Former HP chief encourages students to make ‘tough choices’

Carly Fiorina may once have been named “the most powerful woman in business” by Fortune Magazine, but she is currently in a position many college seniors can relate to: keeping an eye out for full-time employment opportunities.

p. Fiorina, the former chairwoman and chief executive officer of Hewlett Packard, spoke about choices and change to an audience that nearly filled the 400-seat Kimball Theatre. The event, held last Friday evening, was co-hosted by the Mason School of Business and the school’s chapter of the National Association of Women MBAs (NAWMBA).

p. The keynote speaker was introduced by the College’s Board of Visitors Rector and former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who called Fiorina a friend and a hero. He described his first encounter with her as “intoxicating.”

p. “My wife accused me of being infatuated, and there might be some truth to that,” Powell said.

p. Fiorina recognized the challenge of “being intoxicating on a Friday night,” and began her speech by establishing her credentials — she is a medieval history and philosophy major and a law school dropout. She identified dropping out of law school as the first tough choice she ever made, playing on the name of her recently-published memoir, “Tough Choices.” Using her from-the-bottom-up career path, from secretary to CEO, Fiorina provided the audience with nuggets of business wisdom, such as “courage is acting in spite of fear,” and, “when opportunity knocks, which it will, don’t be afraid to answer the door.”

p. In between her life and career advice, Fiorina provided anecdotes to put her words in perspective. She shared one of her early challenges as an account executive, when a client insisted that their introductory lunch meeting be held at The Boardroom, a Washington, D.C. strip club. Fiorina recalled the cabbie asking if she was “the new act” as he took her to the club to meet with her surprised partner and clients.

p. “I demonstrated I will not be intimidated,” Fiorina said of her decision to meet at the club.

p. Her invitation from NAWMBA came in recognition not only of her success in the business world, but as a woman in a male-dominated arena. The audience had taken their seats earlier in the evening to find admissions view books laid out on every chair from the Mason School, which included a reminder that just 35 percent of the MBA’s class of 2007 are women.

p. NAWMBA president Jessica Taylor said Fiorina’s name was a favorite among chapter members when surveyed about what speakers they might like to her from. The Mason School “heavily subsidized” the event as part of their endeavor to, as Dean Larry Pulley ’74 put it in his opening introduction, “bring business to the business school.”

p. A good portion of Fiorina’s talk was devoted to detailing her business successes at Hewlett-Packard. She emphasized her commitment to innovation in the face of controversy and resistance to change. Despite her much-publicized dismissal from the company in early 2005, she continually referred to HP’s activity with an inclusive “we.” She defended her decision to lay off 36,000 people in the company and proudly took credit for turning it “from a laggard into a leader.”

p. During a question-and-answer session that followed the talk, one audience member questioned the company’s controversial move under her leadership to acquire Compaq. Fiorina stuck by the decision and reminded the audience that leaders must “see things before others see them.” Another member of the audience asked the question that’s been circulating in the media since her departure from Hewlett-Packard: What’s next?

p. “I enjoy greatly the freedom that I have — I don’t like how I got it, but I’m enjoying it.” said Fiorina. “I haven’t quite seen the opportunity to commit myself fulltime.”

p. The unemployed former executive is doing fine for herself, however, with the sales of her memoir, which she signed for audience members after the speech. Wendy Degerman, a second year law student at the College was in the crowd. She had yet to pick up a copy of the memoir, but after hearing Fiorina speak said, ‘I think I’ll buy the book, but not yet.”


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