By Andrew Park
Not long after losing her job as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), Carleton S. Fiorina put in a call to James C. Renick, chancellor of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. During a fund-raising visit to HP's Palo Alto (Calif.) campus a year before, Renick had invited Fiorina to speak at the historically black university's spring 2005 commencement.
"Do you still want me to come?" she asked Renick, aware that publicity over her Feb. 9 sacking hadn't helped her image. Absolutely, Renick said. Fiorina now had something in common with the graduates, he reasoned: Unemployment.
MORE REVEALING SIDE.
And so it was that Fiorina's first public appearance since being deposed from HP came on May 7 in front of some 14,000 at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum. This wasn't a typical audience for Fiorina. The crowd was there to watch friends and loved ones receive their diplomas. Little publicity surrounded the event, and reporters were forbidden from asking her questions.
Yet the 50-year-old former CEO displayed the same charisma and confidence she showed often during her fiery five-and-a-half years at HP. Sitting on stage, gazing intently as the student-body president addressed the crowd and exuding the same poise she would if presiding over a shareholders meeting, Fiorina appeared right at home.
Her half-hour speech wowed 'em. But instead of the upbeat, visionary CEO-speak Wall Street and the tech industry is used to hearing, this audience saw a softer, more revealing side of the world's best-known businesswoman.
She delved into her personal history to appeal to common ground with the mostly African-American graduates, recalling the pressure she felt to succeed after graduating from Stanford with no job prospects and her difficulty breaking into the business world. Implicitly linking the racism they may have faced with the male chauvinism she experienced as a woman in the tech and telecom industries, Fiorina recalled being labeled the "token bimbo" as a young AT&T saleswoman in the late 1970s.
Twenty years later, she said she felt the same humiliation when a rival CEO mocked her in front of analysts and reporters. "It made me feel like the token bimbo all over again," she said. But, she continued, she refused to let it dampen her spirit or slow her drive: "Whatever the consequences of staying true to yourself, they're much less than the consequences of selling your soul."
The message resonated with the amped-up crowd, which cheered when Fiorina quoted from the Bible and later gave her a standing ovation. "That wasn't a speech. That was a sermon," said Mable Scott, the university's associate vice-chancellor.
HEADING INTO POLITICS?
The biggest surprise might be how openly she talked about the loss of her job as head of an $80 billion tech conglomerate. "Although I have made my fair share of mistakes, I have no regrets," she said. "I'm still here, I'm at peace, and my soul is intact."
Fiorina didn't give any hint about her future plans, but many speculate she'll make a foray into politics. Judging by her ability to connect with this crowd, that might not be a bad move.
Park is a freelance writer based in North Carolina