Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina Biography

Business Leader (1954–)
When Carly Fiorina was hired as Hewlett-Packard's CEO, she was the first woman to take control of a Fortune 100 company.


Carleton (Carly) S. Fiorina was born Cara Carleton Sneed in Austin, Texas on September 6, 1954. After dropping out of law school, she became an AT&T management trainee. She moved up the company ladder and became the first female officer in the Network Systems division. In 1998, she was put in charge of Lucent's Global Service Provider division. A year later, she was tapped as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. After the controversial merger with Compaq Computers didn’t meet expectations, Fiorina was forced to resign. She then became a consultant for Republican candidates.  In 2010, Fiorina made a run for the U.S. Senate in California. She was defeated in that race, but she then set her sights on the White House. In 2015, Fiorina announced that she was running for the Republican nomination for president.

Early Life

When Carly Fiorina told her father, law professor Joseph Tyree Sneed III, that she'd decided to drop out of law school after her first year at UCLA, he shook his head and said he didn't think she'd amount to much. Two decades later, she's been named the most powerful woman in American business by Fortune magazine and in 1999 was named president/CEO of one of the world's most important technology companies, Hewlett-Packard.

Carly, her artist mother, Madelon Montross, and her two siblings moved frequently thanks to her father's wide-ranging career. She attended five different high schools, including one in Ghana. In college, she studied medieval history and philosophy, and after trying law school, she bounced from job to job, working as a receptionist and teaching English in Italy.  

Carly finally signed on as a management trainee at AT&T at age 25. Around this time, AT&T had reached a deal with the government to settle a sexual discrimination lawsuit. The terms of the agreement called for the company to hire more women for management positions. In the coming years, she would earn an MBA from the University of Maryland and a MS degree from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Ascent at AT&T

Interested in the developing field of network communications, Fiorina surprised her co-workers by joining the male-dominated Network Systems division. At age 35, she became the division's first female officer, and five years later was named head of North American sales. She combined an appreciation of new technologies with powerful sales instincts, which won the attention of top brass at AT&T. In 1996, the company decided to spin off its Western Electric and Bell Labs divisions into a new company. Carly was tagged to spearhead the effort. Under her guidance, the spin-off, dubbed Lucent, became one of the most successful IPOs (Initial Public Offerings) in U.S. history, raising $3 billion.

Carly’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1985, she married AT&T executive Frank Fiorina who put his own career on the slow track in order to support hers. He predicted early on that she would run a big company someday, and he pledged to help her. Retired in 1998, he devotes his time to yachting, caring for their dogs, and accompanying Fiorina on business trips.

Lucent Executive

By 1998, when Fortune dubbed Carly Fiorina the most powerful woman in business, she was president of Lucent's Global Service Provider division, the company's core business unit.  Fiorina found success meeting the rising demand for network technology from American businesses. Under her watch, the company's market share increased in every region for every product.

Some reports, however, indicate that Fiorina's accomplishments at Lucent may be overstated. A Fortune magazine claimed that the company implemented a number of questionable financial practices during her time there. For instance, a deal with PathNet managed by Fiorina involved loaning them small business money and giving them Lucent equipment at no cost. Writer Scott Woolley explained that "money from the loans began to appear on Lucent's income statement as new revenue while the dicey debt got stashed on its balance sheet as an allegedly solid asset." Harvard professor Rakesh Khurana said that "Lucent's success had more to do with loose credit terms and creative accounting than any reinvention of the company as the Second Coming of Cisco," according to the New York Times.  

Tenure at Hewlett-Packard

In the summer of 1999, Hewlett-Packard took note of Fiorina's exceptional ability to manage growth in the quickly changing technology field and tagged her to replace retiring president and CEO Lewis Platt. Fiorina achieved the notable distinction of being the first woman to take the lead at a Fortune 20 company. She also made a remarkable deal when making the switch from Lucent to HP. HP gave her $65 million in stock to join the company and leave behind a reported $85 million in Lucent options and stock. But those Lucent shares did not hold their value for long. The company began to unravel not long after Fiorina's departure. 

Fiorina quickly became a highly visible CEO making several major changes at HP: she streamlined operations combining several different units into fewer, more manageable units. She shook up the sales staff with the mandate “shape up or ship out.” Fiorina also helped make HP a leader in charitable giving. She launched HP’s “Technology for Teaching” program and established programs in other countries to "help bridge the digital divide between technology empowered and technology-excluded communities."

