Carly Fiorina: On Charity, China, Crime, and Citizenship

By: Alex Talcott, April 17, 2015

Carly Fiorina and Alex Talcott, March 2015 in Concord NH
Carly Fiorina and Alex Talcott, March 2015 in Concord NH

(Expected 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Company from 1999-2005 after positions at AT&T and Lucent Technologies. She was the 2010 Republican U.S. Senate nominee in California and now resides in Virginia. Since 2014, the Unlocking Potential Project has been her primary political cause, engaging women voters. In May, she will be a commencement speaker at Southern New Hampshire University, where this interviewer teaches.)

When you’re on the debate stage, there will be “Governor” and “Senator” honorifics. In addition to “former CEO,” you have the current title of “Chairman”—of Good360 and Opportunity International. Great causes. What do you as Chairman do?

In the case of Good360, when I came in, we had some very important strategic decisions to make. Specifically, we needed to decide whether we were going to continue to invest very heavily in a technology platform and what the design of that technology would be. And so I led those deliberations. We in fact did decide to make those investments, but when you’re a charity you have to think very carefully about spending money for the future or spending money on the present for people in need.

So now we’re at a point where we just rolled out a new version of our technology platform called GivingPlace. We’re rolling out some more capabilities this summer which will permit us to match donations over time to disaster areas so that we can solve the problem that exists today, where 60% of everything that is donated after a disaster ends up in a landfill, believe it or not, because it’s the wrong material at the wrong time. So that’s one example of what I’ve done at Good360. I also spend a lot of time with our team on what we ought to be doing to strengthen our partnerships. I distribute goods with our team.

And in the case of Opportunity International, we have come together as a global organization only recently so we have been establishing our governance procedures, making some very important operational decisions about how we manage our banks going forward. And so in both cases, these are very active roles in support of the management team and in conjunction with our other board members.

Chinese state theft of American intellectual property: how have you experienced it or determined it’s happening—from in-house at HP, Lucent, AT&T? Your CIA External Advisory Board chairmanship?

Well there’s no doubt that it happens. And there’s massive amounts of evidence, whether it’s counterfeit products that suddenly appear on the Chinese market that are exact duplicates or replicas of patent-protected products, whether it’s the Chinese government making very strenuous demands of companies. And you may have noticed the Chinese government has gotten much more heavy-handed with American companies in the recent years. But making very strenuous demands about turning over source code… So there’s just no doubt that it’s happening.

Likewise, there’s no doubt that China engages in state-sponsored cyberhacking against both American companies and American government systems. China is certainly a competitor to the United States. We are also interdependent of course. Our economies are intertwined. But there is no question that China is becoming increasingly aggressive: in terms of their military buildup, their outreach – threatening outreach in many cases – to their neighbors, as well as in how they try and compete against our companies, and as you point out steal our intellectual property, because the Chinese, because of their very autocratic system frankly, are not a very innovative culture. Not because the people aren’t smart, but because when you suppress risk-taking and dissent you tend to suppress innovation and creativity as well.

I teach business law and criminal justice. Coming from the corporate world, do you feel you have more expertise and insights on white-collar crime as compared to community law enforcement or gun violence?

I would start by saying we need criminal justice reform. What do I mean when I say that? It’s quite clear that we do not enforce the laws we have in terms of community crime. It’s also quite clear that we do not apply the laws equally. It’s clear that there are some people who should be in jail and too many people for whom mandatory sentences are applied unevenly. So we have a lot of work to do to in terms of community crime and criminal justice reform.

White-collar crime is a serious issue, because it corrodes people’s faith in the market system. It corrodes people’s faith in the financial system. And we need to handle it seriously. I must say that I do think there are many instances as well where government regulatory agencies have been lax in their duties, and when that is discovered they then overreach and try and suppress all the risk-taking out of the market system which doesn’t help either. The classic example of that of course would be Dodd-Frank, where clearly abuses occurred in the financial system, 24 or 25 regulatory agencies were asleep at the switch, everybody kept pushing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to take unreasonable risk at the taxpayers’ expense, and Dodd-Frank didn’t fix any of that. In fact, it increased the financial risks of the system by consolidating ten banks “too-big-to-fail” into five, and meanwhile 3,000 community banks have gone out of business because they cannot deal with the complexity of this new set of regulations.

The Carly for America PAC announcement video with your secretary-to-CEO story as only-in-America: do you think your path and that of President Obama really are only in America, and couldn’t be accomplished in, say, Australia or Ireland?

Oh there’s no doubt in my mind that only in America could a young woman go from being a secretary to a CEO. I’ve spent a lot of time in the countries you’ve just mentioned as well as elsewhere around the world. And I think it is still true that in this country it really was founded on the notion that it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter where you come from, and it doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, that your life can be filled with possibilities because your life is also filled with potential. The thing that motivates me to potentially run for president now is too many possibilities are being crushed for too many people. If you ask Americans, they feel that we are losing that uniquely American sense of limitless possibility, and I think that is in large measure because literally the weight of government, a government that has been growing bigger and bigger, more powerful, more costly and corrupt under both Republicans and Democrats of the political class. It’s because the weight and power of that government is crushing people’s possibilities, either by tangling their lives up in webs of dependency or killing the economic engine of growth and family and small businesses or in creating such complexity that only the big and the powerful and the wealthy and the well-connected can get ahead, which is what we’re seeing now.

I’ve heard you say, “Fundamental change takes leadership and citizenship.” As you’ve travelled the country and the world, have you seen that citizenship, that vibrant participatory democracy that we tell ourselves in civics lessons is quintessentially American?

You know I think a lot of citizens have disengaged from the political process, over the last several years, maybe over the last decade or two. I think one of the reasons citizens disengage from the process is they look at it and they say it doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter what I think, it doesn’t matter how I vote. And of course in many ways they’re wrong; elections have great consequences. But in some ways they’re absolutely right because the government that I talked about that’s been getting bigger and bigger and more powerful for 50 years has gotten that way under both Republicans and Democrats. I think a lot of people look at the political process and see soundbites hurled back and forth, a lot of vitriol, a lot of arguing and not a lot getting done for them. And so it’s one of the reasons I think Americans are sort of tired of the political class and the political game and are ready to return to a citizen government. That is, people used to come from private life, go into public service for a time, and return to private life. And I think that’s the kind of leadership we now need and I think citizens will respond to that and get engaged in a new and different way.

One of your return visits to New Hampshire, just later this month: to speak at an Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security forum, April 30 at UNH-Manchester. How does a Carly Fiorina prepare? Your professional and life experiences have prepared you to an extent, but tell us the process of preparing remarks on a focused topic for a public event.

Well first I would say that the world – national security, the leaders on the world stage today – they are not an abstraction to me, because I have met many of them. I have talked with many of them about the dangers facing a region, or our world, and I have had interaction over time with our intelligence community and our defense community. On the other hand, there is always more to learn. And so just as an example, I spent several hours yesterday with a group of experts on Asia, and we were talking about China’s new aggressiveness in the region. We were talking about Russia and what Putin really is striving for, which is a consolidation of power. We were talking about what America can do to once again lead in the world, without rushing off to war. So my point is, experience prepares you, talking with experts prepares you, being well informed about the issues and the challenges prepares you.

(Alex Talcott, J.D. is a Faculty Team Lead for Criminal Justice and Political Science at Southern New Hampshire University, where he also teaches business law.)