Seventy-two hours before Facebook’s big moment, Sheryl Sandberg was half a world away, hobnobbing with the likes of Bono and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Yes, Sandberg is Mark Zuckerberg’s No. 2. And, yes, if all goes well, she will soon become the US$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 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 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 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 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, California, she is considered a not-so-secret weapon for recruiting and retaining talented women as well as men. She and Zuckerberg will need the best brains they can find to sustain Facebook’s astonishing growth.
Of course, it helps that 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 on 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, California. “Young women really want to be her and learn from her.”
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 HP chief; and Carol Bartz, the former head of Yahoo — have reached pinnacles of success in tech.