Carly Fiorina's Start In Business Began In Washington, D.C.

Dec 24, 2015
Originally published on December 28, 2015 3:09 pm
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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina is known for running Hewlett-Packard in California. But she actually started in business here in Washington, D.C., where friends say she showed the aggressiveness and determination she's known for today. Our series, the Journey Home, looks at places the candidates have called home. And here is an encore presentation from NPR's Brian Naylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Just outside Washington, at the University of Maryland, there is a plaque outside a classroom in the business school. It reads, given by the Carly and Frank Fiorina Family Fund. Fiorina got an MBA at Maryland. Though first, she had to get her foot in the door.

RUDY LAMONE: When she applied here, she was turned down (laughter).

NAYLOR: Rudy Lamone is the former dean of Maryland's business school. Fiorina, then Carly Bartlem, had applied too late. But, Lamone says that didn't stop her.

LAMONE: The activities that took place after that turndown really identified Carly that we know today. She came right here to Washington to the business school and said, I want to talk to the dean.

NAYLOR: Impressed with her determination, Lamone not only reversed the admissions office and admitted her, he made Fiorina his graduate assistant. When it came time to find her a job, Lamone suggested AT&T. Back then in 1980, AT&T was still the phone company, the only phone company. There was no wireless, no Verizon. It used to advertise on TV with ads like these.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Reach out and touch someone.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Reach out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Call up and just say hi.

NAYLOR: A lot was different in 1980. Ronald Reagan was first elected president that November. Blondie was at the top of the music charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")

BLONDIE: (Singing) Call me.

NAYLOR: And the movie "9 To 5" came out about the travails and workplace sexism faced by three women.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "9 TO 5")

DABNEY COLEMAN: (As Franklin M. Hart Jr.) Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures.

LILY TOMLIN: (As Violet Newstead) Oh, now we're getting at it. I lose a promotion because of some idiot prejudice.

COLEMAN: (As Franklin M. Hart Jr.) Spare me the women's lib crap, OK?

NAYLOR: This was the backdrop to the 25-year-old Fiorina's joining AT&T as a management trainee. The giant company had just settled a government lawsuit agreeing to hire more women not only as operators but in management roles. Patti Espey-English was another trainee who worked alongside Fiorina.

PATTI ESPEY-ENGLISH: I don't think the men at AT&T meant it, but we were all the cute little girls. Their idea of going out to lunch was going out to lunch and having three martinis. You know, if you went out to dinner, you sat with the boys, and there were a lot of body jokes that were going on.

NAYLOR: Not only jokes - once, Fiorina's boss wanted to entertain some clients. Fiorina insisted on coming along. They were her clients, too - their destination - a Washington strip club. Carole Spurrier is a friend of Fiorina's from those days.

CAROLE SPURRIER: She presented herself in a suit. During that time, we had little scarves that we tied around our necks to look like men. And one of the strippers came over, and the men had asked for a lap dance, and the stripper actually refused and said, not while the lady is here. The mores were quite different at that time. But you had to be strong, and you had to stand your own.

NAYLOR: The women at AT&T bonded. They had lunch together and what Spurrier calls regular girls' nights out. The Washington office called Government Communications was in charge of selling phone equipment and services to federal agencies. Patti Espey-English says Fiorina stood out.

ESPEY-ENGLISH: She was bright. She was funny. She was creative. In meetings, she was always the one who would ask a question. It didn't matter, you know, whether or not it was being run by, you know, someone who was much higher up, in which case most of the rest of us would sort of sit there and wonder whether or not it was appropriate for us to ask a question, never a problem with Carly.

NAYLOR: One of Fiorina's bosses, former AT&T President Michael Brunner, remembers Fiorina the same way. He tells the story of one meeting with some mostly male suppliers.

MICHAEL BRUNNER: When Carly stood up, she said, hi, I'm Carly Fiorina. I'm the marketing fluff of this group. And it brought down the house. And as a matter of fact, she was anything but the fluff. She was probably the steel backbone of the group, at least in my view. She had a lot of guts.

NAYLOR: Fiorina would face criticism later in her business career, especially when she became CEO of HP and engineered a controversial merger with Compaq. But in the early days, she's remembered as determined, hard-working and quick to learn. And if no one then expected Fiorina to run for president, as one friend said, there was no doubt Carly was going somewhere. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.