“I started as a secretary, typing and filing for a nine-person real estate firm. It’s only in this country that you can go from being a secretary to chief executive of the largest tech company in the world, and run for president of the United States. It’s only possible here.”
— Business executive Carly Fiorina (R), interview on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Sept. 21, 2015
“My story, from secretary to CEO, is only possible in this nation, and proves that everyone of us has potential.”
— Fiorina, second GOP debate, Sept. 16, 2015
“A self-made woman, she started her business career as a secretary and went on to become the first, and to date, the only woman to lead a Fortune 20 company.”
This column has been updated.
GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina tells this only-in-America life story in nearly every speech. She uses this description — of how she began her business career as a secretary and went on to be the first female chief executive of a major technology company — to portray how she overcame the odds to challenge the status quo.
In fact, Fiorina’s PAC, CARLY for America, owns the domain for FromSecretaryToCEO.com, a Web site dedicated to her life story. It evokes a rags-to-riches-esque narrative reminiscent of a Horatio Alger novel — where the main character, with grit, hard work and some luck, lifts himself out of humble beginnings to achieve success.
So we dug into her career trajectory.
Fiorina’s mother was an abstract artist and homemaker, and her father was a law professor who taught at Stanford, Cornell and Yale universities, and became Duke Law School dean. Joseph Sneed, her father, also was appointed deputy U.S. attorney general under President Richard M. Nixon, and served as a longtime federal appeals court judge in San Francisco.
Sneed was a prominent conservative judge who helped to select Kenneth Starr to investigate the Clintons’ Whitewater investments. He was known for his strong work ethic and held high standards for his children, especially for his studious middle child, Cara Carleton Sneed, now known as Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina grew up New York, Connecticut, California, London, Africa and North Carolina, as her father moved between schools while rising up the academic ranks. She graduated from Stanford with a major in history and philosophy. She wrote her honors thesis on medieval judicial systems.
“Because I had always assumed I’d go to graduate school, I thought of college as a time for pure learning. My parents encouraged this approach, and so I had the wonderful experience of studying the subjects that truly interested me,” Fiorina wrote in her 2007 memoir, “Tough Choices.”
She worked as a receptionist at a hair salon to pay for college room and board. During summers off from Stanford, she says she worked secretarial jobs through the temp agency Kelly Services (then Kelly Girls). One of her temp jobs was typing bills of lading in the shipping department of Hewlett-Packard. (Kelly Services declined to confirm her employment or provide any details, citing employment regulations.)
After Stanford, Fiorina went off to law school at University of California-Los Angeles to please her father, who had expected that she would follow in his footsteps. But she hated it, and dropped out after one semester. When she broke the news to her father, he responded: “I’m very disappointed. I’m not sure you’ll ever amount to anything,” she wrote.
She began looking for jobs in want ads, and was hired as a receptionist at Marcus & Millichap, a commercial property brokerage firm with nine or ten employees at the time. She became known as “the Stanford student,” and the brokers at the firm were impressed with her.
Fiorina wrote of a broker named Ed Dowd, who began giving her more responsibilities beyond secretarial work, such as writing proposals and participating in strategy sessions about upcoming negotiations. Dowd, who still lives in Santa Clara County, confirmed this account to The Fact Checker. George Marcus and Bill Millichap said in a statement that they encouraged her “to pursue a career as an investment real estate agent with our company. She ultimately went back to school and her career took a different path. Our experience with her was very positive.”
Fiorina credits her time at the firm in 1976 as the pivotal experience that helped her realize she wanted to pursue a career in business:
“I started to identify with the people of Marcus & Millichap and experienced, for the first time, the feeling of being on a team. My academic studies had been reasonably solitary. I liked this newfound teamwork. … Their [Marcus and Millichap] confidence in my abilities gave me the courage, ultimately, to pursue an MBA. And they taught me an invaluable management lesson: a boss’s confidence is a powerful motivator. Because they saw potential in me, I began to look for it in myself.”
But after working there for a year, she “was still seeking and stumbling and restless. I felt like I needed to stretch, that I needed to change my surroundings and explore for a bit,” Fiorina said in her 2001 commencement speech at Stanford. So she quit, married her college sweetheart (whom she later divorced), moved to Italy and taught English.
In Italy, she realized she wanted to attend business school and began studying for entrance exams. She applied, but the Italian mail was slow and she missed the application deadline for the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
She returned to the U.S., went to see the school’s dean, asked him to accept her and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The dean recalled her asking: “So, can a liberal arts student from Stanford compete with the analytical jocks you have around here?” according to “Backfire: Carly Fiorina’s High-Stakes Battle for the Soul of Hewlett-Packard,” a 2003 book by journalist Peter Burrows. The dean was impressed, and accepted her. He recommended her to join the management track at AT&T upon graduation.
