Carly Fiorina: A New Playing Field

Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard CEO, talks about her new job in politics working for John McCain.

Interview by Jennifer Senior
Carly Fiorina (Photo: Francois Dischinger)

On Being CEO and Working for McCain

Just a few years ago, the business press called Carly Fiorina "the most powerful woman in corporate America.’‘ But in 2005, after months of headline-making clashes with her board, she got a new, less flattering moniker: ousted CEO. For a while, she eschewed the spotlight, choosing to start a charity, write a memoir (Tough Choices), serve on a Central Intelligence Agency advisory panel, and spend time with her grandchildren.

Now, at 54, Fiorina is back in the public eye as Victory Chairman for the Republican National Committee. "I’ve become a political junkie,’‘ she says.

That’s good, because the heat is on. In her new role, Fiorina is not only a proxy (in campaign-speak) for a candidate who has lagged behind in the polls, she’s also an unofficial GOP attack dog on women’s issues, speaking out on gender whenever the occasion requires. Another of her jobs is recruiting disenchanted Hillary Clinton supporters to the party, and she’s a great choice — if there’s one thing Fiorina knows, it’s how punishing being a powerful public woman can be. From her days at HP, she remembers the "blogs around Silicon Valley: I was routinely called a bimbo or that other B-word. This happens to women all the time." And she faced endless questions about her hair, clothes, and jewelry. "I don’t think we have enough practice with women in positions of authority, so we get very hung up on style," she says.

Writer Jennifer Senior talked with Fiorina (who says she needs two BlackBerrys these days to keep up) about her own political ambitions, the challenge of reinventing a career, and how great it felt to stop being a CEO.

MORE: Let’s start by discussing another pathbreaking woman. Have you met Hillary Clinton?

Fiorina: Oh, yes. I was giving the commencement speech at Stanford the year that Chelsea graduated, so the first time we met it was in an intimate and celebratory context. And I have been to her office to talk about various issues. She asked me for my support early on in her campaign.

MORE: She didn’t know where you stood, politically?

Fiorina: I think she probably did, but she asked anyway. I have enormous admiration for Hillary Clinton. And I felt empathy for her.

MORE: Because of how the media treated her, I assume. Was there one moment that stands out?

Fiorina: In New Hampshire, after she’d had an incredibly grueling several weeks, she was asked a question — one that was compassionate towards her — and she teared up. She didn’t break down and cry; she choked up momentarily and regained her composure. And three days later we were still talking about it on television. I’ve seen John McCain tear up. We were not still talking about it three days later.

MORE: Is it easier for women with experience, like Hillary or you, to take that kind of heat?

Fiorina: It helps. You understand what happens, and in some ways why. It hurts, but you take it less personally. I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anybody.

MORE: You did when you were younger?

Fiorina: It was even less sophisticated than that. When I joined the business world, I felt like I had to make sure I didn’t fail or get fired. I had to prove that, yes, I can do this. I can take on these jobs women haven’t taken on before. Everyone is afraid at various points in their lives. I’ve learned that having doubts is human. People who have no doubts worry me, frankly.

MORE: It’s funny how so many powerful women are referred to by their first names. I think it started with Chris Evert; she was always "Chrissy." Martha. Oprah. Condi. Carly. Is that a problem?

Fiorina: Familiarity is a two-sided coin. If it’s a way of denigrating someone’s accomplishments, that’s problematic. If it’s a token of affection, a belief that someone is accessible, it’s a good thing.

MORE: You’ve said that Hillary Clinton would have made a formidable opponent for McCain. More formidable than Obama?

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