Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture?
In 2007, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, knew that he needed help. His social-network site was growing fast, but, at the age of twenty-three, he felt ill-equipped to run it. That December, he went to a Christmas party at the home of Dan Rosensweig, a Silicon Valley executive, and as he approached the house he saw someone who had been mentioned as a possible partner, Sheryl Sandberg, Google’s thirty-eight-year-old vice-president for global online sales and operations. Zuckerberg hadn’t called her before (why would someone who managed four thousand employees want to leave for a company that had barely any revenue?), but he went up and introduced himself. “We talked for probably an hour by the door,” Zuckerberg recalls.
It turned out that Sandberg was ready for a new challenge. She had even talked with Donald Graham, the C.E.O. of the troubled Washington Post Company, about becoming a senior executive there. After the holidays, Zuckerberg e-mailed her, and they had the first of many dinners. They met at the Flea Street Café, around the corner from her home in Atherton, but then decided that they needed more privacy. His tiny Palo Alto apartment—which had almost no furniture—wouldn’t work. So for six weeks they met for dinner once or twice a week at Sandberg’s six-bedroom home. Sandberg, who goes to bed early and starts e-mailing at 5 A.M., often had to usher the nocturnal Zuckerberg out at midnight. “It was like dating,” says Dave Goldberg, Sandberg’s husband and the C.E.O. of the online company SurveyMonkey. Sandberg says they asked each other, “What do you believe? What do you care about? What’s the mission? It was very philosophical.” Social networking seemed to have better prospects than newspapers and she didn’t want to move to D.C., so she gently turned down Donald Graham.
That winter, Sandberg met with Eric Schmidt, who was then the C.E.O. of Google, about her desire to do something else at the company. He proposed promoting her to chief financial officer, a job she rejected because she didn’t think it gave her enough management responsibility. She asked about becoming the chief operating officer, but Google already had a troika making decisions—Schmidt and the two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin—and they didn’t want to further complicate things.
By February of 2008, Zuckerberg had concluded that Sandberg would be a perfect fit. “There are people who are really good managers, people who can manage a big organization,” he says. “And then there are people who are very analytic or focussed on strategy. Those two types don’t usually tend to be in the same person. I would put myself much more in the latter camp.” Zuckerberg offered her the job of chief operating officer.
People at Google tried to persuade her to stay, pointing out that Facebook’s chief financial officer would not report to her and that she would not be invited to join its board of directors. But eventually she took the job. Later, Sandberg would tell people that Facebook was a company driven by instinct and human relationships. The point, implicitly, was that Google was not. Sandberg seemed to have insulted some of her former colleagues. “She could have handled her departure more crisply,” a senior Google official says.
Sandberg began work at Facebook in March, asking questions and listening. “She walked up to hundreds of people’s desks and interrupted them and said, ‘Hi, I’m Sheryl Sandberg,’ ” recalls Chris Cox, the vice-president of product, who sits next to Zuckerberg. “It was this overt gesture, like, ‘O.K., let your guard down. I’m not going to hole up with Mark. I’m going to try and have a relationship with you guys.’ ”
Sandberg set up twice-a-week meetings with Zuckerberg, on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. Today, her workstation, in a cavernous room, is a few feet away from his and the three other senior executives who share connected desks: Cox; Mike Schroepfer, the chief engineer; and Bret Taylor, the C.T.O. “She builds trust because she’s honest,” Cox says. “People can be intimidated by Mark. Sheryl just cuts right through that.”
Zuckerberg says he’s grateful that Sandberg “handles things I don’t want to,” such as advertising strategy, hiring and firing, management, and dealing with political issues. “All that stuff that in other companies I might have to do. And she’s much better at that.”
When Sandberg arrived at Facebook, she admits, some insiders had a “sense of trepidation” about her. They wondered whether she was too corporate, and she was stepping into a company—and a Silicon Valley culture—dominated by men. But her biggest worry, she says, was financial. “There was this open question: Could we make money, ever?” The engineers, as at Google a decade earlier or Twitter now, were primarily interested in building a really cool site; profits, they assumed, would follow. The company’s most obvious business—selling ads—seemed problematic. Users considered their Facebook pages to be private; they didn’t want an ad interrupting them as they chatted with friends. Some people wondered whether Facebook was just a meteor that, like Myspace, would crash. Others thought that Zuckerberg, who was painfully shy, lacked the management skills necessary for success.
Sandberg quickly began trying to figure out how to make Facebook a business. Should the company rely on advertising? On e-commerce? Should it charge a subscription fee? She convened regular meetings with senior executives from 6 to 9 P.M. “I go around the room and ask people, ‘What do you think?’ ” Sandberg said. She welcomed debate, particularly on the issues of revenue and advertising. By late spring, everyone had agreed to rely on advertising, with the ads discreetly presented. By 2010, a company that was bleeding cash when Sandberg arrived had become profitable. Within three years, Facebook grew from a hundred and thirty employees to twenty-five hundred, and from seventy million worldwide users to nearly seven hundred million.
Sandberg was born in 1969, in Washington, D.C. Her family moved to North Miami Beach when she was two. Her mother, Adele, gave up studying for a Ph.D. and teaching college French in order to raise Sheryl and her two younger siblings, David and Michelle. Her father, Joel, is an ophthalmologist. After a rabbi at their synagogue asked for volunteers, Adele and Joel helped found the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry. “Adele did most of the work,” Joel says, but he was the president. Their home became an unofficial headquarters for Soviet Jews wanting to escape anti-Semitism, and a temporary hotel for many who had finally won the right to emigrate. On weekends, Adele says, “we schlepped the kids to rallies.”
The Sandberg children attended public school, and Sheryl was always at the top of her class. “In public schools, for a girl to be smart was not good for your social life,” Adele says. She describes her daughter as “a mother’s helper,” aiding David in tying his shoes and Michelle in taking a bath. The only time she ever rebelled, Adele recalls, was when she was in junior high school. “One day she came home from school and said, ‘Mom, we have a problem. You’re not ready to let me grow up.’ ”
“I said, ‘You’re right.’ The minute she said it, I knew she was right.”
Sandberg went to Harvard, where she majored in economics and took Lawrence Summers’s class in Public Sector Economics. She did not speak or raise her hand, but she received the highest midterm and final grades. Summers volunteered to serve as her thesis adviser, on how economic inequality contributes to spousal abuse, and he promoted a group called Women in Economics and Government that she co-founded. Nonetheless, Sandberg claims that she was not a feminist. The goal of the group, she says, was just “to get more women to major in government and economics.” Her management skills were impressive. “When most students start to organize things, things fall between the cracks,” Summers says. “When Sheryl hosted an economics-association reception, every nametag was right, the food was right, the schedule was right.”
Sandberg graduated first in the economics department. At her Phi Beta Kappa induction, there were separate ceremonies for men and women. At hers, a woman gave a speech called “Feeling Like a Fraud.” During the talk, Sandberg looked around the room and saw people nodding. “I thought it was the best speech I’d ever heard,” she recalls. “I felt like that my whole life.” At every stage of her time in school, Sandberg thought, I really fooled them. There was “zero chance,” she concluded, that the men in the other room felt the same.
Sandberg says she eventually realized that women, unlike men, encountered tradeoffs between success and likability. The women had internalized self-doubt as a form of self-defense: people don’t like women who boast about their achievements. The solution, she began to think, lay with the women. She blamed them more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism.
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