AN FRANCISCO – Seventy-two hours before Facebook’s big moment, Sheryl K. 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 $1.6 billion woman. Facebook has 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 was women. Specifically how women, in her view, must take responsibility for their careers.
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, Calif., 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, her tone 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.
“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.”
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.
But none has made promoting women a cause the way Sandberg has.
Even so, some say her aim-high message is a bit out of tune. Everyone agrees she is 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.
Her husband, Dave Goldberg, is a successful entrepreneur and the CEO of SurveyMonkey, which enables people to create their own Web surveys. She doesn’t exactly have to worry about money. Or child care for their two young kids.
To some, 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 the Gender 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,” 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.”
There’s no denying that Sandberg has been remarkably successful at Facebook. When she joined the company, it had some 70 million users and no business model. With her in the COO seat, profits have reached $1 billion on $3.7 billion in revenue.
She has arguably made an equally big mark with her frequent speeches to women. She personally recruited Lori Goler, its head of human resources, and Katie Mitnic, its head of platform and mobile marketing.
Her attention to women has paid off for the business in other ways, too, investors and analysts say.
Sandberg has said that women drive 62 percent of activity on Facebook in terms of status updates, messages and comment. Women also drive 71 percent of daily fan activity. Women have 8 percent more Facebook friends than men, on average, and spend more time on the site. In Facebook’s early days, women were first to upload photographs, join groups and post to walls.
“It’s no secret that women are an incredibly powerful market segment, buying online and making decisions in the digital world many times a day,” said Aileen Lee, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm, which has invested in Facebook and several start-ups led by women.
Part of Sandberg’s role has been to cultivate relationships with large advertisers seeking new ways to engage with customers, particularly female ones, online. She was instrumental in signing up advertisers like Procter & Gamble. After several meetings with Facebook, Procter chose the platform for a new Secret deodorant campaign aimed at young women.
If Silicon Valley men bond in venture capital conference rooms or on weekend bike trips, Sandberg has been building an alternate networking group of Silicon Valley women. For about seven years she has held catered monthly dinner parties at her home for a group of several dozen women. Guest speakers have included the feminist and author Gloria Steinem; Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft; and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, according to three people who have attended the dinners. Sandberg recently invited Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri to attend as a speaker.
“I expected to see a lot of women in St. John suits and expensive purses and was pleasantly surprised when it was anything but that,” McCaskill said. “Women had been included that were in the infancy of their careers, her kids were running around, it was very low key. It was clear that she’s the kind of role model that young women are looking for, especially in the tech sector.”
For all her roles and titles, Sandberg is about to add one more: billionaire. According to Facebook’s filing last week, Sandberg made nearly $31 million last year, including base salary, bonus and $30.5 million in stock awards. She owns 1.9 million shares in the company and an additional 39 million in restricted stock options. If Facebook goes public at a valuation of $100 billion - which Wall Street sees as a possibility - her stake could be worth as much as $1.6 billion. She would rank among the richest self-made women in America, above Meg Whitman ($1.3 billion), but below Oprah ($2.7 billion), according to Forbes.