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Excerpts from Carly Fiorina's Address at CEI's Annual Dinner

Keynote address by business and nonprofit leader Carly Fiorina delivered at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner on June 11, 2015.

Excerpts from text as prepared for delivery:

When I was a little girl, my mother told me: “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” My mother and father would encourage me always to work hard, to aim high, to find and make the most of my gifts. I didn’t feel gifted as a young girl or a young woman, but my mother’s words seemed like both a promise and a challenge.

I would start my career as a secretary in a little nine-person real estate firm. One day, two men who worked there approached my desk and said: “We’ve been watching you and we think you can do more than type and file. Do you want to learn about business?”

They saw potential and possibilities in me and so I came to see these things in myself.

Whether it is in business or in charity or in any other human endeavor, my experience tells me that human potential is limitless. Usually, it is underutilized or worse, squandered and wasted. It is the only limitless resource we have in this world, and it is all we need to solve every problem.

Last week I was at a fundraising event where donors brought their children: some sons and many, many daughters. At the end of the event, a little girl approached me. She asked: “Have you ever wished you were someone else?” I answered: “I used to sometimes when I was younger, but now I know that I am who God intended me to be. Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” She looked away and said: “I don't know.” She was 10 years old and at that age “I don't know” means “Yes.” So I reassured her: “You are exactly who God wants you to be. Don't wish to be someone you are not. Find out who you are.”

It has been 95 years since women got the right to vote. 50 years since the Feminine Mystique. 16 years since I was named the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company.

There are only 23 female CEOs in the S&P 500. Fun fact: there are more CEOs named John than there are women. Among those same companies, there are only 19 women for every 100 Board members. 84 percent of women strongly agree that women can lead just as effectively as men. Only 43 percent of men agreed with the same statement. Companies headed by male executives receive 98 percent of all venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. That’s $1.88 billion dollars—compared to just $32 million for women. Recent studies from the NYU Child Study Center suggest that a girl's self-esteem peaks at age 9 and declines from there.

I believe it is time to have a conversation about the state of women in America. Women represent half of all human potential. Women around the world continue to be subjugated and marginalized. Here in this country where women have more opportunities than anywhere else on earth, we still can make our country a better place by fully tapping the potential of every woman.

Today, women hold nearly 48 percent of all US jobs, up from 37 percent 40 years ago. By 2011, this relatively small increase in the workforce accounted for one-quarter of our GDP. In other words, more than a stunning three and a half trillion dollars was generated by the increase in women’s participation in the economy: greater than the GDP of Germany and more than half of the GDP of both China and Japan. Additionally, companies with more women on their boards outperform their competitors.

In other words, the facts are in and the data is clear. Realizing the potential of women isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do.

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Today, only 23 percent of women identify with the term feminist. Liberal ideas aren't the answer. Their version of feminism isn’t working. It is time for a new definition.

Here's what I told that little boy: A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses. We will have arrived when every woman can decide for herself how to best find and use her God-given gifts. A woman may choose to have five children and home-school them. She may choose to become a CEO…or run for President.

I am a conservative because I know we are all equal in the eyes of God—men and women. Our principles work better to lift men and women up so that they can choose their own path and live lives of dignity, purpose and meaning.

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There are many things that we can and must do so that all women can truly choose their own path.

The first is that we must encourage and foster those meritocracies. Look at the federal government. Despite it already being law, the Left wants to further legislate equal pay. Yet they support the seniority systems in government and unions that reward time and grade. We know these systems which pay for years worked rather than performance disproportionately impact women. This is something that government can change. Let’s move to a pay-for-performance meritocracy and make promoting high-achieving men and women a top priority.

We also need to give women the tools that they need to rise through these meritocracies—and that starts with reforming our education system.

There is some good news here. In the last 40 years, we have drastically improved a woman’s chance of graduating from college and earning a post-graduate degree. In 2010, women started to surpass men in attainment of advanced degrees.

But it is especially critical for low-income women and families that we fix our broken education system. Every parent deserves a choice as to how to best educate their children so that every child has a chance to fulfill their potential.

In New York City, Bill de Blasio wanted to limit school choice. And who were the people who walked across the bridge in protest? Low-income families who said, “You are not going to take away the only chance my child has.”

A few years ago, the head the Chicago teachers union said that they could not be held accountable for the performance of students in their classrooms because too many of them were poor and came from broken families. What was she saying? If you are poor and you come from a broken family, then you don’t have potential. You don’t have God-given gifts. But across the country, students in California fought back, arguing that their constitutional right to an equal education was being violated by state laws that protected “grossly ineffective teachers.” And they won. In Louisiana, this administration sued to shut down a program that allowed students to leave their failing public school. That’s right. They sued to put disadvantaged kids back into schools that they knew were failing. The Left is on the wrong side of this issue. They continue to protect the status quo and teachers’ unions and it is hurting our children.

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We also need to support small businesses. Women-owned businesses are vitally important to our economy, with nearly 10 million companies that generate trillions in revenue. For the same reason that women are 40 percent less likely to run yellow traffic lights, women make safer, less volatile investments. But the sheer complexity of the regulations handed down from Washington is crushing these businesses. Dodd Frank has caused hundreds of community banks to go under. The very banks that give a lot of these women-owned businesses their first loans. We must roll back these regulations and simplify the tax code so that small, women-owned businesses have the fair chance for success that they deserve.

Lastly, we must tackle the webs of dependence that are trapping women today. We need a top-to- bottom review of every economic development and assistance program we have to ensure that they encourage women—and men—to strive instead of settle, because there is dignity in all work.

As I travel the country, I often meet single moms who have had the courage to bring their children into the world. Like all of us, they want to live lives of dignity, purpose and meaning, but unfortunately, they face great risk. Our government programs create all the wrong incentives. If you are a single mom on food stamps and you and your children are depending on them, these programs make it so difficult to strive for more, knowing that your decisions affect not only your own life but the lives of your children.

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We must aim high as a nation. We must aim high in our families and in our communities. We must encourage boys and girls, men and women, to aim high in their lives.

Aiming high is in the American spirit. Aiming high not only built our nation it imbued the character of our citizens.

Lowering expectations has become a virtue to those on the Left who wring their hands at the notion of striving for excellence. And to them we answer: As a nation, aiming high is what has set us apart as Americans.

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