Whenever Meg Whitman gets up onstage before a crowd of eBay users, she makes a point of being self-effacingeven when they are all chanting her name. Typically, her first words to adoring online auctioneers are, "This is about you." In a sense, she's right: eBay would not be what it is todayone of the fastest growing companies in America, collecting more than $2 billion in annual revenuewithout its virtual community of approximately 30 million active users. They are the ones who are trading $900 worth of goods and services a second on her website.
But Whitman, 47, is not just the genial host at this giant party, picking up a fee for each listing and a small percentage of each sale. She's also the quiet giant of the Internet world, one of a mere handful of Silicon Valley CEOs who survived the dotcom bubble with her reputation unscathed. A business veteran, she cut her teeth in the top echelons of Disney, Hasbro and Procter & Gamble, resurrecting failing brands like Keds shoes and FTD florists. When she was offered her current job in 1998, Whitman was highly skeptical. Why leave everything she had built for her family in Boston and move 3,000 miles away to become CEO of, as she called it, a "no-name Internet company"?
Whitman was persuaded of eBay's worth by its founder, Pierre Omidyar, a business novice who desperately needed her smarts. Her skepticism fell away forever when she attended a focus group of eBay users shortly after she joined. "Their passion for eBay (good and bad) was like nothing I'd ever seen in 20 years of business," says Whitman. "I'm reminded of it on a daily basis."
She still responds directly to e-mails from buyers and sellers. A mother of two, Whitman knows that some of eBay's biggest customers are people who never thought they would touch a computer. She pays homage to them on Oprah as well as at trade shows. If a new eBay feature is unpopular, she'll pull it. When users complained about not being able to use the electronic payment service PayPal for eBay transactions, she bought PayPal for $1.5 billion. Which explains why they chant her name. And why this self-effacing star is the envy of just about everyone in the Web world.