Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg recently threw a fundraiser for President Obama, dining with Lady Gaga and the president himself. Last week, she was a highly visible co-chair of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
As Facebook prepares to raise $10 billion in the largest- ever technology initial public offering, Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, is about to be thrust even further into the limelight.
Since joining in 2008, she’s become the public face of the Menlo Park, California-based social media company, forging ties with advertisers, policymakers and partners. With the IPO, likely to be heralded by a regulatory filing this week, Sandberg will be taking on a larger function helping senior management represent the company to a broadening investor base and to Wall Street analysts.
“She’s going to play a crucial role in everything that happens over the next few months,” said Matt Cohler, a special adviser to Facebook and general partner at Benchmark Capital in Menlo Park. “She is very deeply connected” in political and business circles, said Cohler, who served as a Facebook vice president from 2005 to 2008.
At 42, Sandberg serves as the outgoing and more seasoned foil to Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, a 27-year-old coder who sets the company’s strategy even as he shuns publicity. During a career that has spanned Google Inc. (GOOG), McKinsey & Co. and the U.S. Treasury Department, Sandberg has honed what friends, colleagues and former employees say is a penchant for brokering alliances, fostering loyalty and setting priorities.
“She brings an enormous amount of credibility and experience,” said Anupam Palit, research head at GreenCrest Capital LLC in New York. “She knows how a public technology company works, she knows what investors are looking for with these types of companies, and, more importantly, she knows how to successfully deliver against those expectations.”
Sandberg declined to comment for this story.
Her role as Facebook’s ambassador-in-chief was in full display last week at Davos, where she served as one of six co- chairs of the forum. She participated in such panels as “Women as the Way Forward” and collected business cards from attendees who stood in long lines for a moment of her time.
As Zuckerberg focuses on the technology that has helped Facebook amass more than 800 million users, Sandberg has trained her attention on the advertisers whose aim to reach social-media consumers propelled sales to an estimated $4 billion in 2011.
Saturday With Sandberg
She traveled to Bentonville, Arkansas, on two occasions last year to persuade Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) to devote more of its ad budget to social media. Thousands of employees showed up on a Saturday to hear Sandberg talk about interacting with customers through the social network.
“She was wise to commit as much as she did to that because it helped me internally to get people on board with a lot of the programs we are doing with Facebook,” Wal-Mart Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Quinn said in an interview. “Our best partners have made the trek to Bentonville. It is unusual to do it several times a year.”
Sandberg, who has played a key role in boosting Facebook’s staff to more than 3,000 employees, also spends much of her time grooming top deputies, according to people who work with her. The list includes advertising head David Fischer; human resources head Lori Goler; vice president of partnerships Dan Rose; and Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications, marketing and public policy.
Lessons From Google
“What makes her unique, even in her peer group, is that she is deeply committed to investing in people,” said Bryan Schreier, a venture capitalist at Menlo Park-based Sequoia Capital who previously worked under Sandberg at Google. “When she’s investing in you, it feels like she only has time to do that for one person, but she can actually do that for dozens.”
After growing up in a middle-class Miami suburb, Sandberg studied economics at Harvard University. There she met Larry Summers, with whom she later worked at the World Bank and the Treasury Department.
Sandberg spent seven years at Google, where she eventually ran global ad sales. Her experience with Google’s stock-market debut, in 2004, will help prepare for the offering at Facebook, said Lise Buyer, an IPO consultant who worked on the Google deal.
“Having observed what Google did right about educating employees on the wide variety of topics associated with an IPO would certainly be really helpful,” said Buyer, who now runs the Portola Valley, California-based Class V Group. “Equally, having observed some of the nuanced errors where Google did not get it right will also be very helpful.”
Sandberg’s ties to Washington would benefit Facebook as it attempts to press a political agenda while contending with regulatory scrutiny, said Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL Inc. who now runs Revolution LLC, a venture capital firm.
Since being appointed to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness in February 2011, Sandberg has been vocal in meetings with Obama on issues of immigration and the growing skills gap among U.S. workers. During one session in Pittsburgh in October, Sandberg relayed the plight of a foreign Facebook engineer who was unable to get a visa to stay and work in the U.S., said Case, a fellow council member.
“Bringing the issue of highly-skilled immigration to life by putting a face on it was useful,” Case said.
As she prepares for the IPO, Sandberg has done some priority setting of her own. Starbucks Corp. said in December that she decided not to stand for re-election to the board.
The Facebook COO also leads an annual ritual that challenges the company to set “non-goals,” Sandberg said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last year.
“Non-goals are things that are really good ideas” but that the company chooses not to pursue right away because it has to “ruthlessly prioritize,” Sandberg said in May.
While Sandberg is said to maintain a strong relationship with Zuckerberg, the two have disagreed over such issues as whether to expand the business into China, people told Bloomberg Businessweek last year. Sandberg is wary about the compromises Facebook would have to make to do business there, the people said.
As Sandberg’s importance grows within Facebook, so does concern that the company will some day have to operate without her.
Moving to Menlo
A highly sought-after executive whose wealth will skyrocket after Facebook’s offering, Sandberg could choose to run another company or return to politics, said Ray Valdes, a research director at Gartner Inc.
“She’s still relatively young, and it’s likely that Facebook is not going to be her final career point,” said Valdes. “It’s possible that she may go down the path that Meg Whitman did of moving into a wider arena,” he said, referring to the former EBay Inc. CEO who ran for California governor in 2010 and went on to become CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co.
Even with a strong bench of potential successors, people close to Sandberg expect her to remain at the company well after it goes public. One sign of her commitment: Sandberg and her husband, Dave Goldberg, recently purchased a new home in Menlo Park.
If serving the public is her chief interest, Sandberg couldn’t easily find a better job, said Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media Inc., a developer of advertising software for Facebook.
“The change which she can bring to the world is much more powerful as the head business person at Facebook than anything else she can do today,” he said.
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