In March of 2008—Women’s History Month—I attended a press conference given by a women’s NGO promoting the premise that the skills of leadership can be mentored and passed on to women, in order to effect change in their communities. This was over a year before the Kristoff-WuDunn book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women came on the scene. This organization was working to mentor women with management and business skills, in order to develop their enterprises. They also zeroed in on the stats that showed micro-lending to women leads to their reinvesting of profits into their families, villages, and districts.
One of the speakers, also a member of the Board of Directors, was Carly Fiorina. By this time, she had served at Lucent
Technologies. (Her tenure there is examined by Scott Woolley in an 10/15/2010 article for Fortune entitled, “Carly Fiorina’s troubling telecom past.”) She had completed her run as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard (1999-2005), a period when she was considered one of the most powerful women in business. Her accolades included making the Forbes list of the thirty most powerful women in America (2001) and the description as the “first woman” to lead a Fortune 20 company. After she resigned and wrote her book, Tough Choices, Fiorina picked up a stream of speaking engagements. She appeared at a 2006 women’s business conference where I was present, offered as a role model for women in business. There was a subtext implying that sexism can sabotage women when they get up into the ranks and play with the big boys.
At the in 2008 event, she was billed as the CEO of Carly Fiorina Enterprises. Her presentation included a lot of business jargon, mixed in with information about how creating opportunities for those in need would help create a market for “us.” She referred to it euphemistically as “enlightened self-interest.” For those who may not have caught the core of what she was suggesting, she reaffirmed that helping women become self-empowered was beneficial because, “It’s good for us.” “Us” cut a wide swath, which I construed to include the West, the United States, and American business.
Shorty afterwards, she signed on as the “economic spokesperson” for the John McCain campaign. When I would see her appearing on news shows as a talking head, I would recall that day. Her repeated gaffes took center stage, from her suggestion that neither John McCain nor Sarah Palin had the smarts to be a CEO of a major corporation—to the bag of worms addressing health insurance coverage that pitted Viagra vs. birth control pills. By 2009, Condé Nast Portfolio had listed Fiorina as one of “the 20 Worst American CEOs of All Time.”
Now, having won the California Republican Senatorial primary—with the help of $5.5 million of her own money—Fiorina has positioned herself as the one to straighten out California’s fiscal problems. Some people are looking at her past performances, as well as her currently held opinions, for what type of Senator she would be.
As the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina laid off 30,000 people. When she left the company, she received $21 million in severance pay. She opposes Net Neutrality, a woman’s right to choose, and same-sex marriages. She supports the death penalty and the Arizona immigration law.
When Californians focus in on the election, just sixteen days away, they will need to parse out who Carly Fiorina is and what she stands for. As someone who ascribes to the philosophy of doing “what’s good for us,” it’s important for the state’s voters to determine if they would fall into her category of “us”—or “them.”