The $1.6 Billion Woman, Staying on Message
Facebook's No. 2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, will reap a fortune in its stock offering. And she hasn't stopped telling the world how women should take responsibility for their careers.
By NICOLE PERLROTH and CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
Published: February 4, 2012
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Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, with Jeffrey Immelt, left, chairman of General Electric.
Yes, Ms. Sandberg is Mark Zuckerberg’s No. 2. And, yes, if all goes well, she will soon become the $1.6 billion woman. On Wednesday, Facebook filed to go public in a deal that, in all likelihood, will instantly make it one of the most valuable corporations on the planet.
But Ms. Sandberg, who has helped steer this social network to this once-unimaginable height, had more on her mind than securities filings and ad metrics. She was attending the annual World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, where her subject wasn’t Facebook — but women. Specifically, how women, in her view, must take responsibility for their careers and not blame men for holding them back.
Given that Ms. Sandberg is Facebook’s chief operating officer, and that all of Wall Street was hanging on last week’s news, you might think that she was absurdly off-topic. But Ms. Sandberg sees herself as more than an executive at one of the hottest companies around — more, too, than someone who will soon rank among the few self-made billionaires who are women. She sees herself as a role model for women in business and technology. In speeches, she often urges women to “keep your foot on the gas pedal,” and to aim high.
Her call isn’t simply about mentoring and empowering. It is also about business strategy. A majority of Facebook’s 845 million users are women. And women are also its most engaged users. So Ms. Sandberg is playing to a powerful and lucrative demographic, as well as to the advertisers who want to reach it. Inside Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., she is considered a not-so-secret weapon for recruiting and retaining talented women as well as men. She and Mr. Zuckerberg will need the best brains they can find to sustain Facebook’s astonishing growth.
Of course, it helps that Ms. Sandberg has personality and presentation skills. In Davos and on the conference circuit, in public appearances in Washington and on college campuses, she has a warm, disarming tone that sets her apart from many other executives, male or female.
Her talks have gone viral. On YouTube, videos of her speeches have been viewed more than 200,000 times. Some have been included in syllabuses at the Stanford and Harvard business schools. Put simply, she exudes that certain something that seems to leave many people, particularly young women, a bit star-struck.
“There have been a handful of women that could have been the ‘Justin Bieber of tech,’ but Sheryl is the real deal,” said Ann Miura-Ko, a lecturer at the School of Engineering at Stanford and an investment partner at Floodgate, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif. “Young women really want to be her and learn from her.”
Ms. Miura-Ko added: “Sheryl is radioactive plutonium when it comes to a recruiting weapon within Facebook.”
Other women in Silicon Valley have been role models. Many, like the Google executives Marissa Mayer and Susan Wojcicki, have quietly campaigned to promote women inside their companies. Others — like Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay who now runs Hewlett-Packard; Carly Fiorina, the former H.P. chief; and Carol Bartz, the former head of Yahoo — have reached pinnacles of success in tech.
But none have made promoting women a cause the way Ms. Sandberg has.
EVEN so, some say her aim-high message is a bit out of tune. Everyone agrees she is wickedly smart. But she has also been lucky, and has had powerful mentors along the way. After Harvard and Harvard Business School, she quickly rose from a post as an economist at the World Bank to become the chief of staff for Lawrence H. Summers, then the Treasury secretary. After that, she jumped to Google and, in 2008, to Facebook.
She is married to Dave Goldberg, a successful entrepreneur and the C.E.O. ofSurveyMonkey, which enables people to create their own Web surveys. She doesn’t exactly have to worry about money. Or child care. (She and her husband have two young children.)
To some, Ms. Sandberg seems to suggest that women should just work harder while failing to acknowledge that most people haven’t had all the advantages that she’s had.
“I’m a huge fan of her accomplishments and think she’s a huge role model in some ways, but I think she’s overly critical of women because she’s almost implying that they don’t have the juice, the chutzpah, to go for it,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research organization on work-life policy, and director of theGender and Policy Program at Columbia University.
“I think she’s had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition,” Ms. Hewlett continued. “Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they’re actually derailed by other things, like they don’t have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 4, 2012
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Katie Mitic, Facebook’s head of platform and mobile marketing. It is Mitic, not Mitnic. The article also misstated that Bono attended the World Economic Forum this year.