Carly Fiorina rose from secretary to CEO of a Fortune 50 company. We discuss her childhood and how living in Ghana influenced her perception of democracy.
We sat down with Carly Fiorina, the woman who rose from secretary to CEO of a Fortune 50 company and whose career spans a wide variety of public and private sector roles. She told us about her childhood and how living in Ghana influenced her perception of democracy. We also chatted about the importance of empowering women at home and globally.
- The Bush Institute WE Lead program equips women from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan with the skills to become more effective leaders.
- The Bush Institute Women’s Initiative promotes education, healthcare, and economic opportunity for women around the world
- Learn more about Carly Fiorina and subscribe to her podcast
Read the episode transcript
01:14 Andrew Kaufmann (AK): The Bush Institute believes that developing leaders that are committed to solving problems is critical, and so does our guest Carly Fiorina, who has a long history of leadership in both the for-profit and not-for-profit realms. And I think it’s also important to point out that she is a fellow optimist. Carly, thank you so much for joining us.
01:32 Carly Fiorina (CF): Thank you so much for having me.
01:34 AK: We’re also joined by the Bush Institute’s expert on all things leadership, policy, and so much more, Executive Director Holly Kuzmich.
01:41 Holly Kuzmich (HK): Great to be here.
01:42 AK: So Carly, you lived in Africa in 1969 as your father took a sabbatical at the University of Ghana in Accra to teach the new Ghanaian constitution to law students. Can you tell us about that time and how it shaped your perception of democracy, and has that perception changed through your lifetime?
02:00 CF: Well, such a great question to start with. So the thing that I remember, first, I was a teenage girl, 14, 15, and we landed at the airport in Accra to a totally different world. We were the only white people, [chuckle] obviously. However, I remember sitting in this wonderful brave new world, to me, where everything was different and exotic and strange, and yet, everyone was so welcoming and so warm. And once a week, my father would invite some of his law students to our home, and we we would sit around the table; my father, my mother, myself, my sister and brother and all these law students, and I would watch them talk about their new constitution. And they were… These law students were so passionate about what they were doing, what they were building. This was a country that had just overthrown a dictator. This was their first real experience with democracy. And so, it was a palpably emotional and uplifting experience. That’s what I remember about it. I didn’t spend all that much time thinking about our own democracy until I got much older. I just… We’re a democracy. It was like the air we breathe or the water we swim in if we were fishes, unlike something brand new for these Ghanaian law students.
So I didn’t really think about ours until much later. But there are features of ours that are quite unique and quite powerful, the fact that we’re a republic, actually, not a democracy, the fact that so much of our constitution is focused on preventing the concentration of power, the fact that in our country, we believe local problem-solving is better problem-solving, the fact that individuals have inalienable rights that don’t come from government. These are things that are unique about our democratic republic.
04:01 HK: So Carly, you just mentioned that when you lived in Africa, you were often one of the only white people in the room. You’ve also often been the only female in the room. What’s your advice to people who find themselves in these kinds of scenarios, and how did you handle that?
04:16 CF: Well, in short, I would say I’ve learned over the years that in some ways, if you’re in that experience a lot, it’s more uncomfortable for the other people than sometimes it is for you. I remember when I was running for the presidency and standing on a debate stage, and I used to get the question all the time from reporters, “What does it feel like to be the only woman on the debate stage?” And I said, “It feels like the rest of my life. I actually think the guys are more nervous about how to deal with me than I am about how to deal with them.” And that turned out to be true. More seriously, however, what I would say is the advice I give all the time is, don’t get a chip on your shoulder and don’t hide your light under a bushel. And what I mean by that is, when you’re the different one, whether it’s because you’re a person of a different color or you’re a different gender, whatever the case may be, when you’re the different one, there are people who will tear you down, and those kinds of people can give you a chip on your shoulder, which in the end hurts you, not them. But there are also as many, if not more people in my experience, who will lift you up. And so go to the people who lift you up. Don’t get a chip on your shoulder about the people who tear you down. By the same token, don’t hide your light under a bushel.
05:34 CF: And by that, what I mean is don’t be different than you are to try and accommodate the fact that you’re different from everybody else in the room. Be as good as you are, as brave as you are, as strong as you are. Let them figure out how to deal with you. Don’t change yourself to deal with them.
05:52 HK: As you know, at the Bush Institute we’re committed to investing in women and girls, and most recently, we’ve brought 19 women from Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia to the Bush Institute to empower and equip them to become more effective leaders and to advance economic opportunity in their communities and countries. You spoke to these leaders, tell us why it’s important that we empower women globally.
06:15 CF: Well, first, what an amazing group of women. I was so uplifted by each of them and their stories. So let’s talk about it at a macro level, and we’ll talk about it on a micro level. At a macro level, the data is unmistakable. When you get women and girls more engaged, everything gets better. So, it’s just true, I mean the data’s inescapable. Illiteracy, poverty, conflict, all those issues get better when women are engaged, and the reason is because women, girls have half the brain power in the world. So we got a lot of problems, and the only way you solve problems is by applying human potential and brain power to those problems. If you have half of the brain power and the potential in the world sitting on the sidelines, you’re not gonna get as far as if you have 100% of it engaged.
