How Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s billionaire COO, became one of the most influential women in tech

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Courted by Mark Zuckerberg and Hillary Clinton, a vocal critic of Donald Trump, but clouded by controversy over Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, former Google boss Sheryl Sandberg is one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful personalities

With a reported net worth of US$1.7 billion, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is one of the wealthiest women in the world.

In nearly 10 years at Facebook, Sandberg has grown to be one of the most recognisable faces in Silicon Valley. She's been with the company since it was a small start-up, and has navigated it through both the 2016 presidential election and Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Meanwhile, she's had a stunningly eventful life of her own, finding the time to write two popular memoirs and deal with the sudden death of her husband in 2015.

Here's everything you need to know about one of the most influential women in tech.
Growing up

Sheryl Sandberg was born August 28, 1969, in Washington, DC. She has two younger siblings: a brother named David and a sister named Michelle. The family moved to North Miami Beach when Sheryl was two years old.

Sandberg's father was an ophthalmologist and her mother taught French at a local college. The couple founded the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry through their local synagogue, and their home soon became a safe haven for Soviet Jews looking to escape anti-Semitism.

Sandberg always shone in school, and was in the National Honor Society. “In public schools, for a girl to be smart was not good for your social life,” her mother Adele told The New Yorker. She also taught aerobics while in high school.

She went on to attend Harvard University, where both of her siblings also studied. She majored in economics, and started an organisation at college called Women in Economics and Government. She graduated with her undergraduate degree in 1991.

At college, Sandberg researched with future treasury secretary Larry Summers, who would serve as an important mentor for Sandberg in the beginning phases of her career. Summers served as her thesis adviser in college, then hired her to work for him at the World Bank after she graduated.

Making connections

Sandberg stayed at the World Bank for a year, during which she travelled to India to help curb the spread of leprosy. She then returned to Harvard to get an MBA, and worked for a year at the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Sandberg said her parents instilled in her that the time to find a man was in college, because “the good ones go young”. At age 24, Sandberg married a businessman named Brian Kraff, but they got divorced after only a year. Sandberg told Cosmopolitan she was nervous her divorce would prevent her from ever meeting someone else.

Not long after Sandberg finished up her MBA in 1995, her mentor Summers joined President Bill Clinton's administration. Sandberg followed Summers to Washington DC to work for him, and eventually became his chief of staff when he was named the Treasury Secretary in 1999.

But after the Democrats lost the 2000 election, she decided to move to Silicon Valley to join the booming tech industry. At the time, Google was a small company with less than 300 people and that wasn't making a profit. However, she found the company's “higher mission” attractive: “to make the world’s information freely available”.

Enter Google

When courting her, Eric Schmidt – Google's CEO at the time – reportedly called her every week, and told her, “Don’t be an idiot … This is a rocket ship. Get on it”. Sandberg joined Google as the business-unit general manager in 2001 and took over the company’s advertising programme, which had four people working on it at the time.

In 2004, Sandberg married her long-time best friend Dave Goldberg, who she had met a decade before and dated for five years. They had a son in 2005, and a daughter born two years later. “The most important career choice you'll make is who you marry,” Sandberg said at Business Insider's Ignition conference in 2011. Goldberg became the CEO of SurveyMonkey in 2009.

Sandberg and her family have lived in a 9,200-square-foot (855-square-metre) mansion in Menlo Park since 2013. The home has six bedrooms, a wine room, gym, cinema, basketball court and a giant waterfall. It's only a 20-minute drive from Facebook's headquarters.

Google grew immensely during Sandberg's time there, and she was instrumental in landing a deal with AOL to make Google its search engine. She was eventually promoted to Google's vice-president for global online sales and operations.

But after nearly seven years at Google, Sandberg was ready for a new challenge. Schmidt, Google's CEO at the time, proposed she become chief financial officer, but she turned it down for more responsibility. She asked about becoming chief operating officer, but Google executives reportedly didn't want to rock the boat and mess with the three men already in charge of decision-making: Schmidt and Google's two co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Fortunately, someone else was pursuing her: Mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old whose company, Facebook, was still relatively new. He introduced himself to Sandberg at a Christmas party in 2007, and started to court her to come work at Facebook.

Finding Facebook

She began to meet with Zuckerberg for dinner once or twice a week, first at a cafe in Menlo Park and then at Sandberg's home in Atherton. Sandberg returned to that restaurant, Flea Street, for a television interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013. After six weeks of dinner meetings, Zuckerberg eventually offered her the position as Facebook's chief operating officer.

