Article and photos by Liz Peters, Editorial Intern
Meg Whitman, president and CEO (chief executive officer) of Hewlett-Packard (better known to the public as the technology powerhouse “HP”), kicked off the day with tales of her own ascent to leadership and sage advice for other women. Whitman is ranked one of the Top Five Most Powerful Women by Fortune magazine. She sites her mother, Margaret, as a big influence for her success. She explained that her mother’s “can-do” attitude and work ethic during World War II has motivated and even pushed her throughout her life. Her mother went to college, something that she didn’t tell Whitman’s father until five years after they’d been married because it “never came up.” During the War, she became a mechanic and role model.
As for Meg, after attending college at Princeton University and receiving her masters in business at Harvard, Whitman worked for various companies, including Disney and Hasbro. At Hasbro, she was the general manager and syndicated the airing of Teletubbies from the U.S. to the U.K. (She admitted she found enjoyment in working with Mr. Potato Head!) She landed a job at eBay in 1998. When Whitman flew across the country to California for the interview, she was greeted by a receptionist at the office. After she was hired, Whitman noticed the receptionist was gone; she later learned the woman had been hired for the day—that’s how small eBay was! At the time, the trading and sharing company was made up of 30 employees and was worth $4 million. As CEO, Whitman helped eBay grow into the 15,000-employee, $8 billion success it is today.
After running for governor of California, the third woman in 20 years to do so, Whitman landed her gig at HP in Sept. 2011. There, she contributes to the operation of cell phones, credit cards, and the running of the U.S. Navy! “It is the fabric of global society,” she said of the world’s biggest computer maker. Whitman is the second woman to lead HP; in 1999, Carly Fiorina was the first female CEO of the Fortune 20 Company—and one of the first female CEOs of any company this size. Today, female CEOs run companies such as the Pepsi Company, Rite Aid, Yahoo!, and Kraft Foods (mac and cheese, yum!), among other stellar organizations.
As Whitman spoke about the qualities of a leader, she stressed that no matter what, you must remain true to yourself and what you stand for. “Inaction presents a greater cost than making a mistake,” she said. Better to take a chance, ladies, and always follow your gut!
The Simmons conference included presentations by other leading ladies such as journalist Michelle Norris, Zipcar cofounder Robin Chase, video game innovator Jane McGonigal (watch for our upcoming interview with her!), and the first African-American female combat pilot, Vernice Armour. Each spoke of the challenges and rewards of being female in their profession. Tennis legend Billie Jean King, who catapulted the movement for gender equality in sports by beating male tennis star Bobby Riggs in their epic 1973 match, closed the conference.
Overall, the conference was an inspiring event. In the words of Whitman, “The ceiling is where you put it!” Nothing can stop you but yourself, so get going!