However, Fiorina made a controversial move in the wake of the dotcom bubble bursting. On September 3, 2001, she announced HP's merger with Compaq Computers, a decision opposed by the HP founders’ sons Walter Hewlett and David Packard. A week later terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, and Fiorina was called on to provide her assistance as HP CEO. Michael Hayden, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), asked Fiorina to provide the NSA with high-tech equipment needed to carry out the surveillance agency's work in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Fiorina re-routed a retail shipment of HP equipment to the NSA to accommodate this request.

The Compaq merger continued to place Fiorina's executive decisions in question. A year-and-a-half after the merger, Fiorina claimed victory announcing that HP was a cutting-edge company and industry leader in all business categories. However, business analysts observed that HP really hadn’t changed much. Eighty percent of profit still came from the printer division, morale was down and, in 2004, several top executives left the company.

In January 2005, the Hewlett-Packard board of directors met with Carly Fiorina to discuss the company’s performance. She rejected a proposed plan to transfer her authority to division heads and a month later she resigned as chair and CEO of HP. Her departure was widely covered in the news media with supporters and critics weighing in.

Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

Political Activity    

After leaving HP, Fiorina wrote her autobiography Tough Choices in 2006, chronicling her career and views on leadership, women in business, and the role of technology in the world. She was named to several corporate boards including Kellogg Co. and Merck & Co. She also found herself working again with Michael Hayden, who by then had been appointed the director of the Central Intelligence Agency by President George W. Bush. In 2007, Hayden selected Fiorina to chair the CIA’s External Advisory Board. In this role, Fiorina received the highest security clearance and led a board of various experts from different fields, who advised senior CIA leaders on national security issues. 

She also became a commentator for Fox News and, in 2008, served as a consultant to John McCain’s 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign. In 2009, Fiorina announced she was running for the U.S. Senate in California. She secured the Republican nomination, running against incumbent Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer in November 2010 election. Boxer emerged victorious after attacking Fiorina for her executive decisions while at Hewlett-Packard including layoffs and job outsourcing. Despite her loss, she continued to advocate for Republican causes.

Presidential Ambitions

In May 4, 2015, Fiorina announced her bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. She announced her plans to run on her record at Hewlett-Packard, citing that her role as CEO gives her solid preparation to make decisions required of a world leader. During her announcement, she reiterated her criticism of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, describing her as a professional politician and questioning her honesty.

It is likely Fiorina will be the only female presidential candidate from the Republican Party. Though considered a long shot by political insiders, many feel that because she is female, she is in a unique position to criticize Clinton without being charged with gender bias. However, her strategy of running on her business record will face questions of her business decisions at HP, the large number of lay-offs made during her tenure, and being forced out by the HP board. 

With a crowded field of initially 17 contenders, Fiorina was one of seven candidates with lower poll numbers who participated in an early August forum right before the first Republican debate connected to the 2016 election cycle. Her strong performance at the debate between second-tier candidates made headlines with some political pundits calling her an underdog winner. After the debate Fiorina told Fox News Sunday: “We certainly have seen an uptick in financial support. We’ve seen an uptick in support generally and so, it’s very exciting.”

Fiorina moved up in the polls and was invited to join the main stage for the second Republican debate on September 16. She was the only women in a field of 10 men, and delivered a strong performance that the New York Times called “steely, self-assured and at times deeply personal.” Fiorina offered detailed responses regarding her position on U.S. relations with Iran and Russia, defunding Planned Parenthood, and she defended her business record at Hewlitt-Packard. When asked to respond to fellow presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comment about her in Rolling Stone magazine, in which he said “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”, Fiorina said, “I think women all over this country heard really clearly what Mr. Trump said.”

After the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary, Fiorina didn't gain the traction needed to continue her run for president and suspended her campaign in February 2016. In a statement Fiorina said, "While I suspend my candidacy today, I will continue to travel this country and fight for those Americans who refuse to settle for the way things are and a status quo that no longer works for them." 

In March 2016, Fiorina endorsed Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz. "There are people in our party who are actually kind of horrified by Donald Trump. I'm one of them," Fiorina said. "We're going to have to beat Donald Trump at the ballot box. And the only guy who can beat Donald Trump is Ted Cruz."

On April 27, 2016, Cruz announced Fiorina as his vice presidential running mate. “Over and over again, Carly has shattered glass ceilings,” Cruz said, calling her “an extraordinary leader.”

On May 3rd, Cruz suspended his campaign after losing to Donald Trump in the Indiana primary. 

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!