopholes.’ What we need to do is completely turn that around and say we’re going to wipe out all these loopholes. My belief is lower every rate, close every loophole, every one. And then tell people if you want to put a loophole back in, you’ve got to prove it.”
As for immigration reform, Fiorina doesn’t believe it should come in one fell swoop.
“When I say comprehensive immigration reform, that doesn’t necessarily mean you do it all in one giant pill. It means a better way of saying it probably would be holistic immigration reform. That is why we have to openly take a look at the whole system and fix the whole system,” she said, pointing to the fact that today there are 16 difference visa programs, and none of them work particularly well and none of them are being enforced.
And, there is more than the business aspect of immigration reform, there’s the human point of view, also.
“Let’s set aside the people that come here and commit crimes and do bad things and human trafficking associated with immigration and terrorists trying to slip through the borders and all that which is of course an argument for border security,” she said.
“Think about why people come here. Why people have always come here. People come here because they want to build a better life for themselves and their families. It’s human instinct, it’s a human desire. And people come here as opposed to someplace else because they know that in a land of liberty, they have a greater chance to fulfill their potential and build that better life. Sometimes we lose sight of the fundamental and profound human desire that causes people to come here. As a nation, I think that when we forget that we lose our heart.”
Fiorina believes so strongly in her four-point plan for economic recovery that in the 2010 mid-term election — despite having just gone through what was to be a winning battle with breast cancer — she took on liberal California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, and lost soundly.
“I have to say that after chemotherapy, Barbara Boxer just isn’t that scary anymore,” she told supporters at a campaign kickoff rally in late 2009.
“The odds were long in California, but some fights are worth having win, lose or draw,” she says now. “That was a fight worth having because Barbara Boxer has not served the people of California well. That was a fight worth having because people in California were being hurt, their lives were being impacted by the choices that Barbara Boxer was making 3,000 miles away. That fight was worth having so that people maybe would hear a different idea.
“It’s (politics) actually about the people they were elected to serve. And I do think that ours was intended to be a citizen government. That we should have people leave private life to do public service and then go back again to private life. And the only way to encourage people to do that is to do it myself.”
Fiorina sent a jab toward Democrats, who she believes play politics by dividing people along gender, race and socio-economic background.
What, she was asked, can the GOP do to combat the new war on women?
First of all, one has to acknowledge that not all women agree, she said.
“Women are not a homogeneous special interest group. Women are more than half the population and women’s opinions diverge on every single issue from abortion to healthcare. So let’s first quit talking to women as if we are a single issue special interest group. We are not.
“Let’s talk to women. Let’s have women talk among ourselves about all the issues and acknowledge we are not going to agree on all the issues, but on most of the issues. And I’ve had a lot experience talking to women across the political spectrum.
“On most of the issues women do agree. Women want good choices for their children’s education. Women want good choices for their family’s healthcare. Women want more jobs created so there is opportunity for themselves, their husbands and/or their children.
“I believe how we have to talk with women is to talk about all the issues women care about. Even on the incredibly divisive, emotional issue of abortion. Most women will agree that there should be some limit on abortion of a fetus that is five months old.”
Fiorina served as an advisor to the last two Republican presidential candidates, both of whom lost, and lost rather badly.
That said, why has the GOP failed to return to dominance in both Houses of Congress and the White House?
Has it been the inability of Republicans to convince the American people that government doesn’t create jobs, it only creates conditions where jobs can be created, especially among small business?
“It is a really important question because I think frequently candidates who believe in limited government and less regulations and lower taxation talk about those things in a way that never connects up with someone’s personal life,” Fiorina responded. “(Former House Speaker) Tip O’Neill famously said all politics is local. I think all politics is personal. People make choices based on their personal understanding of their personal circumstances, their lives, their families. That’s how people make decisions.”
Fiorina set forth an example for the trucking industry.
“If you are a trucker and you have five employees, think about the amount of time you spend dealing with paperwork that is created for you by people far away from you who probably don’t understand your business very well. That comes from somebody far away who doesn’t live your life imposing their view on how it’s going to work better. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. The reason that liberty matters, it’s not that we don’t need any government, of course we need some government and we need some regulations, we need some taxation, but we have come to a place where we have far too much of a good thing. And so now what we have to do is start undoing stuff.”
The single greatest force for lifting people out of poverty and giving more people more opportunities is the small business entrepreneur who will take a chance, Fiorina said, adding that “when we crush these people, which we are doing, we crush job creation, we crush the spirit out of our economy and we hurt people’s lives.”
Today, outside of politics, Fiorina is active in serving others, including through Good360, which has helped nonprofit organizations better serve communities around the world since 1983 by providing them with vitally needed product donations.
“All of us have been given chances in our life and talked about all the people who have taken a chance on me and the best way that I can show my gratitude for those people is to give chances to others, to give chances to other people in business, to give chances to other people in politics, and to give chances — a second and a third and a fourth chance, if necessary — to people who are less fortunate than myself,” Fiorina said.
Given her zest for life and for helping others, it’s no surprise that Fiorina whipped breast cancer. In fact, she calls that experience a blessing, not a tragedy.
“I hope I am a more patient and more grateful and more compassionate person as a result of it. And I’m a survivor and so every day to me is a gift.”
Fiorina continues to use that “gift” to make America a better place to live.
That might include another political race, she said.
“It all depends literally on the opportunity and what is going on. I think public service at any level is important,” she said. “Ours was intended to be a citizen government. And we have professional politicians at every level of government. It doesn’t mean they’re all bad people, they’re not. Most people went into public service because their hearts were in the right place. But if all you’ve done is run for office your whole professional life, maybe you’re getting out of touch with your life.”
With Hillary Clinton appearing to be poised to try and become the first woman to be president of the United States, does Fiorina have similar aspirations?
“Politics is about having the right opportunity at the right time and who knows,” Fiorina said. “Who knows? I would never say never. It’s an honor to try and help shape the political dialogue and process in this country.”
Just like those two men back there in that real estate office helped shape the career of one of America’s most successful executives.
The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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