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9 things to know about Carly Fiorina — from workplace sexism to being CEO of HP

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CNN poll released on Sunday found that Carly Fiorina had rocketed to the number two spot in the Republican primary field, second only to longtime front-runner Donald Trump. She attracted 15 percent support from Republican-leaning voters, edging out Ben Carson at 14 percent.

Her strong performances in the first two Republican primary debates have caused a lot of Americans to take a second look at Fiorina, who is best known from her time as CEO of technology giant Hewlett Packard from 1999 to 2005. Here are nine things you should know about her business career — and what that career tells us about her qualifications for the presidency.

1) People are still debating her performance as CEO of HP

Hewlett Packard was a Fortune 20 company in 1999, so when Fiorina was selected as its CEO in 1999 she instantly became one of the most prominent women in business.

Her most consequential decision at HP was to propose a merger with one of its rivals, the PC company Compaq. Fiorina's proposal attracted opposition from the families founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard, leading to a bitter proxy fight that Fiorina ultimately won in 2002 with just 51 percent of the vote. She ran the company for another three years before the board fired her in 2005.

A decade later, people are still debating how well Fiorina did running HP. The conventional wisdom holds that she did poorly. Critics note that HP's stock price plummeted during her tenure, and that the combined firm never achieved the financial targets Fiorina had touted when making the case for the merger.

Yet HP's poor financial performance was mostly due to factors beyond Fiorina's control. She managed HP during the popping of the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s; almost every technology company suffered dramatic stock price declines during the period she was running the company. Fiorina was clearly not a great CEO, but there's also little evidence she was the failure her critics claim.

2) Fortune named Fiorina the most powerful woman in business in 1998

Before she joined HP, Fiorina was a senior executive at Lucent, a company that had been formed by spinning off the equipment division of the old AT&T telephone monopoly.

Lucent could have been seen as a stodgy old telephone manufacturer; Fiorina played a key role in re-branding it as the company whose equipment powers the internet revolution. Fiorina dazzled would-be investors on a nationwide road show to promote the stock to investors ahead of the 1996 initial public offering.

Two years later, she dazzled the editors of Fortune magazine, who were looking for someone to put on the cover of their "most powerful women in business" issue. Her high profile and obvious media savvy were some of the factors that attracted attention from HP's board in 1999.

3) Fiorina fought workplace sexism throughout her career, but she has resisted the role of feminist icon

Carly Fiorina began her career in the late 1970s, a time when sexist attitudes were still prevalent in corporate America. So she dealt with more than her share of double standards and misogyny as she climbed the corporate ladder at AT&T.

In one early incident, one of Fiorina's colleagues agreed to meet a client at a strip club. Determined not to be intimidated, she went to the meeting anyway and tried to ignore the unconventional setting. Dancers had pity on her and refused to come to the table while she was there. And her stubbornness paid off — her embarrassed colleagues stopped scheduling meetings at strip clubs.

When Fiorina became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company, reporters naturally asked if she had broken the glass ceiling. Fiorina was dismissive. "I hope that we are at a point that everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling," she said. "My gender is interesting, but really not the subject of the story here."

She has continued to resist conventional feminist rhetoric in her presidential campaign, declaring in last week's debate that "women are not a special interest group." She bristles at liberals' contention that Republicans are waging a "war on women," arguing that many women — including her — agree with conservatives not only on abortion but also on issues like taxes and health care.

4) Her success at Lucent was driven in part by risky loans

Fiorina's rise wasn't just driven by her charisma, it was also driven by Lucent's impressive financial results. Quarter after quarter, Lucent would sell more telecommunications equipment than Wall Street expected, driving the company's stock price ever higher.

This was largely because the dot-com boom was driving interest in expensive networking gear, of course. But critics say it was also due to a risky and misleading sales strategy. During Fiorina's tenure, Lucent would extend credit to their own customers to help them buy Lucent equipment.

During the dot-com boom, these loans made Lucent's financial results look better than they really were because Lucent could put sales on its books before the customer had actually paid. When the technology bubble popped, some customers went bankrupt, forcing Lucent to write down hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bad loans.

