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Trust all of yourself in decision-making, Fiorina tells grads

Carly Fiorina delivers the Commencement address.
Carly Fiorina delivers the Commencement address.
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

MIT alumna and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly S. Fiorina urged graduates at MIT's 134th Commencement to listen to their "head, heart and gut" when making life decisions.

"Engage your whole self in everything you do... trust your whole self and don't blink," she said to 2,139 undergraduates and graduate students and thousands of family members and friends.

She said her own decision to quit law school was agonizing. Her father is a law professor and judge, and law school "was the logical path others had always assumed for me.

"Do I risk letting my father down? Do I let go of this notion of the logical path for Carly?" Ms. Fiorina, now president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), said she wrestled with questions like these for months.

However, she said that she doesn't regret her decision, or other paths not followed. Among them are a promise at age four to become a firefighter, majoring in medieval history and philosophy at Stanford, and a early stint as a secretary at HP. "Everything I did had a purpose, even if the purpose was to show me that I was going the wrong way," she said.

Ms. Fiorina sent e-mails to all graduating MIT students asking for input on what to say in her Commencement address. She said she received hundreds of responses from this "prolific and diverse bunch," many of which contradicted each other. Some wanted to hear about what it takes to succeed as a CEO or what HP is like; others didn't. Some wanted to hear about the future of technology; others claimed they had heard too much about technology already. One student "who shall remain nameless" said he definitely didn't want to hear about leadership, Microsoft or Elian Gonzalez. But just about everyone, she said, agreed that she shouldn't talk longer than the allotted 20 minutes.


Ms. Fiorina earned the SM as a Sloan Fellow in 1989. When she was "sitting in one of those chairs [with the graduating class] 11 years ago, I didn't expect to be CEO of a company like HP. I didn't expect to be a CEO at all. I also didn't predict the impact of technology on our lives," she said.

MIT and Hewlett-Packard announced plans on Friday to form a $25 million alliance to develop innovative ways to create and handle digital information.

Ms. Fiorina said that now, at the end of the "first chapter of the information age," technology has the power to transform lives and solve fundamental problems, and that individuals' use of technology will now drive the future of the field. "Technology is not about bits and bytes, but a celebration of people's minds and people's hearts," she said. "The most magical and the most important ingredient in the transformed landscape is people. Technology is only as valuable as the use to which it is put. Technology is about people."


President Charles M. Vest and Provost Robert A. Brown conferred 2,438 degrees. Because some students earn more than one degree, this is slightly higher than the number of graduates.

The graduates earned 1,136 bachelor's degrees, 1,081 master's degrees, 213 PhDs, and eight engineer's degrees. They included 709 women and 543 minorities.

The School of Engineering awarded 1,279 degrees, followed by the Sloan School of Management with 528, the School of Science with 368, the School of Architecture and Planning with 135, and the School of Humanities and Social Science with 119. The Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology conferred nine degrees.

After Ms. Fiorina's address, President Vest delivered the charge to the graduates (see article on this page). Other speakers were Luis Ortiz, president of the Graduate Student Council, and Hugo Barra, president of the Class of 2000. The invocation was given by Rev. Jane Gould, MIT's Episcopal chaplain.

Music was provided on Killian Court by a 12-person brass ensemble directed by Lawrence Isaacson. Philip Lima of the Human Resources Department, a trained operatic baritone, sang the national anthem.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2000.

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