Carly Fiorina Biography

September 6, 1954 • Austin, Texas

Chairman and CEO, Hewlett-Packard

AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.
Fiorina, Carly.
AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

As chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of Hewlett-Packard (HP), a technology company worth $72 billion, Carly Fiorina is the most powerful woman in American business. Many give credit to the savvy businesswoman for leading the technology titan into the twenty-first century. In 2002 Fiorina cemented her reputation as a risk taker when she engineered a controversial merger between HP and Compaq Computers. After expanding her empire, Fiorina was sitting at the helm of the second largest computer company in the world. By the mid-2000s, however, given HP's shaky numbers, critics wondered if Fiorina's reign would continue. Regardless, her role in history as a trailblazer would remain. When she joined Hewlett-Packard in 1999, Fiorina became the only woman to head a large, publicly held company in the United States.

Steers toward business

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina was born Cara Carleton Sneed on September 6, 1954, in Austin, Texas. Her unique name was the result of family tradition. All the male members of the Sneed family who were named Carleton died while serving in the Civil War (1861–1865). To honor them, one child in each subsequent generation was named either Carleton (if a boy) or Cara Carleton (if a girl). Fiorina's father, Joseph Sneed, was a lawyer and at one time served as deputy attorney general under President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994). He also served for more than thirty years as an appeals court judge in San Francisco, California. Fiorina's mother, Madelon, was an abstract painter. In 2003, during a ceremony honoring her father's longstanding career, Fiorina credited her parents for inspiring her to excel. "In times of hardship and uncertainty," she observed, as quoted on the OCE Public Information Office Web site, "people need a strong internal compass to find their way." Fiorina specifically thanked her father for "always being my true north."

"Progress is not made by the cynics and doubters. It is made by those who believe everything is possible."

Although Fiorina was raised primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, her father's job caused the family to move quite a bit. She attended at least five high schools all over the world, including Ghana (in Africa) and London, England. Fiorina eventually returned to California to attend Stanford University, located in Palo Alto. Strangely enough, Hewlett-Packard's corporate headquarters are located in Palo Alto, and the future CEO worked in HP's shipping department during a summer break from college. After graduating with a degree in medieval history and philosophy, Fiorina decided to follow in her father's footsteps. She entered law school at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1976. After one semester, however, she dropped out, deciding that a career in law was not for her.

Do You Want to Be Carly Fiorina?

Carly Fiorina has graced the top of Fortune magazine's annual list of the most powerful women in business since the ranking was launched in 1998. But in October of 2003, when the magazine polled the other honorees and asked them whether they would like to be in Fiorina's shoes, the answer was consistently "no." Many seemed uncomfortable with the word power. As Ann Fudge, CEO of Young & Rubicam (and number 46 on the list), told Fortune, "We need to redefine power!" And according to Jenny Ming, president of Old Navy, "Power is in your face and aggressive. I'm not like that."

Definitions aside, according to Fortune, by the mid-2000s the trend was that women were regularly being offered positions of power but were not accepting them. And more and more women were leaving their top-level positions or taking short- or long-term breaks. One reason cited was that women were not willing to sacrifice their personal lives, especially time with their children, in order to work a staggering number of hours at their companies. As Jamie Gorelick, former vice chairman of Fannie Mae, commented to Fortune , the "secret is that women demand a lot more satisfaction in their lives than men do."

Of course it makes it a lot easier to devote time to a career if one spouse stays at home. Interestingly enough, according to Fortune, more than one-third of the women who appeared on the list in 2003 had husbands who were stay-at-home dads. In fact, Carly Fiorina's husband Frank, a former AT&T executive, took an early retirement in 1998 to help focus his energies on his wife's career.

Not only were women turning down or leaving upper level positions in the business world, but business schools were having a difficult time attracting female students. According to a 2002 study by Simmons College of over four thousand teenagers, only 9 percent of girls interviewed expressed an interest in going into business. In addition, women made up only 36 percent of students heading toward a master's degree in business administration (MBA). As Judy Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, explained, young women on her campus regularly commented that "You [career-focused] women work too hard. You're too strung out." Considering that Carly Fiorina starts her day every morning at 4:00, maybe they are right.

