September 16, 2006 4:59 AM PDT

An upbeat Fiorina stays mum on Dunn

WELLESLEY, Mass.--As a boardroom scandal casts a cloud over Hewlett-Packard, former CEO Carly Fiorina is resolutely sticking to the sunny side of the street.

Fiorina led HP through one of the largest mergers in the history of high tech, the takeover of Compaq Computer, and ended up losing her job there because of the combined company's struggles to keep pace with rivals. It was an unhappy ending after a sometimes rancorous debate on the merits of a deal behind which she was a driving force.

A year and a half later, Fiorina is the author of an about-to-be-published memoir, "Tough Choices," that will delve into her tenure at HP and that publisher Penguin Group promises has been written with "brutal honesty."

Carly Fiorina Carly Fiorina

But speaking here Friday at the 2006 Women's Leadership Conference at Babson College, she deflected all inquiries about the recent turmoil at HP. Especially those from reporters.

"I'm not going to answer your question," she said when asked specifically about how Patricia Dunn, the company's now embattled chairman, has handled the developing situation there. "It's a question I'm never going to answer."

The tech giant is embroiled in the fallout from a quiet internal investigation earlier this year into media leaks that has become a hotly examined topic in the business press and beyond.

California's attorney general may file criminal charges within the next week against HP officials and outside contractors, and a congressional subcommittee on Friday asked Dunn and HP general counsel Ann Baskins to appear later this month at a hearing about the company's surveillance methods.

The uproar is also forcing Dunn out of the chairman's post, albeit slowly--she will be stepping down in January, and will retain her seat on the board.

Fiorina undoubtedly had her share of hard days with the HP board, but whatever she thinks about the affair, she's not saying. Instead, before an appreciative audience of several hundred at Babson, her tales of HP dealt with her own tenure there ("The merger was not a mistake."), but her larger topic was the stuff of countless business books: how to succeed against the odds.

And this being a conference on women and leadership, the corollary was how to succeed as a woman in an environment largely dominated by men.

For Fiorina, whose 20-plus years in the business world included executive stints at AT&T and Lucent Technologies, that meant sharing tales of less-than-welcoming initiations. In her first job as a manager, she said, her own manager introduced Fiorina to her new colleagues by saying, "This is Carly, she's our token bimbo."

On another occasion, a male colleague put Fiorina in an embarrassing predicament. She characterized the man as "someone who had decided they were going to haze me hard, hoping to get rid of me." She stuck around.

When she took over as chief executive of HP in 1999, she said, she had to contend with rumors that she had installed a pink marble bathroom at the company where she attended to her appearance. She also took flak for flying on a corporate jet, she recounted: "It was used as an example that I was 'regal'--that's code for 'bitch."

It's those two "b" words--bitch and bimbo--that too often are the only ways women executives are perceived, Fiorina said. Women, unlike men, are seen simply as either too hard or too soft.

The Babson speech wasn't a gripe session, however. It was more about empowerment ("believe in yourself") and about being an agent for change--seizing opportunities, taking risks. Change, she said, is what leadership is all about.

"If change requires realism, it also requires an equal measure of optimism," she said. "I am an optimist, and I am optimistic."

Though she offered that the essence of leadership has nothing to do with gender ("I didn't think of myself as a woman in business, but as a business person who happens to be a woman"), the essence of her largely upbeat speech was often gender-specific. As more women choose to lead, Fiorina told the largely female audience, the results will be better and stronger families, companies--and the world.

When they set themselves to it, she said, "women are natural leaders."

Her message clearly resonated for some of the younger women in attendance, who were eagerly awaiting Fiorina's book, to be published next month.

"She's definitely an inspiration to us, a role model," said Lauren Rodnick, a Babson undergrad. "She's opened doors and eyes."

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