Meg Whitman's Political Reinvention

The former eBay chief was named chief of HP. We chatted with her in 2010 (when she was campaigning for governor of California) and found out who "the real Meg Whitman" is.

By Amy Wallace
meg whitman image
Meg Whitman, poised to reinvent
Photograph: Photo By Robert Maxwell

As brainy as she was competitive, Whitman graduated from high school in three years, earned a degree in economics from Princeton, then got an MBA from Harvard. She met her husband, Griffith Harsh, a neurosurgeon, when she was a college sophomore and he was a Harvard senior. When I ask him later whether Whitman has enough grit to be governor, Harsh laughs, remembering their first date. She invited him to her sister’s wedding and he accepted, but then showed up late, arriving as the band was packing to go. “I called [afterward] and properly apologized,” he recalls, but “she was not really happy.” Only later did he discover that she’d hedged her bets. “I think she had invited a couple of guys to the wedding, not just me,” he says. “She’s tough, let me tell you. Nothing intimidates her.”

The couple had two sons as Whitman moved up professionally, holding spots at the management consulting firm Bain & Company (where Mitt Romney was her boss), Disney and Hasbro (where she was in charge of Mr. Potato Head), among others. Then the young founder of a three-year-old business called eBay decided he needed, in Whitman’s words, adult supervision, and she got a call from a headhunter. Accepting the job meant a pay cut from close to $1 million to $100,000, but she took the plunge, moving her family cross-country. (Harsh practices at Stanford University Medical Center.)

As Whitman explains in her new book, The Power of Many, written with Joan O’C. Hamilton, she has always had two priorities: family and work. Nearly everything else falls by the wayside, including such activities as clothes shopping. “To this day, I walk into a department store and I am slightly baffled about where to begin,” she writes. “ . . . I once said something offhanded to a Fortune reporter that I know will follow me for the rest of my life. She asked what I thought people thought of me, and I responded: ‘She’s frumpy, but she delivers. . . . ’ She didn’t misquote me. I would love to look snazzy and stylish every day, but something’s got to give. I know that focusing has consequences.”

Even with clear priorities, Whitman didn’t always find it easy to balance career and family, and she still seems pained by the sacrifices she had to make. One story she tells on the stump took place 21 years ago, when her oldest son was three years old and another mother at his preschool called to organize a carpool. Whitman, who then worked fulltime at Bain, told the mother she would be happy to participate, assuring her that on days when the job interfered, her nanny would fill in. This elicited a response Whitman says she will never forget. “In an icy tone she said, ‘I did not quit my job at McKinsey [the management consulting firm] to have someone else’s nanny drive my child.’ ” That night, Whitman says, her husband bucked her up. “He said, ‘Meg, do not worry about it. You keep on doing what you’re doing.’ But I must tell you, it took me six months to recover from that moment.”

Whitman put her head down and kept working, drawing on her focus, her drive, her persistence in the face of criticism. Those are the qualities she’s now harnessing in hopes of winning out over men far more politically experienced than she: former Congressman Tom Campbell and California insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, her competitors for the Republican nomination, and Jerry Brown, the presumed Democratic candidate, who is now California’s attorney general and who has been previously elected governor not once but twice. (At presstime, Brown had not announced his candidacy.) Like her mother volunteering to serve in the jungle, Whitman is undaunted. By war’s end Margaret Whitman was a fully certified mechanic and, says her daughter, “To this day, she still talks about overhauling Jeep engines faster than the men.” Also like her mother, Whitman is confident she can figure it all out.

First Published January 20, 2010

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