Sheryl Sandberg and the Silicon Valley Culture

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes a detailed profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. She was previously at Google, and Auletta goes in depth describing how Mark Zuckerberg wooed her to join him at Facebook. The entire piece is meticulously researched (I’d say about three months of work went into it), and worth reading in entirety. Much of the piece deals with how women are perceived in the workplace (Sandberg “blamed them [women] more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism”) and the challenges Sandberg faced when coming over from Google to Facebook.

Sandberg’s familiar history is particularly fascinating:

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.”

One point raised in the piece is the relationship between work and raising a family. Sandberg is a mother, and spoke with Auletta about the challenge:

One day this spring, I spoke with Sandberg about these issues. She had rushed to the office from her son’s school wearing sweatpants, a zippered sweatshirt, and white sneakers, with her hair jammed into a ponytail. She sat under a framed photograph of her holding her baby and pulled out a Baggie containing sugar-snap peas, which she began munching as we talked. She said, “The No. 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home. . . . Most people assume that women are responsible for households and child care. Most couples operate that way—not all. That fundamental assumption holds women back.” The second impediment is guilt, she said. “I feel guilty working because of my kids. I do. I feel guilty. In my TED talk, I’m talking to myself, too. I’m not just talking to other people. I have faced every one of those things myself.” Later, I asked her directly about Hewlett’s critique, and she simply said, “I feel really grateful to the people who encouraged me and helped me develop. Nobody can succeed on their own.”

Finally, I enjoyed the part about where Sandberg was to give a graduation speech at Bard College and said the following:

She described a poster on the wall at Facebook: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” She said that it echoed something the writer Anna Quindlen once said, which was that “she majored in unafraid” at Barnard. Sandberg went on, “Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold. I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try. You’re going to walk off this stage today and you’re going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. . . . Go home tonight and ask yourselves, What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it! Congratulations.”

So, what would you do if you weren’t afraid? It’s such an important question in how we guide ourselves in life: fear tends to brings us back down to Earth…

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Related: The Face of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg 

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