Zuckerberg told The New Yorker that Sandberg “handles things I don't want to”.

“There are people who are really good managers, people who can manage a big organisation,” Zuckerberg said in 2011. “And then there are people who are very analytic or focused on strategy. Those two types don’t usually tend to be in the same person.”

Empowering women

Sandberg is known by many as an advocate for women's rights in the workplace. Sandberg has campaigned against using the word “bossy”, arguing that it damages women's confidence and desire to pursue leadership roles. She has also partnered with Getty Images to take stock photos that are meant to change the perception of women in the workforce.

In March 2013, Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a bestselling book that recounts some of her own personal work experience as well as advice for women to pursue top positions in their field. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes,” Sandberg wrote in the book.

But not everyone has been so crazy about Sandberg's advice to lean in. Some critics have said that it's not enough to tell women to have confidence if they're not being given the opportunity to succeed. Others say it's unfair to use Sandberg as a model for all women, as she is able to afford a nanny and a staff at work.

Sandberg announced in 2014 that she and her husband would sign onto the Giving Pledge, a commitment by billionaires to donate at least half of their fortune during their lifetime or upon their death. The Giving Pledge was launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Plan B

Tragedy stuck in 2015 when Goldberg, Sandberg's husband, died suddenly after he collapsed while on holiday with his family in Mexico. Reports first indicated he died from head trauma after falling while on the treadmill, but Sandberg later revealed his death was due to a cardiac arrhythmia.

“[Dave] showed me the internet for the first time, planned fun outings, took me to temple for the Jewish holidays, introduced me to much cooler music than I had ever heard,” Sandberg wrote on Facebook a day after Goldberg's death. “He gave me the experience of being deeply understood, truly supported and completely and utterly loved – and I will carry that with me always.”
Following Goldberg's death, Sandberg penned an essay about dealing with grief and embracing option B in life when plan A is no longer available. Two years later, Sandberg turned that lesson into a book in 2017 about her personal experience dealing with death and other stories of adversity, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.

Sandberg also joined the board of directors of SurveyMonkey – the company her late husband served as CEO for – two months after his death. When SurveyMonkey went public in 2018, the company said Sandberg would donate her 10 per cent stake to the charity she founded in her husband's honour: The Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation.

The Clinton connection

While tech companies like Facebook have been adamant about not taking political stances, the same can't be said for Sandberg. The Facebook COO was one of the tech executives to publicly back Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. In return, Sandberg was reportedly on Clinton's shortlist for one of two cabinet positions: treasury secretary and commerce secretary.

Sandberg has also spoken out against US President Donald Trump's policies on abortion and immigration. A day after Trump reinstated the global gag rule that banned federally funded groups from discussing abortion, Sandberg donated US$1 million to Planned Parenthood.

Controversy strikes

Sandberg, and Facebook, drew more scrutiny in the wake of the 2016 election. Facebook revealed that Russia paid for thousands of ads on the platform to interfere with and manipulate political sentiment. The New York Times later reported that Sandberg tried to play down implicating Russia in spreading misinformation on Facebook.

Then in March 2018, details about the Cambridge Analytics scandal surfaced. The data analytics company had harvested data from 87 million Facebook users, and used it to target voters during the 2016 election after being hired by the Trump campaign. Sandberg admitted that Facebook knew about the improper data use back in 2015, but didn't make it public.

Zuckerberg reportedly blamed Sandberg for the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and told her she should have been more aggressive in dealing with the “troublesome content”. After meeting with Zuckerberg, Sandberg had told friends she worried about whether she would keep her job at Facebook.

A bombshell New York Times report later revealed that Facebook directed a PR firm called Definers Public Affairs in summer 2018 to conduct an “aggressive lobbying campaign” to blame billionaire George Soros – a Facebook critic – for spreading anti-Facebook sentiment. Both Zuckerberg and Sandberg denied knowing about Definers' activities, and communications head Elliot Schrage instead took the fall. However, Sandberg later admitted she had received a “small number of emails where Definers was referenced”.

The New York Times report put mounting scrutiny on Sandberg's role at Facebook. Although Facebook staffers threw their support behind Sandberg, investors reportedly questioned whether they should be worried Sandberg would leave the company.
Despite the talk, Sandberg has remained at Facebook in 2019. Sandberg is currently worth an estimated US$1.7 billion, and is one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley.
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