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The Strong Suits

The stereotype: For women in Silicon Valley, the easiest path to success is the corporate track.

The reality: if it were so easy, there’d be more of them at the top than these five icons. 

 

 

Meg Whitman

New CEO of Hewlett-Packard; ex-CEO of eBay

Age: 55

Her long, winding road: Princeton/Harvard grad; earned her consumer product chops at Proctor & Gamble, Bain & Co., Walt Disney, FTD, and Hasbro (she brought the Teletubbies to the U.S.) before joining eBay—then just 30 employees and $4.7m a year in sales—in 1998.

Woman admired: In 10 years, grew eBay to more than 15,000 people and nearly $8b in annual revenues; oversaw the purchase of Paypal and Skype (later unloaded on Microsoft) and a 25 percent investment in Craigslist. she’s now worth an estimated $1.3b.

Woman scorned: Lost her $170m bid to become “CEO of California” in 2010 by 10 percentage points (women voters, put off by her illegal-immigrant housekeeper scandal, preferred Jerry Brown by 16 points). Booed at the Women’s conference for refusing to take down negative campaign ads. News of her latest job was greeted with headlines like “is Meg Whitman HP’s next big mistake?”

Feminist shero? She’s one of the world’s five self-made female billionaires (per the U.K. guardian), but her recent management teams have been largely male. During a brief stint as strategic adviser to Kleiner Perkins, Whitman said she was keeping an eye out for female entrepreneurs.

 

Carly Fiorina

First woman CEO of a Fortune 20 company (HP, 1999–2005)

Age: 57

Her long, winding road: A “self-made woman” (Crunchbase), she has degrees from stanford, the University of Maryland, and MIT, but briefly worked as a secretary before starting up the corporate ladder. Joined AT&T in 1980, eventually holding top positions in its Lucent division.

Woman admired: During her HP stint, company revenues doubled to $88b, thanks largely to her acquisition of rival Compaq.

Woman scorned: the Compaq merger ended up being a disaster, and she was ousted in 2005. She came back in 2010 to challenge senator Barbara Boxer’s reelection bid, but lost by 10 points.

Feminist shero? Early on at AT&T, she showed up uninvited to a client meeting that was at a strip club, to make the point that she wasn’t going to be kept out of the inner circle. But in 2010, she ran against Boxer as the antifeminist tea party candidate, accepting the endorsement of Sarah Palin, whom she had once famously called unfit to run a company (soon after Palin became the GOP’s candidate for VP).

 

Carol Bartz

Ex-CEO of Yahoo!

Age: 63

Her long, winding road: The onetime homecoming queen majored in computer science at the University of Wisconsin while working as a cocktail waitress. Stints at 3M, Digital Equipment Corp., and Sun Microsystems led her to Autodesk, where she was CEO for 14 years. She joined Yahoo! in 2009.

Woman admired: According to Forbes, Bartz “transformed Autodesk from an aimless maker of pc software” into an unlikely success story.

Woman scorned: Widely dissed for being the highest-paid exec in the U.S. in 2009 ($47.2m) and then 91st-best-paid in 2010 ($15.16m). Despite her stated intention of making sure Yahoo! got “some friggin’ breathing room” so it could “kick some butt,” the company continued to flounder, and she was fired this past September— over the phone.

Feminist shero? Adamant that more girls need to be given the option to study math and the sciences. Basic philosophy toward her male naysayers: “the fact that they’re unenlightened is their problem, not mine.” she’s cynical about what she calls “the myth of the balanced life” and admits to making family sacrifices (she’s married with three kids) for her career, saying she feels no guilt.

 

Marissa Mayer

Google VP overseeing geographical and local search products (Google Earth, Street View)

Age: 36

Her long, winding road: Not that long or winding. Took a computer science course because it was a requirement at Stanford, eventually earning her MS in the subject (her BS is in symbolic systems). Was google’s 20th employee and first woman engineer.

Woman admired: Created the clean Google aesthetic and ran Google Search. Youngest person to appear on Fortune’s most powerful Women list.

Woman scorned: Takes frequent flack for everything from her taste in clothes to Orkut, a google feature she introduced a couple of years ago that never took off in the U.S. Belittled on gossip sites for dating Larry Page, paying $60k for lunch with Oscar de la Renta (for charity!), and making spreadsheets to find the perfect cupcake recipe. One creep in texas reportedly directed 20,000 profane tweets at her before being arrested.

Feminist shero? “I’m not a woman at Google,” she has said. “I'm a geek at Google.” but she’s still outspoken about getting more women into tech, and she told Fast Company that social networking will pull in more girls, just as video games have drawn boys for decades.

 

Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook’s resident grown-up, recently named Forbes’s fifth most powerful woman

Age:42

Her long, winding road: a Harvard econ major and MBA, Sandberg wowed thesis adviser/future Harvard prez Larry Summers, who recruited her at the World Bank and then as his Treasury Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton. She was Google’s VP of Global online sales and operations when Mark Zuckerberg met her at a Christmas party and fell hard.

Woman admired: After overseeing Facebook’s growth from 100 million users in 2008 to more than 750 million today (that’s almost 10 percent of the world’s population), she’s prepping for a reported 2012 IPO in the $100b range. Her 2010 TED speech “Why We have too Few Women Leaders” has been viewed by millions around the world.

Woman scorned: Her profile in the New Yorker stirred a backlash among those who complained she doesn’t get how hard it is for most women.

Feminist shero? Sometimes described as postfeminist, she tends to focus on the internal barriers that hold women back, making that the basis of her advice to them. One of her key insights: “make your partner a real partner” (hers, David Goldberg, is CEO of Surveymonkey and father of their two kids).

 

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