Meg Whitman was the CEO and President of eBay from 1998 to 2008 and is now pursuing a bid for the Governorship of California. She led one of the biggest technology-based companies in the world, taking it from start-up to global dominance. In many ways she was the most powerful woman in Silicon Valley and she was named by Forbes as the fifth most powerful woman in the world in 2005. Ada Lovelace Day encourages bloggers to write about women involved in technology and whilst Meg is clearly closely associated with technology, it would be hard to characterise her as a technologist. This has been both a strength and a weakness.
When Meg joined eBay, she confessed she had no online experience. Her past experience at the likes of P&G, Bain, Stride Rite and Disney focussed on marketing and branding. Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, the founders of eBay, were unperturbed about this believing that the tech could be taught. Her personality and values were much more important. She was ‘very eBay’: humble, clever, uninterested by the trappings of business power. She was also passionate about the transformational nature of the net and the potential for disruption.
And that’s why Meg deserves to be among the Ada Lovelace Day pantheon. Not because she had power, is a billionaire, a former-CEO, a leader or politician. But because she understood, innately, that technology could be a means to an end and a way of promoting opportunity. In the numerous times over the years that I saw Meg in action at close quarters, she was constantly excited and evangelical about what eBay could do for people. Whether it was harnessing online trading to breathe new life into an old business or a channel for entrepreneurship, Meg’s mantra was that technology could change lives and even change the world. And I think that her optimism and enthusiasm permeated eBay’s culture and encouraged a lot of people to ‘have a go’ when otherwise they might not have been brave enough.
As a figurehead for eBay, her workaday approach was striking. In low key shirt and ‘khaki pants’ she was surprisingly informal and whilst she certainly wasn’t consensual, she was unabashedly consultative. She was always impressive at eBay Live! (eBay’s annual conference for members). Whilst I suspect that by nature she is slightly more cold, reserved, aristocratic than her performance betrayed but she had an instinctive understanding that eBay’s community wouldn’t be impressed by a queen. They responded to her because she seemed like them and they respected her approachability
I often think that one of the great failings of technology folk is a mistrust of the mass market and a general distaste for things that get big and popular. There is a knee-jerk reaction that when the grockles outnumber the geeks that a service or site is somehow sullied.
Meg the marketer understood the mass market and could plug eBay into it. eBay was a catalyst that spurred countless millions to become more proficient and advanced computer users. By selling the economic benefits she gave people a reason to embrace technology. I’ve personally met hundreds of people who profess that eBay was a real incentive to take on the net. I’ll never forget 83 year old Joan who went out and bought a computer, learnt how to use it from scratch and went on to make thousands of pounds selling collectables. By her own admission, it gave her a new lease of life.
It is also interesting to me that Meg being a woman was almost entirely irrelevant to her role as eBay CEO. It seemed to be only of note to the press, who made a big deal of it. More certainly, than Meg ever made of it, I’d venture. And that’s one of the more bewildering aspects of Meg’s political campaign. She’s being feminised, softened… and I can’t see that it’s necessary. But then politics, isn’t business or technology.