Fortune did offer some hope. Young men appeared to be changing their attitudes toward the business world. They, like women, seemed to want a balance between their personal lives and their careers. According to Brenda Barnes, who teaches at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, her students have told her that they saw their parents "dedicating themselves to their companies" and that they are not willing to "give their lives over to their jobs." Women executives see this as good news. They predict that if business attitudes change, equality between men and women in the top business spots may become a reality. That reality may be some time coming, however, considering that in 2003 only 8 percent of the top level jobs in corporate America were held by women.

Not sure what to do, Fiorina tried her hand at a number of jobs. She even taught English in Bologna, Italy. It was while working as a receptionist at a New York brokerage firm that her interest in business was sparked. Fiorina decided to go back to school to get a master's degree in business administration (MBA), and in 1980 she graduated from the University of Maryland. Fresh out of graduate school, Fiorina landed a job at the telecommunications giant AT&T as a sales representative. She was quickly promoted to the position of commercial account executive, and was responsible for selling long distance telephone service to federal agencies in the U.S. government.

Lights up Lucent, then snagged by HP

Fiorina's aggressive sales record did not go unnoticed by her employers, who decided that she was definitely management material. As a result, in 1988 she was sent to the prestigious Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn a master of science degree in business. While at Sloan, Fiorina met the head of AT&T's Network Systems Group, a manufacturing division of the company that was viewed as sluggish and outdated. Against the advice of colleagues, she decided to transfer to Network Systems, even though it was a low profile area and the move seemed almost certain to stall her career. However, quite the opposite happened. In 1995 Fiorina was appointed as the first woman officer at Network Systems when she was put in charge of North American sales. She became instrumental in carving out new markets for AT&T in the Far East, well before it became commonplace for U.S. businesses to expand on a global scale.

In 1995 AT&T decided to spin off into three separate companies and Fiorina was at the center of the whirlwind. One company would focus on long distance, while NCR Corporation would be the computer company and Lucent Technologies would concentrate on telecommunications and networking equipment, essential for running the Internet. Network Systems was folded into Lucent, and Fiorina was put in charge of revamping the new company. She coordinated Lucent's $3 billion initial public offering (IPO), which is the offering of stock on the open market to the public for the first time. She was also responsible for creating Lucent's flashy marketing image, including its red swirl logo. Lucent quickly became a leader in the networking industry, and Fiorina was given most of the credit. In 1998 she became president of Lucent's Global Service Provider Business, and by year's end Lucent had chalked up $19 billion in revenue. That same year Fiorina was placed at the top of Fortune magazine's list of the most powerful women in business.

Other corporations soon took notice of the knowledgeable young professional, including Hewlett-Packard, the grandfather of all computer companies. In July of 1999, HP announced that it had hired Fiorina to be its president and chief executive officer (CEO). The move was remarkable for several reasons. One, HP was a family-owned business, and for the first time it was hiring a president from outside its own ranks. Second, the corporation became the first large U.S. company to place a woman in charge. Third, Fiorina was breaking into Silicon Valley, a region south of San Francisco where there is a concentration of high-tech industries, and until Fiorina came along, the industry had been strictly male-dominated. Although Fiorina was sad to leave AT&T after almost twenty years, she explained to Electronic News, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. Hewlett-Packard is a company of great accomplishment and even greater potential.... I will strive to strike the right balance between reinforcing HP's values and working to reinvent its business."

A house divided

Since its formation in 1939 by Bill Hewlett (1913–2001) and Dave Packard (1912–1996), Hewlett-Packard had grown into one of the preeminent leaders in the computer industry, noted primarily for cornering the printer market. But by the late 1990s it was starting to lose ground, especially to personal computer (PC) giant IBM. The company looked to Fiorina to help it reenergize. As Sam Ginn, a member of HP's board of directors told Electronic News, "The board unanimously agreed that she is quite simply the ideal candidate to leverage HP's core strengths in the rapidly changing information-systems industry and to lead this great company well into the new millennium."

Fiorina lost no time cleaning house. She streamlined operations by combining several different divisions into fewer, more manageable units. She also shook up the HP sales staff, telling them to shape up or leave the company. This was a harsh mandate, but at the same time Fiorina was also known for her exceptional leadership skills and for maintaining a loyal employee following. By 2001, however, analysts were wondering if HP's ambitious new CEO had been too aggressive. True, Fiorina had struck some very lucrative deals with Ford Motor Company and Delta Airlines to purchase exclusively from HP, but the corporation's PC sales were still lagging and there had been no major inroads into the world of e-business, as promised. HP remained optimistic. As board member George Keyworth explained to USA Today, "In the early summer of 1999, when we were interviewing Carly, we discussed it would take a minimum of three years to turn things around and there would be lots of ups and downs. We are absolutely behind her."

