The eBay playbook "was as much about exclusion as about taking action. We would avoid acquisitions and expansion into other countries if we thought it didn't work."
In 2006, $52 billion worth of goods changed hands on eBay in 38 countries, says eBay. It is one of the most well-known brand names in the world, with a market value of $30.7 billion.
"Meg is a remarkable leader," says eBay CEO John Donahoe, who succeeded Whitman. "She has always been a champion of entrepreneurs and small-business people."
Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers says she "is a great leader and represents many of the best attributes of Silicon Valley in terms of openness, inclusion and her ability to bring out the best in those around her."
That was clear shortly after Whitman became eBay CEO in March 1998 and stood firm in her belief that it should stick with building its base of sellers of collectibles rather than try to diversify. It now sells products in more than 50,000 categories.
"I decided to do one thing at 100%," says Whitman. "We built collectibles, then we moved into other businesses."
Whitman, who remains on eBay's board and has weekly strategy meetings with Donahoe, left the company with only two regrets, she says. It should have expanded to Japan sooner, and it could have avoided a major outage on June 10, 1999, with better technology in place. "In the end, you are responsible for what happens," she says.
To be sure, challenges still face eBay.
Many sellers are miffed about changes eBay made in its fee structures. It forecast a weak third quarter and left its full-year estimates unchanged in the face of a slumping U.S. economy. EBay shares are drooping. And competition from Amazon.com has analysts wondering what's next for eBay.
"EBay is grappling, like some tech companies, with a soft economy and a maturing industry," says analyst Patti Freeman Evans at JupiterResearch. "Overall, though, she left the company in good shape."
The attributes that made Whitman one of the most successful female CEOs — boundless energy, a disciplined management style and her ability to connect with people — could translate swimmingly into a political career, says Lezlee Westine, CEO of TechNet, a bipartisan political network of techCEOs. "She is a superstar," she says.
Whitman grew up in a Republican family on Long Island, but until recently she was registered as an independent. "I had voted Republican most of the time, but I wasn't entirely sure, and I thought, Let's just do 'decline to state,' " she says.
A call from Mitt Romney
She wasn't politically active until Romney called in late 2006, she said. Speculation about a political future began after she met some "very influential and senior Republicans" and big donors while raising $12 million in California for Romney. Some of those Republican heavyweights said, " 'You should think about this,' " she recalls.
After Romney suspended his campaign, McCain contacted Whitman, seeking her help.
For now, she says, she is committed full time to helping McCain become president and focused on ensuring a smooth transition for eBay CEO Donahoe. Whitman also is taking back some household responsibilities from her neurosurgeon husband, Griffith Harsh, who picked up the slack to raise their two sons while she was at eBay for 10 years.
"Between now and Nov. 4, 100% of my time is working for McCain," says Whitman.
"The eBay model is very Republican in its essence — it's about making a small number of rules and getting out of the way," she says.