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eBay: MEG WHITMAN/San Jose, Calif.

2 minute read
Laura A. Locke/San Francisco

Most internet start-ups died long before they got old enough to earn a living. But eBay skipped adolescence entirely–heading straight to profitability–thanks largely to Meg Whitman, 46, a seasoned marketing executive who in 1998 began overseeing the online curiosity that rapidly morphed into the world’s most successful e-commerce company. Valued at $32 billion, eBay handles transactions worth $59 million a day, or $684 a second. Mom-and-pop shops peddle their wares alongside IBM, Kodak and Sears–and many stake their livelihood on the digital marketplace. “I think there’s a minimum of 150,000 businesses that might not exist without eBay,” says Whitman.

Given eBay’s sensational ascent, it’s hard to fathom the considerable prodding it took to get Whitman on board. Then at toymaker Hasbro, she hesitated to uproot her family from Boston to join “this obscure Internet company” out in California. And even after she signed on, there were difficult times. The falling Internet sector dragged the company’s stock down to a low of $30 a share. And in May a federal jury ruled that eBay should pay $35 million in damages for infringing on the patent of a Virginia firm that developed fixed-pricing technology; eBay has challenged the jury’s decision. But Whitman persevered, and eBay has radically altered the way people everywhere buy and sell stuff, transforming her into one of the most powerful executives on the planet.

Whitman credits eBay users, to whom she’s fiercely loyal, sometimes fielding their questions by e-mail. “I don’t feel like I preside over anything because it is truly the community of users who have built this company,” she says. A Princeton economics major with a Harvard M.B.A., Whitman speaks in measured sentences, but her easygoing nature and sense of humor are evident, even when she reveals a foible: after having kicked her coffee habit for nine months, she admits she’s hooked again. “Unfortunately, I’m back on caffeine,” she says, laughing. And the whole company can feel the buzz. –By Laura A. Locke/San Francisco

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