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Alumni Perspective – Meg Whitman (MBA '79)

Outgoing president and CEO, eBay Inc., National Co-Chairperson of Senator John McCain’s 2008 Presidential Campaign. Current Board member of eBay, the eBay Foundation, Procter & Gamble, and DreamWorks Animation. Prior experience at Procter & Gamble, Bain, Disney, Stride Rite, FTD, and Hasbro. Numerous accolades from leading publications, including being one of the few women to have been consecutively ranked (2004 and 2005) among the world’s most influential people by Time Magazine.

Over the past 100 years HBS has produced legions of accomplished brand marketers, consultants, general managers, entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 CEOs. Far less common, however, has been an alumna merging all these roles into a single career. But in Meg Whitman (’79, Section H), HBS has a protagonist around whom professors from across disciplines can shape compelling case discussions.

Whitman modestly describes herself as a “strategic marketing executive,” but her resume suggests that “strategic marketing über-executive” is more appropriate. After joining Procter & Gamble straight out of HBS, she progressed to leadership positions at Bain, Disney, Stride Rite, FTD, and Hasbro. And then in March 1998, she accepted the CEO position of a $4-million-revenue, 30-employee company named eBay. Ten years later, Whitman steps down as CEO having established eBay as one of the world’s best known global brands, with 15,000 employees and annual revenues of almost $8 billion.

Long before these professional successes, Whitman was a 21-year-old recent Princeton graduate entering Harvard Business School. She still has vivid memories of her first day as an RC: “We were all scared to death sitting in the pit, preparing for Marketing with Professor Hiro Takeuchi. Our case was Gillette and one of my sectionmates was Susan Gillette. I remember Professor Takeuchi looking over at her and saying, ‘Today we will not make a case of Susan Gillette!’ and called on someone else!” Whitman realized early on that Marketing interested her the most, “Because I thought it was the most integrative course. It taught me to think about business problems in the most holistic way.” She also recalls, “Learning a ton in Accounting from Professor Roland Christensen since I didn’t have any work experience, unlike my banking colleagues who would sometimes go to sleep.” (some things never seem to change.)

Reflecting back on her two years at HBS, Whitman says, “I felt very privileged to have been at Harvard Business School and still do. There’s no substitute for the experience and big picture thinking it offers. I’m also happy that some of my best friends to this day were business school classmates.”

Reflecting on HBS today, Whitman is similarly complimentary: “it’s kept up with the times beautifully, which is pretty difficult for an educational institution.” As she thinks about the next 100 years at HBS, she believes it will need to adapt in two principal ways:

“First of all, there is no question that economies are global, the world is flat, and we live in a very, very interconnected world. I’m not sure that HBS students shouldn’t be sent to live in other parts of the world. Perhaps the 2nd year could be split into four quarters, and students would spend a couple months each in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America. There’s just no substitute for living abroad. HBS grads will need to be much more global than they are today.

Second, I would focus the school more on innovation and technology. As the world becomes flat, these are the only ways that a smaller country such as the U.S. can stay ahead of much larger countries like China and India. It is important to identify the next industries that will keep the U.S. strong. Technology is not limited to information technology, but must incorporate biotech, alternative energy, and other major new fields. Where HBS has traditionally looked to graduate future ‘titans of industry,’ it will increasingly need to generate leaders of innovation.”

Shifting from advising Dean Light and future HBS Deans to guiding current students, Whitman counsels: “Do something that you love. You’re going to spend A LOT of time at work. Many of your most fun or more frustrating times will be at your company. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to be slotted into a career path, but you need to find and follow your passions.” She has a closely related perspective on defining success: “Happiness and cohesiveness of the family is number one. I’m a wife, mother, sister, cousin first. Professionally, it comes down to ‘do you love what you do and do you feel good about what you do?'”

As Whitman leaves eBay and continues to follow her passions, she’s excited to serve as national co-chairperson of Senator John McCain’s Presidential campaign. Beyond 2008, she’s looking forward to shifting into other work that is not necessarily focused on business: “Although I never say never, eBay will likely be my last company. I might get more involved in public service or philanthropy.” Media rumors are already hinting at Whitman pursuing a run to be Governor of California in 2010. With her track record to date, who’s to say Meg Whitman won’t next add “political leader” to the angles from which future HBS faculty and students can study her illustrious career accomplishments?

April 7, 2008
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