As of Monday, Carly Fiorina was tied for third in popularity among candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. I had never heard anyone I know say a good word about Fiorina. (It’s a sign of how high the walls rise in the silos so many of us live in.) Nor had I read a line of praise for her that went beyond nodding respect for her gumption. She can look Donald Trump in the eye and put him in his place—which isn’t all we’re looking for in a president. But last week I drove out to Downers Grove for a friend’s book signing, and in this arty milieu somebody mentioned that she used to work for Hewlett Packard.
While Fiorina was CEO? I wondered. ”Yes,” she said. “So what did you think?” I asked. ”Actually,” she replied, “I liked her.”
A politically inconvenient compliment is the best compliment of all to pass along. Pamela Gifford introduced herself as someone almost embarrassed to have once worked for corporate America. It was easier for her to talk about what she did next: After leaving HP she became a vice president for the International Justice Mission, which defends people in developing countries from victimization by their own police, courts, and laws. But from 2003 to 2005 Gifford worked for HP’s “emerging market solutions” team. The idea was for HP to do well by doing good, introducing and adapting its digital technology in parts of the world that might blossom in response. Hewlett Packard wanted market growth, and the way to achieve it, Gifford told me, was to encourage “billions of poor people joining the market economy for the first time.”
Gifford was the division’s communications manager, and her job was to get the word out. It was an assignment that would be vastly easier if the CEO paid attention to what HP called its i-community projects, put the weight of her office behind them, and talked up the results. And Fiorina did.
HP created i-communities in Kuppam, India, and Mogalakwena, South Africa, which Gifford visited at one point. She remembers standing in the back of HP’s auditorium on more than one occasion listening to Fiorina firing up the troops with stories of successes on the ground—stories that Gifford had told Fiorina herself. She remembers reading memos from Fiorina to her boss praising the EMS team’s work.
“For me, as a young professional in Silicon Valley, and as a woman, Carly was inspiring,” Gifford says. “Carly saw the potential to grow the company by using its technology to lift people up. She cast a vision and got out of the way.”
On other fronts, Fiorina’s vision wasn’t so farsighted. A merger with Compaq was a bust, and in 2005 Fiorina was fired by HP’s board of directors. The emerging markets solutions team was broken up, though elements of the projects survived. Fiorina blamed a “dysfunctional” board for her troubles.
Now she’s running for president. Would you vote for her? I asked Gifford. She thought about that awhile. “Yes,” she said finally. “I felt empowered working there, and I liked that she had a vision. I like that kind of leadership.”
Make of this story what you will. What I make of it is that we’ve all sealed ourselves in such echo chambers that a contrary word from someone we can’t immediately dismiss as an ideological nincompoop is a special event that deserves to be reported. Challenging certainties is more than just my duty—it’s also righteous mischief.