Think of the national political scene and first names and it’s pretty easy to draw up images in the mind’s eye, whether it be Hillary, Ted, Chris, Rand or whoever. But Carly? I don’t think so. That may soon change, however.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column on Dr. Ben Carson, an African-American neurosurgeon whom I’d never heard of but shot to fame following an address at the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013. That’s when he delivered conservative talking points in front of a stony-faced and obviously displeased President Barack Obama. Carson has since retired from the operating room and, according to a recent CNN report, may be entering the presidential race as a populist candidate.
But who in the world is Carly, or, more specifically, Carly Fiorina? I’d never really heard of her either, other than maybe having something to do with Hewlett-Packard. But that all changed 10 days ago when she spoke in Charleston at a conference for the State Financial Officers Foundation.
The following background is gleaned from various websites and her comments during her Charleston appearance:
Mrs. Fiorina, 60, is the very embodiment of the American dream, having come from modest beginnings. She had an itinerant childhood and adolescence thanks to her father’s wide-ranging career. She attended five different high schools but was smart enough to get into Stanford, where she majored in the interesting (but not necessarily career-advancing) study of medieval history and philosophy.
She applied for and was accepted to the UCLA School of Law, which she attended briefly while holding a variety of odd jobs. After a semester, she realized she hated it and dropped out. Her father, dismayed, wondered if she’d ever amount to anything. She bounced from job to job, working as a receptionist, teaching English in Italy and finally signing on as a sales rep for AT&T. She quickly rose through the ranks of the male-dominated Network Systems division, and by age 35 was the division’s first female officer. Five years later she was head of North American sales.
Meanwhile, she had advanced her business education and was moved by the philosophical observation someone made to her that she had certain God-given talents, and that she would need to give back by making the most of them.
In 1996, AT&T decided to spin off its Western Electric and Bell Labs divisions into a new company called Lucent. In 1998, Fiorina was made president of the company’s Global Service Provider division, Lucent’s core business unit. That same year, Fortune magazine named her the most powerful woman in business.
A year later she was lured away by Hewlett-Packard (a multinational information and technology company) to replace the outgoing Lewis Platt as CEO, thus becoming the first woman to take the lead of a Fortune 20 company. She skillfully managed the company through the better part of the dot-com tech bubble, but in the latter part of 2001 announced a highly controversial merger with Compaq, a leading competitor within the industry, citing globalization and anti-protectionism as crucial tactics to survive in the modern business world.
The move apparently was the beginning of her undoing. In 2005, she received a no-confidence vote from the HP board of directors and was forced to resign. To this day her role at HP has been both criticized and defended.
Since 2005, Fiorina has sat on numerous boards, written a book, done commentary work for Fox News and in 2012 became chairwoman of Good360, a nonprofit organization out of Alexandria, Va., that helps companies donate excess merchandise to various charities, including homeless shelters.
Mrs. Fiorina gave a riveting 40-minute talk at the State Financial Officers Foundation conference last week. She was poised, articulate, used no notes, interacted well with the audience, shared her views on leadership, the overbearing and stifling qualities of excessively big government, the burdens of corporate taxation, the ever-shrinking middle class, problems with Obamacare and various Middle East crises.
I can’t say I agreed with everything she said, but was moved by her Thatcher-like iron will, intellect and personal travails, which have included a bout with breast cancer and losing a 35-year-old stepdaughter to the demons of addiction.
She was very impressive and people are talking about a big announcement of some sort.
Carly and Ben — two names and faces that might become quite familiar to us all in a matter of weeks.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.