Had things gone differently, she might today be governor of California, fighting to turn around one of the countrys most financially troubled state governments.
Instead, having lost her bid for that office in November 2010, Whitman finds herself head of Hewlett-Packard Co., struggling to fix one of the high-tech industrys most troubled giants.
Save HP or California. Its hard to say which is the tougher job.
It sometimes seems as if just about everything that could go wrong at HP has gone wrong in recent years. It went from being a high-tech juggernaut three years earlier to a company in steep descent, a trajectory that Whitman inherited in September 2011.
Just when it seemed every possible shoe had dropped, HP announced in November that it had uncovered what it contended was massive accounting fraud at Autonomy, a British software company it acquired in 2011.
In turning over evidence to U.S. and British regulators, Whitman has triggered a fresh round of lawsuits from shareholders who have watched their investments continue to hit once-unthinkable lows.
Even as the unfolding legal drama threatens to become a distraction, Whitman insists that she has every intention of staying at HPs helm for the next few years, which is what she believes it will take to restore this Silicon Valley icon to greatness.
HP is one of the Treasure Valley's largest employers, with a campus at 11311 Chinden Blvd. in Boise that employs an estimated 3,700 people, about half of whom work in the Imaging and Printing Group.
I knew this turnaround was not a one- to two-year program, Whitman said. Even before I took this job, I knew it was a bigger undertaking.
Sitting in a conference room at HPs Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters during a recent interview, Whitman seemed to wear lightly the burden of representing the hopes that better days lie ahead for the companys 331,800 employees.
For the moment, Whitman, 56, also seems to be remarkably comfortable sitting in a place she could have never imagined being two years ago, after the states voters delivered an underwhelming verdict on her quest to become governor.
I said many times my last CEO job was going to be eBay, she said.
ROAD TO CEO AFTER FAILED CAMPAIGN
Despite spending millions of dollars on her failed gubernatorial campaign, Whitmans stint as chief executive of eBay Inc. from 1998 to 2008 had left her wealthy. She seemed headed toward the role of elder stateswoman, joining corporate boards such as Procter & Gamble and Zipcar.
In January 2011, Whitman was asked to join the board at HP. Nine months later, the company fired Chief Executive Leo Apotheker. He had been running HP for less than 11 months following the departure of former CEO Mark Hurd, who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment.
Seeking a steadier hand after Apothekers failure to perform, the board turned to Whitman.
I thought I could make a difference, Whitman said. But I thought about it long and hard, because it was a big commitment.
The list of problems she inherited was daunting.
Amid the CEO turmoil, HP, one of the largest makers of personal computers in the world, was forced to abandon its TouchPad tablet when the device failed to catch on with consumers. HPs hardware sales suffered as customers shifted to cloud-based services. And although it had made some massive acquisitions, such as Palm and EDS, both companies experienced problems that resulted in billions of dollars in write-downs.
Then HP faced a backlash over its announcements in August 2011 that it was considering selling its PC business and that it was buying Autonomy, controversies that helped lead to Apothekers ouster.
What happened after Whitman took charge at HP seemed remarkable to those who followed her gubernatorial campaign. Criticized for being aloof and remote while running for office, Whitman was suddenly everywhere talking on CNBC, granting numerous interviews. She appeared relaxed, personable, confident.
A company like HP needs a leader, Whitman said in the interview. And it needs someone who can be the face of the company.
SENSE OF STABILITY
The weeks after she was named CEO were a whirlwind. Whitman convened a working group of 100 employees to study the PC business. Then it became obvious to her that HP should keep the business and in October 2011 she announced her decision.
But as HPs revenue continued to deteriorate, Whitman announced plans in May to lay off 27,000 employees that number later increased to 29,000.
When she inherited the company, it was an absolute disaster on almost every level, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. What she did do, and I think she did it well, is she gave it a better sense of stability.