Fiorina got the job, and started as a sales representative in 1980. She was promoted to her first management position two years later. She moved to AT&T’s federal systems procurement arm, where she met Lou Golm, the vice president of federal systems. Golm recommended Fiorina to one of the most prestigious and elite mid-career management fellowships in the world, at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Golm also had graduated from the program, whose alumni network includes former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and Ford Motors Chief Executive Bill Ford.
AT&T sponsored Fiorina for the one-year fellowship, which now costs as much as $180,000 in tuition, living expenses, health care and class supplies.
At Sloan, she was introduced to the world of senior managers, meeting with and learning from chief executives of various companies. She described the year as a “great luxury — a sudden intermission in our lives when we could change the pace, tempo and nature of how we spent our days,” learning with other “very driven, type A overachievers who were focused on goals and accomplishments.” She realized she could become a chief executive herself one day. Through her fellowship, Fiorina earned her second master’s degree in business administration, and she was placed on a senior management track at AT&T.
She then went on to lead a spin-off of Lucent. In 1998, Fortune Magazine named her the “most powerful woman in American business,” largely as a result of her role with the spin-off. Recruiters, including from HP, began calling her after the story in Fortune. In July 1999, HP hired her as chief executive.
It is clear that Fiorina’s experience as receptionist and secretary at Marcus & Millichap was a defining moment. Fiorina’s spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, said that job put Fiorina “on the path to becoming a CEO and, she hopes, made her a better one.” Yet the description that Fiorina went “from secretary to CEO” glosses over several other key details, as described above.
When asked how the description accurately captures her career trajectory, Isgur Flores responded: “She was a secretary. Later, she became a CEO. I don’t think she’s ever claimed there was nothing in between.”
The Pinocchio Test
At The Fact Checker, we take a “reasonable person” standard to examining claims and reaching conclusions. We take no stance on Fiorina’s qualifications as a business executive. Fiorina’s description of rising “from secretary to CEO” conjures a Horatio Alger-like narrative where a character starts at the lowest ranks of an industry, pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and, against all odds, reaches the top position in the industry.
When Fiorina uses this phrase, she often pairs it with saying she came from a “modest and middle class family,” or “challenging the status quo,” which frames her story as an unlikely upstart. She also pitches it as an uniquely American experience.
But the description glosses over important details. Her father was dean of Duke Law School when she was at Stanford, meaning Duke would have paid for most of her college tuition. She graduated from Stanford, and her elite degree played a role in the stories of her at Marcus & Millichap (she was the “Stanford student”) and her convincing the business school dean to accept her into the MBA program (“So, can a liberal arts student from Stanford compete with the analytical jocks you have around here?”).
She worked briefly as a secretary in between law school and business school, but she always intended to attend graduate school for her career. She moved up through AT&T with her MBA, and was placed on a fast track to senior management after her company sponsored her to attend one of the most elite mid-career fellowships in the world. Her role as senior executive at Lucent caught the attention of HP recruiters, to become the company’s chief executive.
Fiorina uses a familiar, “mailroom to boardroom” trope of upward mobility that the public is familiar with, yet her story is nothing like that. In telling her only-in-America story, she conveniently glosses over the only-for-Fiorina opportunities and options beyond what the proverbial mailroom worker has. As such, she earns Three Pinocchios.
(Update: This column generated criticism from many readers who said that her statements were entirely factual, as she once was a secretary, and thus were not worthy of Three Pinocchios. John Sexton of Breitbart wrote a critique in which he said the column was “poorly reasoned.” Even our old colleague Howard Kurtz berated us. Fiorina herself said the column was “ludicrous” and “sort of floored me.” In determining the rating, we tried to be consistent with other cases when a politician would use words that, while on the face accurate, gave a misleading picture. A good example is the Three Pinocchio rating we gave President Obama’s campaign in 2012 for a campaign video narrated by Tom Hanks, concerning his mother’s fight with an insurance company. That column also generated criticism, though mainly from Democrats. We strive for consistency in how we apply these ratings. In this case, Fiorina’s career really began after she received her MBA, when she was hired as an AT&T sales representative. We did not, as Fiorina falsely claimed on “Meet the Press,” assert she was not a secretary.)
More: Read our response to reader complaints about this column.
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