By: Victoria Yates
Meg Whitman was born on August 4th 1957 in Cold Spring Harbour, New York, the youngest of three children born to Hendricks and Margaret Whitman. The family was well off with ties to old Boston money, while her father owned his own loan business. Although a homemaker, her mother was part of a women’s delegation that travelled to China in the early 1970s, one of the first trips by foreigners to the country for some time, a pivotal moment for Whitman who saw in her mother’s example the true breadth of possibilities available to her.
At school Whitman was a talented athlete, serving as a member of the swim, hockey, lacrosse, and basketball teams. Upon her graduation in 1973, Whitman attended Princeton University, initially with the intention of pursuing a career in medicine. Her first year course load of physics and chemistry modules however dissuaded her. It wasn’t until she took a position in advertising sales for a student magazine that she began to find her strength, switching over to economics and going on to Harvard to complete an MBA in Business Administration.
Whitman’s career began at Proctor & Gamble where she got a job as a brand manager in 1979. However her time there was short lived. Whitman had married Griffith Harsh IV, a medical student whom she had met at Harvard, and when he was given a residency in San Francisco the pair relocated to the West Coast. Here Whitman joined Bain & Company as a consultant, where she rose through the ranks to become senior Vice President. In the 1980s she worked in marketing consumer products for Disney, helping launch the brand’s theme stores outside of the US. After her husband was offered chief of neurosurgery at Massachusetts General in Boston the family again moved, and Whitman took up yet another prestigious job title as President of the shoemaker Stride Rite (the revival of its Keds sneaker line came under her tenure). After a stint as CEO of a cooperative of florists, Whitman joined Hasbro, taking charge of the preschool toy division and again was part of a major re-launch, this time of the classic Mr Potato Head.
It was in the later 1990s however that Whitman came into contact with eBay, to help launch the new auction website in earnest. In 1998 she joined the firm at a time when the company only employed nineteen people. Whitman worked with the team to help make eBay one of the fastest growing tech companies of its time. She was hailed by those in the company and beyond it; when eBay began holding annual member conferences for top auctioneers, Whitman was treated like a celebrity while Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in business in 2002. The growth of the company under her management and her ownership of eBay stock made her arguably the first female billionaire of the Internet age.
Beyond the business world Whitman has been strongly engaged in political debate, an interest which peaked in her 2010 campaign for Governor of California. Whitman was the subject of controversy when it came to light that the family’s housekeeper and nanny from 2000-2009 was an illegal immigrant and that both Whitman and her husband knew this. Whitman ultimately lost the election to Jerry Brown.
Whitman is a rare figure in the scope of her achievements and the respect she has garnered from the business community. Her tremendous success working on some of America’s biggest brands and her deft leadership of eBay have afforded her a reputation as an innovative and proactive businesswoman, a true leader of the modern business scene.