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Fortune editor Alan Murray interviews HP CEO Meg Whitman at the EY Strategic Growth Forum. Photo: EY Strategic Growth Forum.
Fortune editor Alan Murray interviews HP CEO Meg Whitman at the EY Strategic Growth Forum.

PALM DESERT, Calif. — Meg Whitman didn’t anticipate becoming CEO of HP, the storied Silicon Valley tech powerhouse that she took over in September 2011 after a series of corporate scandals, executive departures and missteps.

But Whitman, who stepped into the role after a brief stint on the board and following the departures of Leo Apotheker and Mark Hurd, felt a duty.

Meg Whitman at the EY Strategic Growth Forum.
Meg Whitman at the EY Strategic Growth Forum.

“It matters to me, in my view, what happens to these big iconic American companies, and HP is not only important to, I would argue, Silicon Valley and California and the United States. It is important to the globe,” said Whitman, noting that HP is the biggest private employer in Costa Rica and Sophia, Bulgaria.

Whitman quickly went to work, instrumenting a turnaround plan that culminated last year when HP announced plans to split in two, one focused on servers, storage, networking and the other focused on printers and personal computers.

It was a bold move, and one that Whitman defended in her talk Saturday at the EY Strategic Growth Forum.

But even with all of the change and challenges at HP, nothing compares to her unsuccessful run for governor of California in 2010. Whitman lost to Gov. Jerry Brown in what CNN called “spectacular fashion” — spending $144 million of her own money on the unsuccessful campaign.

The former eBay CEO said she had an “empty feeling” after the political loss.

“When you lose an election, it is actually quite challenging,” said Whitman, noting that it is a “referendum on you.”

“I think we should be really glad that people run for public office because it is the most difficult thing I have ever done. “Turning around HP was relatively easy versus running for governor of California.”

Whitman turned to her family foundation after the loss, but didn’t really have a plan.

“One afternoon in January after I lost the election in November I was in our family room at 4 p.m. in the afternoon watching Ellen DeGeneres, and my husband, who is a neurosurgeon … happened to come home early from work. And he sees me sitting on the family room couch watching Ellen DeGeneres, and he said: ‘Oh, this is really not good. This is really not good.'”

Interestingly, that same afternoon Whitman got a call from HP board member Marc Andreessen, who had previously sat on the eBay board, and asked her to join.

“He said: ‘It will be so much fun. We can be on the tech committee together. ‘This is going to be great.’ I said: ‘Fantastic. Twelve minutes from my house, what could go wrong?’ Well, I joined the board and things started to unravel pretty fast.”

Related on GeekWire: HP boss Meg Whitman sees big opportunity to become ‘paragon of stability’ with Dell and EMC distracted by $67B merger

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