The board was divided, however, when Fiorina made a daring announcement in September of 2001. In a further effort to overtake IBM, she proposed to buy Compaq Computers, another faltering leader in the PC industry. The proposed merger could cost up to $25 billion, but Fiorina claimed that the combined assets of the two companies would create an information technology dynamo. Members of both the Hewlett and Packard families balked at the idea, and initially refused to go along with the deal. They eventually relented, and on May 3, 2002, Fiorina successfully engineered the $19 billion consolidation.

Carly Fioina (left) shakes hands with the chief executive of Compaq, Michael Capellas. Hewlett-Packard purchased Compaq in 2002. AP/Wide World Photo. Reproduced by permission.
Carly Fioina (left) shakes hands with the chief executive of Compaq, Michael Capellas. Hewlett-Packard purchased Compaq in 2002.
AP/Wide World Photo. Reproduced by permission.

Carly claims victory with Compaq

A year-and-a-half after the merger, Fiorina was claiming victory. She told Fortune magazine that "the strategy has been vindicated." She also announced that HP "leads in every product category, every geography, and every customer segment in which we participate." The company did look different, and it launched a new ad campaign with the tag line "Everything is possible." It was also branching into new consumer electronics markets, like Tablet PCs and MP3 players, hoping to give new industry leader Dell Computers a run for their money.

But according to business analysts the numbers told a different story. In October of 2003, writer Stephanie Smith observed on the CNN Web site that the "new HP looks a lot like the old HP," and revealed that 80 percent of the company's $4.4 billion profit still came from printer sales. In addition, the morale of HP seemed to be suffering. By January of 2004 seven of HP's top managers had left the company. Some retired, some migrated to the competition, and at least one quit suddenly and without notice. Fiorina remained unfazed, telling Fortune that "only 1.7 percent of executives at the vice president level and above have left HP since the merger. That's a pretty small percentage."

Numbers aside, there is no doubt that Fiorina has ranked as a visionary. While at AT&T she helped usher in the era of global business; at Hewlett-Packard she has been at the forefront of new technological ventures. Fiorina has also helped HP become a leader in giving. She launched HP's Technology for Teaching program, which each year awards $10 million in technology grants to U.S. schools from kindergarten through college level. She has also established programs in other countries, including India, to "help bridge the digital divide between technology empowered and technology-excluded communities," as quoted in PR Newswire. As a result, in November of 2003 Hewlett-Packard was honored by the international nonprofit humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide for "its commitment to spearheading educational initiatives around the world."

For More Information


"Carly Fiorina Biography." Business Leader Profiles for Students. Vol. 2. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2002.


"Concern Worldwide US Presents 'Seeds of Hope'Award to HP's Carly Fiorina." PR Newswire (November 5, 2003).

"Fiorina Named HP President and CEO." Electronic News (July 26, 1999): p. 14.

Lashinsky, Adam. "Power 25: No. 19 Carly Fiorina, Hewlett Packard." Fortune (August 11, 2003): p. 78.

Lashinsky, Adam. "Wall Street to Carly: Prove It! HP Talks Up a Turnaround, but Investors Don't Buy It—Yet." Fortune (January 12, 2004): p. 36.

Scardino, Marjorie. "Carly Fiorina: Inventing a New Hewlett-Packard." Time (April 26, 2004): p. 72.

Swartz, Jon. "Another Thumbs Down for H-P Deal." USA Today (November 8, 2001).

Web sites

"Carly Most Powerful Woman—Again." (September 29, 2003). (accessed on May 21, 2004).

"Court of Appeals Honors Judge Joseph T. Sneed." OCE Public Information Office (December 9, 2003). (accessed on May 21, 2004).

La Monica, Paul R. "Fiorina Strikes Back." (November 21, 2002). (accessed on May 21, 2004).

Smith, Stephanie. "Can HP Find Its Way?" (October 2003). (accessed on May 21, 2004).

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Other articles you might like: