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Carly Fiorina, The Outsider, Actually Got Her Start In Washington

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Fiorina's 1985 wedding to her husband Frank.

This story is part of NPR's series Journey Home. We're going to the places presidential candidates call home and finding out what those places tell us about how they see the world.

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina is known for her tenure running Hewlett-Packard in California. But Washington, D.C., is where she got her start in business and where colleagues say she displayed the same aggressiveness and determination that propelled her to the main stage of Wednesday night's GOP debate.

Just outside Washington, at the University of Maryland, a plaque outside a classroom in the business school reads "given by the Carly and Frank Fiorina Family Fund." Fiorina got an M.B.A. at Maryland, though she had to talk her way in.

Rudolph "Rudy" Lamone, the former dean of The Robert H. Smith School of Business, remembers that "when she applied here she was turned down."

Fiorina, then Carly Bartlem, had been living in Italy with her first husband, and her application arrived too late. But Lamone said that didn't stop her. "She came right here to Washington to the business school and said, 'I want to talk to the dean.' " That sort of determination, Lamone says, "really identified the Carly that we know today."

Impressed with her drive, Lamone not only reversed the admissions office and admitted her but made Fiorina his graduate assistant. When it came time for her to find a job, Lamone suggested AT&T. Back then, in 1980, AT&T was still the phone company — the only phone company. There was no wireless; no Verizon or Sprint. It used to advertise on TV with ads urging people to "reach out and touch someone."

A lot was different in 1980. Ronald Reagan was first elected president that November, Blondie was at the top of the charts, and the movie 9 to 5 came out, about the travails and workplace sexism faced by three women.

This was the backdrop to the 25-year-old Fiorina's joining AT&T as a management trainee. The giant company had just settled a government lawsuit agreeing to hire more women — not only as operators but in management roles.

Patricia Espey-English, another trainee, worked alongside Fiorina. "I don't think the men at AT&T meant it, but we were all the cute little girls. Their idea of going out to lunch — you had three martinis. If you went out to dinner, you sat with the boys and there were a lot of body jokes that were going on."

Not only jokes. Once, Fiorina's boss wanted to entertain some clients. Fiorina insisted on coming along; they were her clients too. Their destination, though, turned out to be "The Boardroom" — a Washington strip club. Carole Spurrier, a friend of Fiorina's from those days, said Fiorina "presented herself in a suit and during that time we had little scarfs that we tied around our necks to look like men."

Spurrier said one of the men in the group "asked for a lap dance, and the stripper actually refused and said, 'Not while the lady is here.' The mores were quite different at that time, but you had to be strong and stand on your own."

The women at AT&T bonded; they had lunch together, and there were regular girls' nights out. Fiorina was going through a difficult divorce, and Spurrier recalled seeing her waiting for a bus, looking despondent. "I thought, 'That poor soul, I'd better go and pick her up,' so I veered across traffic and from that day on she was part of the carpool."

The Washington office, called government communications, was in charge of selling phone equipment and services to federal agencies. Espey-English said Fiorina stood out. "She was bright, she was funny, she was creative. In meetings she was always the one who would ask a question; it didn't matter if it was being run by someone who was much higher up, in which case most of the rest of us would wonder if it was appropriate to ask a question. Never a problem with Carly."

One of Fiorina's bosses, former AT&T President Michael Brunner, remembered Fiorina the same way. He tells the story of one meeting with some mostly male suppliers. "When Carly stood up," Brunner says, "she said 'Hi, I'm Carly Fiorina; I'm the marketing fluff of this group,' and it brought down the house. As a matter of fact she was anything but the fluff — she was probably the steel backbone of the group, at least in my view." Brunner says Fiorina "had a lot of guts."

Fiorina spent some eight years in Washington before moving on. She now lives in the city's Virginia suburbs. She would face criticism later in her business career, especially when as CEO of HP she engineered a controversial merger with Compaq. But Fiorina is remembered as determined in the early days, hardworking and quick to learn. And even if no one then expected Fiorina to run for president, as one friend said, "there was no doubt Carly was going somewhere."

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