At a micro level, I’ll tell you a story at the human level, personal level, I was engaged with an organization called Opportunity International, which is a microfinance lender, and you know that microfinance is the lending of very small amounts of money. The founder of microfinance, a man named Muhammad Yunus, began microfinance in Bangladesh. He wanted it to be sustainable, and he started by lending to men. Because that was the culture in Bangladesh, you lent to men. But what he figured out over time is the men weren’t always the best investors or the best credit risks. And over time, he learned he had to engage women. At Opportunity International, 93% of our clients were women. Not because we had a quota to make them women, but because we learned with experience that they frequently were the best investors, the best entrepreneurs. They didn’t invest just in themselves, they invested in their families and in the communities around them. Women and girls make a difference for everyone, women and men.
08:13 AK: That’s something we’ve seen a lot through our work is it always comes back to that principle that women invest back into their communities. When women are powerful, the community is powerful.
08:23 CF: Yes.
08:23 AK: I think we have a common history in a way too, with Dr. Condoleezza Rice…
08:26 CF: Yes.
08:27 AK: Who obviously as a strong force in the Bush Administration, also was connected to you.
08:32 CF: Yes, Condoleezza and I formed something called the One Woman Initiative, where we focused funding on small grassroots organizations in majority Muslim countries, and we were looking to lift these organizations up to give women an opportunity for access to justice, access to economic opportunity, and access to leadership training. And we called it the One Woman Initiative because we know that one woman can make an incredible difference in her community. In fact, the analogy that I used was one woman is like a pebble dropped into a pond. The pebble may be very small, but the ripples go very far.
09:21 HK: Let’s go back to your lessons in leadership. You’ve talked about how it can be lonely at the top. What advice would you give to others for how to deal with that challenge?
09:31 CF: I often say that leadership is not about position and title, and it’s not; the fundamentals of leadership are not about the position or the title you hold, it’s what you do with them. However, leaders who do have position and title, for them, frequently, the buck stops with them. The decision has to be made by them. Ultimately, when you have finished getting all the ideas and all the input and you’ve collaborated with everyone who can help you make a wise and well-founded decision, sometimes the final decision is up to you; certainly, something President Bush knows so much about.
And at that point, after you’ve sifted and weighed all the evidence and all the input, you alone must decide. So, first is to recognize that, recognize that that comes with the territory, the fact that, as Present Bush once said, he’s the decider in chief, that sometimes you’re the decider in chief. The second thing I would say is, recognize that no matter how you choose or what you decide, you will be criticized. So know going into it that not everyone will agree with you. Not everyone will be happy with what you’ve done. Change is difficult. I think sometimes people expect when they make a tough decision, they hope for the agreement and the accolades, and what they get instead is the criticism and they get deflated. But it goes with the territory. So just know that going in, you’re gonna get criticized.
11:01 AK: And how do you deal with that criticism when it starts coming in?
11:04 CF: Well, and of course, criticism in this day and age is so much harder because it’s omnipresent. I mean, social media, everybody’s criticizing in the most personal, cruel terms sometimes. The first thing that I would say is I have learned over time to distinguish between criticism and feedback. Criticism comes with the territory. If you are changing the order of things for the better, if you are solving problems, if you are challenging the status quo, if you are making difficult decisions, you are going to get criticized. So don’t be surprised. Criticism is distinguished from feedback in this sense: Feedback is input that you need to hear from people who actually care about you, the decision you’ve made, and the outcome you’re trying to achieve. And so when someone gives you feedback and says, “You know, maybe you missed something, maybe you’ve made a mistake here,” listen very carefully. Criticism is just resistance.
12:04 CF: Criticism is just people saying “I don’t like it, I’m throwing stones.” And over time, I’ve come to learn to ignore criticism and seek feedback.
12:14 AK: I would say that you’re quite an optimist. And we like to think of ourselves at the Bush Institute as optimists. And one of your famous phrases is “Leadership is seeing possibilities.” Can you tell us about your outlook?
12:26 CF: So I think that leadership requires equal measures of realism and optimism. Realism is required so that you see the problem as it really is. Sometimes, a leader’s most important role is to hold the mirror up so that people can see the truth, the leader speaks the truth, and therefore, you can act on the truth. So, realism is, you can’t be pie in the sky, rose-colored glasses. You gotta be realistic. On the other hand, optimism is the belief that things can get better, that people will rise to the occasion. And unless you believe that, you don’t start solving anything. You just sit and wallow in the way things are. Seeing possibilities is being able to look at the realities of where you are, but nevertheless, see the possibility for improvement, and particularly, see the possibilities that the human potential all around you can provide to get you to a better place.
