WILLIAMSBURG — The Greater Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce held the second of its five-part “Commonwealth Conversations” speaker series events Wednesday morning at Williamsburg Lodge, sitting down with business leader Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina is the Founder and Chairman of Carly Fiorina Enterprises and the nonprofit Unlocking Potential, which supports local leaders in solving problems in their communities and places of work. She also produces a leadership podcast, “By Example,” where she and her team help listeners solve real-world problems.
Currently, she is serving as the National Honorary Chair of the Virginia American Revolution 250 Commission and Chair of the Board of Trustees to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Fiorina rose to prominence as Chair and CEO of Hewlett-Packard as the first female chief executive of a Fortune 50 company. After leaving HP, she turned her sights to politics, first as an advisor to John McCain’s failed presidential bid in 2008, and as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The five-part Chamber speaker series is held every other month, with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) as its sponsor. Cliff Fleet, president of CWF, leads the breakfast discussions.
Leadership and Problem Solving
Fleet opened the discussion by recounting Fiorina’s journey. Fiorina described her upbringing as the eager-to-please middle child who went on to earn a degree in philosophy and medieval history, who then made the hard decision to disappoint her parents when she found law school not to her liking. After heading to Italy to teach English, she returned to take a job as a receptionist at a real estate firm. Something she called a “dead-end job,” but one that paid the bills.
In time, she earned her MBA, and soon found herself on the bottom rung of the management track at AT&T. In time, she earned a reputation as a problem solver.
“I learned how to make a difference by identifying problems and helping to solve them,” she explained. “And I learned how difficult that can be. How hard it is to push against the status quo. But I also learned how many people are available to ally oneself with to make a positive difference.”
Fiorina went on to discuss the unique challenges of moving up the ladder in the male-dominated technology sector — both at AT&T, and later at Hewlett-Packard.
“I know from personal experience that it’s different when you’re different. When you look different from everyone else, it’s different,” she said. “What I also learned, however, was that every one of those people who thought I was so different, and who had all of these preconceived notions about what working with me might be like — and this same message applies all the way up through Hewlett-Packard — those same people would set that aside and gladly, willingly, work with me if we shared a common goal that mattered to them. And if we made progress towards that goal.”
“When I became the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the first day I was concerned about the fact that I was the first non-engineer. I was the first outsider. I was the first person who didn’t come from Silicon Valley. All the press cared about was I was the first woman,” she added. “But people will set that aside and get focused on what’s the goal to achieve. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? How can we work together to achieve that goal and solve that problem?”
Fiorina said we have come a long way since then, yet also pointed out we haven’t come as far as we should, noting that tech and finance remain male-dominated fields. She added that her run for president revealed many of the same biases.
“When I ran for President, one of the first questions … reporters would ask after what I thought was a pretty good debate performance was, ‘Who designed your shoes?’ ‘Who designed your suit?’ Those are the same questions I got at HP,” she said.
Fiorina has held leadership positions in the corporate world, the political world, and the nonprofit sector, and Fleet asked her about the differences. While she acknowledged they existed in structure and how they operate, in the end, she said it always comes down to people.
“The fundamentals of leadership role the same. It always takes courage. It always takes collaboration. It always takes the ability to see what’s possible, and not just easy. All those things remain,” she said.
She fears technology has been a hindrance when it comes to leadership and problem-solving, fostering passivity, a focus on the big picture rather than the small changes we can make, and a lack of collaboration with those who think differently.
“We are forgetting as a nation who we are, where we come from. We’re forgetting because we don’t know our history. And that’s dangerous, because we forget what the role of citizens is. In this country, in this constitution, citizens are sovereign. Civil society is the most powerful force in this nation,” she said. “It’s still true. Too much of our civil society is thinking, let me lean back … things come easy. Let me hang with my own. We’re not doing our bit. And so I’m worried.”
And all of that is happening in the context of a world where people in and outside the country “are trying to prove that democracy doesn’t work anymore,” she said. This is one of her motivations for her involvement in the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution.
America’s 250th anniversary
Fiorina said one of the big differences from the bicentennial that she is aiming for is that the celebration needs to have a focus on Virginia. She noted in 1976, eyes turned to Boston and Philadelphia, but Virginia’s role was unique in the birth of the nation.
“The vast majority of Americans grow up thinking the Pilgrims showed up at Plymouth Rock, but that’s not how it started. It started in Virginia,” she explained. Most Americans, most Virginians, don’t know that every founding document was written by a Virginian … Think about the diversity of this community — Williamsburg — at that time. It is a reflection of the community today.”
“So we have to make certain that every school child understands what went on here and how it relates to us. We have to make sure everyone understands that it wasn’t just about the political revolution. Our founding documents were not just about creating a radical new form of government, it was also about creating an amazing economic engine,” she added.
Fiorina and Fleet both addressed the importance of telling the whole story of the nation’s founding, including those facts some might wish to gloss over. It was a subject that also came up when they took questions from the audience.
“We just have to stick to the facts. It is a fact that our Founding Fathers did not believe the words they wrote applied to slaves or free blacks, indigenous people or women. It is a fact that they owned slaves,” she said. “It is also a fact that the words they wrote have inspired every movement for human freedom, dignity, equality and liberty ever since. Just the facts. And we cannot get into opinions about the facts. Just the facts.”
The next conversation is slated for Jan. 10 with BK Fulton of Soulidifly Productions, followed by Tom Barkin of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond on March 6. The May 1 guest has yet to be announced.
Single tickets for upcoming Commonwealth Conversations are $55 for chamber members and $80 for nonmembers and include breakfast. Tables of eight reserved seats with a company logo are $500 for chamber members and $700 for nonmembers, and tickets for the entire series are also available.
For more information, visit the Commonwealth Conversations webpage.