5) Fiorina has a lot of experience with international negotiations

One of the most important things a president does is negotiating with foreign leaders. And while Fiorina has never conducted the kind of high-stakes negotiations a president has to — hardly anyone has — her business career has given her significant experience in talking to foreigners.

In the early 1990s, Fiorina was working in AT&T's equipment division. She was responsible for finding ways to boost AT&T's sales of telecommunications equipment to overseas customers. That involved a lot of foreign travel, navigating foreign bureaucracies, and building relationships with people from different cultures.

For example, in her memoir, she describes her efforts to close a deal with Italtel, Italy's telecommunications giant. Fiorina had lived in Italy in her 20s, so she spoke fluent Italian and understood the culture. She spent several days with her Italian counterparts, developing a relationship with them as they hashed out the terms of the deal.

When negotiations were close to completion, AT&T flew in a more senior executive, who had a terse one-hour meeting with the Italians and rebuffed their suggestion to retire to the terrace for a glass of wine. The Italians, she writes, were insulted by the way he treated them, and negotiations broke down.

"If you want to conduct effective negotiations, know whom you're dealing with," Fiorina writes. "Pay them respect by respecting what's important to them, and take the time to build trust" — which is the "emotional glue that binds people together during disagreements."

6) She lost a stepdaughter to drug addiction

Carly Fiorina married a fellow AT&T executive, Frank Fiorina, in 1985. Their marriage never produced children, but Carly became a stepmother to Frank's two children from his first marriage.

Tragically, their younger daughter Lori died of a prescription drug overdose in 2010 at the age of 34. Fiorina begins her 2015 campaign book, Rising to the Challenge, by describing the anguished moment when police informed her and Frank that Lori had died.

"Only faith, family, and friends got me through those first terrible days after Lori's death," Fiorina writes. "Without my complete conviction that a loving God had been with Lori, and was with our family as we buried her, I'm not sure how I would have coped."

7) Fiorina's 2010 Senate campaign opponent portrayed her as rich and out of touch

In 2010, Fiorina ran for the United States Senate against incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Boxer sought to portray Fiorina as wealthy and out of touch with ordinary Californians.

Fiorina's tenure at HP gave Boxer some ammunition for this line of attack. Fiorina ran the company during the 2001 recession, which was particularly severe in Silicon Valley, and plunging revenues forced her to lay off 30,000 workers, many of them in California.

Boxer also highlighted the fact that Fiorina owned two yachts. When asked about this, a Fiorina campaign spokeswoman told the San Francisco Chronicle that it made sense for her to own a yacht on each coast because the couple liked to spend time in the Washington, DC, area where their grandchildren live.

Fiorina lost to Boxer by a 52 percent to 42 percent margin. That's actually pretty good for a Republican candidate — it's 5 percent more than either John McCain or Mitt Romney got in the state in their presidential races.

8) She campaigned tirelessly for the 2002 Compaq merger

While Fiorina lost her 2010 race for US Senate, she won another important campaign: the 2002 shareholder vote on whether to approve the merger of HP and Compaq.

The race was as expensive and grueling as a conventional political campaign. Both HP management and opponents of the merger spent millions of dollars promoting their respective sides of the debate. And Fiorina spent weeks flying across the country meeting with major shareholders in an effort to win their votes.

By the end of the campaign, according to biographer George Anders, Fiorina was visibly exhausted from the grueling travel schedule and late nights. But she was successful; the merger was endorsed by 51 percent of HP shareholders.

9) Fiorina could fix the way government acquires technology

While Fiorina has never served in elected office, she has extensive experience dealing with the government as a service provider. During the 1980s, much of her time was spent selling telecommunications products to the federal government, and HP sold products to the federal government as well.

So Fiorina probably has a more sophisticated understanding of how the federal government makes major technology purchases than any other candidate for president. And that could be particularly valuable because in recent years the federal government has struggled to adapt to a changing technology landscape. Technological innovation is rapidly reducing the cost of web technology in the private sector, but too many federal agencies are still soliciting multimillion-dollar bids to overhaul their IT systems. Fiorina may be the ideal person to change that.


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