Some might know Carly Fiorina from her recent presidential bid on the Republican ticket. Prior to this, however, Fiorina was a major star in business. After graduating from Stanford and receiving an MBA from the University of Maryland and an M.S. from MIT, she rose through the ranks at AT&T, becoming the first female officer. Fiorina later led AT&T’s spin-out of Lucent Technologies. And in 1999, Fiorina was recruited to Hewlett-Packard Company, becoming CEO and president.
For her efforts, Fiorina is worth $60 million, according to some estimates. She engages philanthropy with her husband Frank, supporting select organizations in their Virginia community and beyond, including United Way Silicon Valley and Year Up. “I started in an unlikely place. I came to business as a secretary in a nine-person real estate firm. Landed there because I just dropped out of law school,” Fiorina told me in our recent conversation.
Creating a New Organization
Running as a moderate Republican and famously clashing with Donald Trump, Fiorina got only limited traction in the 2016 presidential primary, dropping out after the New Hampshire primary. In 2017, Fiorina launched the Unlocking Potential Foundation, whose aim is to help community-based organizations develop leadership and problem-solving skills so they can maximize their social impact. And her experiences in business and beyond influence her current work through Unlocking Potential.
Fiorina didn’t plan on becoming a business leader, especially in her early days at AT&T in Washington, D.C. “I thought I would get fired every day, and had no ambition to rise in the corporate ranks, at a time when there weren’t women. The first meeting I went to was held in a strip club with colleagues and clients,” Fiorina explains. However, she soon developed an aptitude for the culture, and a deep desire to ask questions and solve problems. “In business, usually if you produce results, someone is going to take notice,” she adds.
As Fiorina rose through the business, she wanted to take on leadership roles in her community. She became the chairman of several nonprofits, including Good360 in Virginia, whose mission is to help companies donate excess merchandise to charities instead of destroying it. She also worked at Opportunity International, which, at the time, was the largest private microfinance organization. In these roles, Fiorina saw the same kind of talent and dedication that she saw in the for-profit sector, but also saw leaders who weren’t getting the right kind of support. “These were people tackling incredibly difficult problems, with very limited resources. A lot of the money donors were giving was directed to programs, understandably. But the people actually working at these nonprofits weren’t being invested in.”
That realization is what led Fiorina to create the Unlocking Potential Foundation, whose mission is to “build the leadership capacity of nonprofit organizations and their teams by providing those leaders with the tools and resources to strengthen their problem-solving skills.”
In order to achieve its goals, Unlocking Potential works with several kinds of partners. It works with nonprofit organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project. It also has corporate partners like American Express and MassMutual. Community foundations are another kind of partner.
For Fiorina, leadership isn’t necessarily restricted to job title. “We talk to everyone from CEO to van driver. Do you solve problems? Do you collaborate? We have partners that are nonprofits in and of themselves, and we also work with staff. For instance, we work with Wounded Warrior Project staff, as well as veterans and their family support networks,” Fiorina says.
American Express, meanwhile, brought Unlocking Potential to help gather nonprofits that deal with immigrant populations, domestic violence, homelessness, and other issues in the Salt Lake City community. And the foundation engaged in similar work with MassMutual in its Springfield, Massachusetts, community.
A Hands-on Role
All of Unlocking Potential’s engagements include a leadership lab led by Fiorina and assisted by her team of facilitators and coaches. These labs can consist of anywhere from a few hours to two days of intensive workshops, practicing lectures and intensive experience.
Fiorina says, “When we do these labs, we don’t operate as a consultant. Rather, we ask organizations to bring problems, and we’re there to give them tools, techniques and support. Facilitators combine classroom-style interactions and working sessions. Following those labs, there are six months of coaching. Again, participants are not always CEOs. They could be teachers. We do coaching for a six-month period, and then we go through an assessment cycle. Have they made real progress against the problems?”
Fiorina mentions work her organization did with EasterSeals DC MD VA, which serves children and adults with disabilities and their families, offering a wide range of services. Fiorina tells me about a teacher there who worked with special-needs children and adults. The teacher was initially reluctant to attend Unlocking Potential’s leadership lab, insisting that she was a teacher, not a leader. By the end of the lab and six-month experience, however, she considered herself a leader. “People usually almost always have far more potential for impact than they realize. They frequently think they’re not supposed to, or that it’s not their job. But people can make a problem better if they understand it,” Fiorina says.
Fiorina says that she and her husband provide a good chunk of funding for the Unlocking Potential Foundation, saying that the fee structure is designed for the nonprofit community. “I’ve been doing training and leadership development in the corporate sector for a long time,” she says. “There are so many places where we look for those problems to get solved… We need more problem solvers, more leaders. There are people with enormous potential for problem-solving everywhere we look.”