Carly Fiorina, before she was famous

June 8, 2010, 6:52 PM UTC

by Patricia Sellers

Today, two former No. 1’s on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list will learn whether they have big new careers ahead — in politics.

One is Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay , who looks likely to win the Republican nomination for Governor. And then she’ll go head to head against Democrat Jerry Brown, who has seen and done it all in California (including served as Governor).
The other is Carly Fiorina, who exited corporate America less gracefully than Whitman. The Hewlett-Packard board fired her as CEO in 2005, and now she’s running for the U.S. Senate. If Fiorina scores enough Republican votes today — which looks likely — she too will confront a veteran Democrat, Senator Barbara Boxer.

Both Fiorina and Whitman are both running on business smarts — the notion that good management and fiscal responsibility will save the tarnished Golden State. Fiorina, 55, is nothing if not tenacious. This past past year, she has conquered breast cancer. The same indomitability was evident 12 years ago when I first met her at Lucent Technologies in New Jersey. Fiorina was, at the time, a rising-star executive who had had just one national story written about her (in Investor’s Business Daily). We noticed her relentless ambition, among other thins, and against expectations, we her No. 1 on Fortune‘s first Most Powerful Women list.

No. 1 on the list, above Oprah, yes, and above her Lucent colleague Pat Russo, who went on to be CEO of Alcatel-Lucent . Nine months after she landed on the October 12, 1998 Fortune, Fiorina was recruited to be CEO of H-P.

No question, she has a brutal contest against Boxer ahead of her, but on the cusp of her nomination for the Senate, this seems like a good day to share my portrait of Fiorina back when she was 43 years old and little known. Here’s Fortune‘s very first Most Powerful Women cover and an edited excerpt from the story:

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…

Affable and stylish, dressed in a brown Armani pantsuit, Fiorina, 44, seems as comfortable with power as any woman could be. Unlike [Oprah] Winfrey and some other women on our list, Fiorina grew up with “a sense of no limits,” she says. Her father, a serious and intellectually rigorous law professor, shuttled the family around the world (Carly went to five high schools, including one in Ghana) and urged the three children–Carly, her older sister, and her younger brother–to speak their minds. Carly’s mother, a painter, “taught me the power of positive attitude,” she says. “She has an unbelievable zest for life and in another era would have been a wonderful businesswoman.”

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. At 40 she was heading sales for all of North America. Then [Lucent CEO] Rich McGinn took her to dinner and asked her to be the “orchestra leader” of the pending IPO…

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.

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.”