How Carly Fiorina got famous

May 04, 2015

If you're a supporter of Carly Fiorina, who announced this morning that she's running for president, you can give Fortune credit for making her famous. If you're not a Fiorina fan, well, blame us.

In 1998, Fortune selected Fiorina, then 44 years-old and in charge of the largest division at telecom giant Lucent Technologies, to be No. 1 on its first-ever list of the Most Powerful Women in Business. A relative unknown outside the telecom industry (and at the time, profiled only in Investor’s Business Daily), Fiorina landed on Fortune’s cover. Ten months later, in July 1999, Hewlett-Packard (hpq) recruited her to be CEO.

Fortune's 1998 Carly Fiorina cover Photograph by E.J. Camp

Fortune reported on Fiorina vigorously throughout her rises and falls—including Carol Loomis' memorable cover story, "Why Carly's big bet is failing," which appeared shortly before the HP board fired her. That story explains her shortcomings as a leader. And so far, her record as a politician is spotty—she failed in her 2010 bid to represent California in the U.S. Senate. But as I say in a recent piece about her emerging role as the GOP's weapon against Hillary Clinton, Fiorina knows how to fight and she enjoys the battle. So she's one to watch in the emerging 2016 presidential contest. This excerpt from Fortune's 1998 cover story details how Fiorina first rose to power and fame:

To anyone with a sense of traditional career paths, Carly Fiorina's chance of becoming the most powerful woman in American business would have seemed about as good as, well, a guy's. In college, where she majored in medieval history and philosophy, she was impractical and unfocused. In law school she was restless, and she dropped out her first year. Job to job--receptionist, teacher--she floated. And when she finally went to AT&T as a sales rep in 1980, she refused to join the savings plan because, she said, no way would she stay past two years.

Fast-forward two decades to 1996. Fiorina is a star in nothing less than the hottest, most important industry in American business: telecommunications. Without it, or the products her company produces, few of us could do our jobs. When AT&T decided to spin off Western Electric and Bell Labs into a new company, Fiorina got plucked from a sea of senior men to direct the strategy, orchestrate the IPO, and lead the search for a name and a corporate image. She did well. When it went public that April, Lucent Technologies' $3 billion offering turned out to be the biggest, most successful IPO in U.S. history. Now, two promotions later, Fiorina is president of Lucent's core division, generating some $19 billion in revenues this year...

The key to Fiorina's success is her independence. "Had anyone told me that I was going to have a career in business, I would have said, 'No way.' " For a time she dreamed of being a classical pianist. Then she settled on her father's fantasy: the law. "I was in my first year of law school at UCLA," she recalls, "and I was in this grind, wondering, 'Why am I doing this?' " When she flew to San Francisco and told her father she was quitting, he replied: "Well, I'm very concerned, and I don't think you're going to amount to anything." Says Fiorina: "Quitting law school was the most difficult decision of my life. But I felt this great relief that this is my life and I can do what I want with it."

She bounced around, from a failed marriage in California to a gig teaching English in Bologna, Italy. At 25 she joined AT&T. Fiorina made her first mark selling telephone services to big federal agencies. Then she took the step that many thought would kill her career. She switched from the sophisticated, mainstream service side of AT&T to the equipment division, Network Systems. "The rap on Network Systems was that it was all guys with 20-inch necks and pea-sized brains. You know, heavy metal bending," Fiorina says, laughing. "I went because it was a huge challenge, completely male dominated, and outside everything I'd experienced."

At first she felt jolts of culture shock. The organization was a labyrinth, and its managers were brash and openly confrontational. But Fiorina, audacious and adaptable, earned a reputation as the self-assured young globetrotter who forged complex joint ventures in Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. At 35 she became Network Systems' first-ever female officer...

Fiorina's main contributions were her unorthodox ways of thinking and her innate knack for selling. Says Jeff Williams, a partner at Greenhill & Co. who managed the Lucent offering when he was at Morgan Stanley: "She had little experience with finance. She was learning while doing. But Carly is so bright. She was always urging us to think in new ways about positioning the company to investors."

Position she did. Fiorina even selected Lucent's logo. One day when Landor Associates, the company's corporate-image consultants, presented their final recommendations, Fiorina spotted a design that reminded her of her mother's abstract paintings. It's the vibrant red logo that's in Lucent's ads today.

Fortune's 2005 Carly Fiorina coverPhotograph by Michael O'Neill

Now Fiorina is racing ahead. The only criticism you hear of her is that she's too ambitious--a crack that McGinn and Henry Schacht, Lucent's recently retired chairman, say is absurd. After the IPO, Schacht made Fiorina president of Lucent's consumer-products division, where she further proved herself by devising a strategy that eliminated her position. Fiorina decided that consumer products don't fit with Lucent's strategy; she sold 60% of the business to Dutch giant Philips. "Remember, this is the company that invented the telephone," Schacht says, "so the idea of giving up that business wasn't obvious to any of us at the time. Carly made an absolutely correct decision. And she did it without knowing what her next job would be."

...She has two grown stepdaughters, a two-year-old step-granddaughter (named Carly), and a husband, Frank, who has surrendered his own career success for hers. Fifteen years ago when Carly and Frank met, he told her, "You're going to run a big company someday, and I'm going to help you get there."

In her memoir, Tough Choices, Fiorina reflected on this first major story about her in Fortune, as well as later lessons of her roller-coaster career.

And in this recent interview for her "Smart Women, Smart Power" series for CSIS, my Fortune colleague Nina Easton digs deeper into Fiorina's motives and motivations, and talks with her in-depth about her views on foreign policy.

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