How celebrity CEO Carly Fiorina is taking on Hillary for the presidency

One of Carly Fiorina’s favourite TV dramas is House of Cards, says The Sunday Times. She makes no bones about identifying with the “scheming Congressman” Frank Underwood who becomes president (“minus the murder”). The other Frank in her life – her husband – is apparently imagining what it might be like to be “First Dude”. “Maybe it takes a woman to defeat a woman.”

That’s the message Fiorina plans to use to steer through a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates. “Carly Fiorina: the GOP’s weapon against Hillary Clinton?” ran a recent Fortune headline. The only thing wrong with that, she would probably say, is the question mark.

Fiorina, 60, lacks “name recognition” among voters, says The Washington Post. But in the business world she was once the “embodiment of a celebrity CEO”. The big question now is whether her record – in particular her turbulent five years at Hewlett-Packard, from which she was forced to resign in 2005 (see below) – will count for, or against, her. But one thing she has in spades is the common touch.

Women in particular respond to the story of how she came from nowhere (“I started as a secretary. I couldn’t afford a car”) to become CEO of one of the world’s top companies, notes The National Journal. Her determination to gain “something positive” from her recent life struggles – the death of a stepdaughter “lost to the demons of addiction”; and a brush with breast cancer– also play well with the crowd, and feature prominently in her new memoir, Rising to the Challenge.

Fiorina’s background is rather more elevated than she sometimes makes out. Her father was a law professor and law school dean, who became a federal judge for the US Court of Appeals. Young Carly (christened Carleton) studied medieval history and philosophy at Stanford. These days, she chuckles with audiences “at the foolishness of these impractical majors”.

After quitting law school and her stint as a secretary, she took an MBA and worked her way up the sales and marketing pole at AT&T and Lucent. Her big break came in 1998 – Fortune interviewed her in a feature about the most powerful women in business, ranking her No. 1 ahead of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart because “she’s at the centre of the ongoing technology revolution”. Soon, Fiorina was Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) new CEO.

As the first woman to lead a Fortune 50 company – and the first outsider tasked with restructuring one of the most famous organisational cultures in America (the famous “HP Way”), Fiorina’s efforts to turn around the company were bound to be controversial, says The Washington Post. And not least when she gambled on one of the largest tech mergers ever: paying $19bn for Compaq Computer Corp in 2001. The jury’s still out on her record at HP, but few doubt hertalent for self-promotion. “For Fiorina, running for president sounds like the ultimate marketing test.”

‘I understand how the economy actually works’

Carly Fiorina launched her presidential challenge this month, saying that she was “the best person for the job because I understand how the economy actually works”, say Demetri Sevastopulo and Megan Murphy in the Financial Times. Democrats seized on that with glee, detailing how she presided over mass layoffs, falling profits and a halving of HP’s share price. “If this is how Fiorina ran her business,” noted one, “just imagine what it would do to the country.”

And for a supposedly sharp marketer, Fiorina missed a big trick by failing to register the domain carlyfiorina.org, which has now been hijacked by rivals, says Brian Barrett on wired.com. When you visit, you’ll find a cascade of “30,000 frowny face emoticons”, purportedly representing all the people she sacked.

Fiorina claims she created more jobs than were lost, and stands her ground on the financials, says Toby Harnden in The Sunday Times, pointing out that most tech stocks in America were whacked between 1999 and 2005. She also claims to have been the victim, rather than perpetrator, of infighting on the HP board, which was split between those who approved the Compaq deal, and those who opposed it.

The consensus among business academics now is that she blundered, says Nancy Cook in The National Journal. Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management gives Fiorina “a C or C-minus” for leadership. Perhaps the more telling anecdote is that staff toasted her dismissal with champagne.

According to Fiorina, within a day of her being fired in 2005, President George W Bush called to discuss roles. But her first real political experience was a 2010 Senate campaign, which she lost. Her two problems in this race are doubts about her real conviction, and the risk – given her estimated $80m fortune – of being seen “as an out-of-touch plutocrat”, says The Sunday Times. “I’ve been underestimated all my life,” she retorts.