Whitman, Fiorina Get Mixed Reviews in Silicon Valley

Whitman, Fiorina Get Mixed Reviews in Silicon Valley

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, the two businesswomen-turned-political hopefuls who clinched the Republican nominations in the California primaries, got mixed reviews from tech workers in Silicon Valley.

Former Hewlett-Packard (HP) CEO Fiorina will face Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in November. Former eBay chief Whitman goes up against Democrat Jerry Brown in the race for governor.

Both women ran their political campaigns largely on their business records. But while eBay grew astronomically during Whitman’s tenure, under Fiorina’s control, HP fared poorly, resulting in her ouster by the board. Their political support reflected their perceived business acumen: In Santa Clara County, the heart of the Valley, more voters (66 percent) looked favorably on Whitman as a possible public sector success than they did on Fiorina (31 percent).

When New America Media polled a sampling of Silicon Valley’s well-established techies from the two ethnic groups that have in large part powered the region’s economic growth over the years – Chinese Americans and Indian Americans– on whether the two women should be voted into office, the reviews were mixed.

“Government is not a company, nor is it an organization for pursuing profit only,” asserted Michael Chen, vice president of ASIC engineering and business development at San Jose-based Pericom Semiconductor Corporation. “You have to have another dimension. You need to have a vision that people have to buy into, or else at the end of four years, people can vote you out.”

Chen, who says he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat but just a “good (political) observer,” plans to vote for Meg Whitman in the governor’s race. Although he believes Jerry Brown is a “good man,” he says he will likely vote for Whitman because he says she doesn’t have any “political baggage.”

Some in Silicon Valley note that even though the two Republican women have been apolitical until now, there is no harm in giving them a chance to prove themselves in the political arena.

Veteran entrepreneur Kanwal Rekhi, who co-founded The IndUS Entrepreneurs in 1992, and whom Forbes magazine named as being at “the center of a whole lot of wealth creation,” is currently the managing director of Inventus Capital Partners. He is dismayed by the “mess” created by California’s recent governors, and would like to see the state turned around. Whitman, he believes, could be the one to do it.

“I think it’s time to try out some business people,” said Rekhi, who is registered as a Democrat but calls himself a “Rockefeller Republican” (a liberal Republican). “They can’t do worse than politicians.”

While she was HP’s CEO from 1999 to 2005, Fiorina was the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. She maintained during her campaign that although she was fired by the company’s board for alleged mismanagement, the company is now so successful as a result of the changes she instituted during her nearly six-year tenure.

But one former HP engineer dismissed that claim. Dr. Shalini Venkatesh, who is currently an intellectual property specialist in Santa Clara, said she believes that Fiorina “rubbed everyone the wrong way.”

Whitman and Fiorina raked in the votes they did in Silicon Valley only because voters there “always give the benefit of the doubt to corporations,” Venkatesh said.

Venkatesh, a Democrat who worked on the Obama campaign, said she did not think corporate leadership skills would necessarily translate to success in government.

“The kind of skills you need to run a corporation are not the kind of skills you need to run a government. In government you need persuasive powers and a willingness to compromise on small things to get big things done,” she said.

Narendra Dev, another former HP employee, characterized Fiorina’s corporate track record as “mixed at best.”

“The demands on the job of senator are different from corporate demands,” observed Dev, who said he has no political affiliation. “In government, you need to be able to compromise.”

As for Whitman, he said, “she has demonstrated she can run a billion dollar company. So she perhaps should be given a chance.”

Whitman’s corporate success also resonated with Margaret Han, former president of the Chinese American Semiconductor Professional Association, who describes her political affiliation as “kind of independent, but leaning towards Democrats.”

“When it comes to budget planning, the person with corporate experience could perhaps come up with a better budget proposal,” said Han, a business manager in sales and marketing for a semiconductor company in San Jose.

But even though California’s budget crisis could influence voters in November, Han notes that a governor needs to be able to deliver more than just a balanced budget.

“A governor should be able to balance different people’s points of view,” said Han. “I’m not sure (Whitman) is capable of that.”