13:31 HK: Is there something you’re particularly optimistic about that you don’t think others are necessarily seeing or paying attention to?
13:38 CF: Well, such a great question. I think our culture right now celebrates fame for fame’s sake. I mean, honestly, with all due respect, what is Kim Kardashian? She’s a famous person, that’s it. Fame for fame’s sake. I think we celebrate outrage. I think we celebrate controversy. I think we celebrate the nastier it is, the better it is; certainly, our politics reflects that. It’s sort of our public discourse, our social media feels like World Wide Wrestling. And so I think it’s easy to get numb to that. What I think people are missing is the enormous potential that every human being has. And the fact that we have so much untapped potential all around us in our communities, in our schools, in our nation, in our world, truthfully, human potential is the only limitless resource we have, it’s the only resource we need to solve every problem, big or small, and we’ve got a lot of it lying fallow.
14:43 CF: And so that makes me optimistic, but it’s also why I applaud the work of the Bush Institute for teaching leadership and lifting leaders up, and it’s why I focus on that same thing myself through the Unlocking Potential Foundation, and you can learn more about that at carlyfiorina.com, but we are united in our belief that people are capable of far more than they realize, and leadership is always the catalyst, the secret sauce to go from what is to something that is better.
15:15 HK: In terms of education, for the past 35 years since A Nation at Risk, we’ve all been bemoaning educational performance in our own country and how we’re lagging in terms of the rest of the world. You have a perspective as a business woman, as somebody who’s run for public office, to be able to see that we have really not made very much progress on that issue. Talk about why you think that’s such a big challenge. The business community has been calling for this for decades and we haven’t really gained any traction.
15:43 CF: Yeah. One of the things that I think it’s important to be realistic about is the power of the status quo. Whatever the system is, even when it’s deeply unsatisfying, and everybody knows it, the system, the status quo is very powerful. The status quo in education is very powerful, just like the status quo in politics is very powerful. And the reason the status quo is always powerful, is because people are invested in it. There are so many vested interests, not to mention political alliances, around the status quo in education. In order to solve education, we have to realize how powerful that status quo is. And I think as President Bush tried to do, wanted to do [chuckle] when he came into office, we have to go back to first principles. And I think the first principle is the student is who we ought to be focused on. The student is who we ought to be focused on; principle number one.
16:47 CF: Principle number two, we cannot afford to leave any student behind. Our nation requires… All of us would be better off if we were lifting more students up and equipping them and preparing them to be productive problem solvers in their lives. And number three, the resistance that is encountered is real, it’s powerful, and so we need powerful change warriors on the other side. It’s why I happen to think charter schools, while not perfect, are part of that lever because they provide choice and they put parents more in charge. But all the way back to your previous question about what makes me optimistic, so a place where the status quo was incredibly powerful, California, incredible vested interests, a group of parents banded together and sued their local school board, and the teachers’ unions took them on. Those parents won in court, and what they were suing for was “Give us a choice when our kid’s school is failing.” Wow, how fundamental. If that happened in California, that can happen in a lot of places.
17:58 AK: Another thing that you’re doing to unlock potential, which I think is a little interesting, is that you’re launching a podcast, and we were talking a little bit before about some of your first guests such as Baron Davis, who is not someone you would expect. How did that come to happen?
18:11 CF: Well, what I wanted to do to the point of, what am I optimistic about, what I want to do through this podcast is to show people the leaders that are all around us, because we do get so focused on fame and controversy and people with big titles and positions, when there are leaders all around us all the time. And the truth is, there are leaders, problem solvers, people who are changing the order of things for the better in every walk of life. Baron Davis happens to be an incredible leader and problem solver. Most people who know him know him from basketball. But these folks are all over.
18:48 AK: And speaking of unexpected, we’re looking for a little bit of an unexpected answer when we ask some of our guests this question: What is no one talking about that we should be talking about?
18:58 CF: I think what no one is talking about, and so, honestly, I’ve started talking about it, that we should be talking about, is the role and the power that each of us as citizens have. We started with a question about democracy. In this country, the citizen is sovereign. Not a president, not a government, not a congressman, not a mayor, the citizen is sovereign. And I think as citizens, we have spent way too much time looking up to somebody else. Dallas, where we are today, is a fantastic example of a community that has come together, citizens that have come together to make a real difference on problems that afflict this community; the private sector, the non-profit sector, government, those are all citizens who said, “You know what, we’re not waiting, we’re not looking to Washington, we’re just gonna tackle this here.” I think we, as people in some cases, we as citizens certainly need to reclaim the power that we have in this country and use it to solve the problems that are right in front of us and quit looking to somebody else to do it for us.
20:07 AK: Carly Fiorina has a book coming out in April, Find Your Way, you can pre-order it online at carlyfiorina.com, and she also has an upcoming podcast and is an incredibly busy lady who we can’t thank enough for taking the time to talk to us.