Sheryl Sandberg has been Facebook's Chief Operating Officer since 2008 where she has helped to drastically boost the platform’s revenue. For many, this would be the pinnacle of an already glittering career, but for Sandberg, even more lay in store. She has gone from height to height in her career, has overcome tragedy, and never lost sight of life’s important lessons.
Sandberg was born in Washington D.C. but moved to Florida at a young age. There, she excelled academically right from the start, going on to Harvard College and graduating with a degree in economics in 1991 with highest honours. Whilst still a student, she co-founded an organisation called Women in Economics and Government. She went on to spend a year as a research assistant at the World Bank before returning to Harvard to earn an MBA.
After graduating from her masters, she worked first for a management consultancy and then became the chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers. In 2000, after George W Bush won the election, she left her post and moved to Silicon Valley to start the next phase of her career.
In 2001, she was head hunted by a startup called Google Inc. It was less than three years old and had no revenue stream, so she hesitated at first. Nonetheless, she took a risk and joined in late 2001 as the business unit general manager. There was no business unit within Google at the time, merely four people working on AdWords. In Sandberg’s first few years, she made quite an impact. First, she got AdWords to the point where it was making a profit, and then she turned her attention to AdSense. In 2002, she helped broker the deal that saw Google became the AOL search engine.
In 2007, Sandberg met Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who was immediately taken with her business sense. Although he hadn’t planned to recruit a COO, by March 2008, he made it official.
Once again, her initial role was to work out how to make the company profitable. Facebook hadn’t given much thought to a revenue stream at that stage, but Sandberg’s influence led them to agree to focus on advertising. In 2010, Facebook turned its first profit, and in June 2012, just after Facebook’s IPO, Sandberg became the first woman on the eight-person board of directors. After successive sales of her original 2.4 million shares, she’s estimated to be worth $1.6BN and holds roughly 0.5% of the company’s shares.
In 2005, Sandberg married Dave Goldberg and had her first child, which drew her attention to the work-life balance issues with which women struggled. She talked publicly about having a fifty/fifty marriage in which both partners were encouraged to follow their careers and share the parenting responsibilities.
Sandberg became a champion for the women in her workforce, whom she saw as reluctant to put themselves forward in the way that men did. She was also outspoken about the idea that women needed to take themselves seriously and be willing to make sacrifices. In 2013, she released her first book, Lean In, which argued that there are systemic barriers to female professional success, but that women also create barriers for themselves. The book topped bestseller lists for several months but was criticised with claims that it ignored the barriers faced by less privileged women than Sandberg herself. She also started Leanin.org, a successful non-profit organisation aimed at helping women network and maximise their careers.
And then on 1 May 2015, Goldberg - then CEO of SurveyMonkey - died of a sudden traumatic brain injury. Sandberg discussed the devastation and grief she went through as a result in her second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. She acknowledged in the book how challenging it is for single mothers, and advocated for public policy paths to address those inequalities. She also focused on resilience, drawing on psychological studies around the three P’s to avoid: personalisation, pervasiveness and permanence. Blaming yourself (personalisation), focusing on the loss to the exclusion of other things (pervasiveness) and believing that it will never pass (permanence) all stand in the way of healing.
Sandberg created a foundation in her husband’s name, the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, which works to “build a more equal and resilient world”, including by providing scholarships to disadvantaged youth. At Facebook, following Sandberg's experience with loss, the length of bereavement leave available to employees was doubled.
As well as the Facebook board, Sandberg sits on the boards of the Walt Disney Company, Women for Women International, the Center for Global Development and V-Day, and was previously a board member of Starbucks. She gives regular addresses and speeches, and is well known for a 2010 TED speech titled “why we have too few women leaders.” She was outspoken about her support for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and has been discussed as an outsider candidate for 2020 herself.
With her championing female inclusion in all levels of business, Sandberg may not run for President herself, but her story is sure to inspire all women.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Miami-Herald, The New Yorker, Time, Leanin.org, Recode Decode, Mashable and Politico.
Image credit: Mashable