Fiorina: Glass ceilings can be broken

CEO says people need to focus on possibilities, not barriers

When she was chosen as the first woman to head a major U.S. computer company, Carly Fiorina raised eyebrows by claiming there was no glass ceiling preventing women from advancing in corporate America. On Monday, the chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) reconsidered that statement.

"Looking back at my first day on the job, I was naive in a lot of ways," she said in an on-stage interview at Silicon Valley business and technology forum, the Churchill Club. When she began her work at HP, she was simply unprepared for the amount of attention that would be paid to her gender, she said. "I had long ago stopped thinking of myself as a woman in business."

Four years later, Fiorina said that her comments did not mean that she found the corporate world to be without limitations, but rather that she felt that women and minorities needed to reject the notion of a glass ceiling in order to succeed. "People interpreted that to mean that I didn't understand that there were barriers and prejudice and bias. Of course there is," she said.

"I said it because I believe that a woman or a minority can do anything they chose to do," she said. "People who focus on possibilities achieve more over time than people who focus on limitations. ... I think young women should get up every day and say, 'There is no barrier that is going to stop me from doing what I'm going to do'."

Fiorina might well have been repeating her own mantra over the last few years. Since taking over at HP, she has guided the company through an economic downturn as well as the largest, and possibly the nastiest, merger in the computer industry.

At Monday's event, Fiorina talked about charting a new HP Way in a technology industry that has turned 180 degrees since she took the helm of the venerable Silicon Valley company.

IT vendors face a new kind of customer, she said -- one who has less faith in technology than the customer of the 1990s, and with much higher expectations from computer vendors, Fiorina said. "Customers actually do want it all," she said. "They threw too much technology at problems; they didn't get the return on investment they expected."

The days of double-digit growth rates that the technology industry came to expect in the 1990s may be a thing of the past, she said, but she predicted that high tech will continue to grow more rapidly than the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

"A two-times GDP is a pretty nice growth industry, but it's not 20 percent," she said.

And while the Silicon Valley startup culture that fostered her own company is not dead, Fiorina said, "The level of startup creation that went on in the Valley in the late '90s was an aberration."

Fiorina discounted direct comparisons between her company and its biggest rivals, saying the new HP is trying to be neither Dell Inc. nor IBM Corp., but instead is trying to build on HP's reputation as a technical innovator to dominate markets where that remains paramount.

"We are not trying to be IBM," she said. "That vertically integrated model is good for a lot of things, but what it's not good for is cost."

HP's model is to partner more frequently than IBM, and to focus on research and development in areas where it really matters, like computer notebooks or printers and imaging, she said.

The Dell model is effective in some markets, she said, but it has not afforded HP's competitor much success in areas like printing or high-end servers. "They are a one-trick pony, and they do that trick pretty well" she said, but "it turns out that low cost will only get you so far."