Sheryl Sandberg, fresh off a media tour to promote her book on women in the workplace, is building the foundation for a life in the public eye that supersedes her day-to-day duties as operating chief at Facebook Inc.
While Sandberg, 43, intends to stay put for now, she may later consider a role in politics; the U.S. Treasury Department, where she worked before; or as chief executive officer at another company, said people familiar with her thinking, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak on her behalf. Already, Sandberg is extending her influence beyond Facebook with the book “Lean In,” which has climbed to No. 1 on bestseller lists.
Not all the reviews are positive. Alongside plaudits for encouraging women to stand up for themselves, Sandberg has drawn barbs for not laying enough blame on institutional sexism. Even so, the stature she has attained through efforts to promote the book and related “Lean In” communities, along with her role at Facebook, have spurred speculation over how long she’ll be content as second-in-command to Mark Zuckerberg. A background that includes stints at the World Bank, Treasury and Google Inc. suits Sandberg well for a CEO position at a larger company or in national or state politics.
“It’s her third act,” Steve Case, co-founder of AOL Inc., said of the next phase for Sandberg, with whom he has worked on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. “The ’90s was about government service, the last decade was about entrepreneurship and technology in Silicon Valley, and I would be surprised if most of the next decade wasn’t about Sheryl Sandberg 3.0.”
Sandberg has denied in public that she’s looking to move to a new position. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Much of Sandberg’s early career was outside the corporate world. After graduating from Harvard College, she was a research assistant at the World Bank in the early 1990s and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. By the end of the decade, she was at Treasury, where she worked as chief of staff for Larry Summers in the Clinton administration before joining Google.
Summers’s former cabinet position of Treasury secretary, could be an option for Sandberg, said Chris Lehane, the former press secretary for Vice President Al Gore and a Democratic consultant who worked on the campaign to re-elect Clinton as president in 1996. While the Treasury post often goes to people who have worked on Wall Street, Sandberg could be an exception, given her experience in the department and her years in the private sector, he said.
Sandberg, in her book, said she expected to be in public service from a young age.
“As sappy as it sounds, I hope to change the world,” she wrote. “My sister and brother both became doctors, and I always believed I would work at a nonprofit or in government.”
Olympia Snowe, a former Republican senator from Maine, concurs that a return to Washington isn’t out of the question for Sandberg.
“She appreciates the role of government,” Snowe said in an interview. “She understands it because she has worked there, so she’s had that vantage point. Her government experience before she went to Silicon Valley gives her an advantage. She has all those ties.”
Sandberg’s ease in political circles was on display during an early March event at the Washington home of investor Mark Ein, where she mingled with a crowd of about 200 high-profile politicians and local business leaders.
Sandberg, who has backed Democratic candidates including President Barack Obama, discussed her book and chatted up guests, who included Snowe, Case, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
“She was working the crowd and giving her book-party spiel,” said Case, who attended the party.
A decision to run for Congress would probably be influenced by when offices become open. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, turns 80 this year and her term isn’t up for half a decade. The other senator representing the state is Democrat Barbara Boxer, and her seat is due for a vote in 2016. Jerry Brown will be up for election to a second term as California governor in 2014.
“The minute there’s a vacancy, you can bet there will be people streaming to her door to ask her to run,” said Dee Dee Myers, former spokeswoman for President Bill Clinton. “She has all the skills. She would be a great candidate. She’d be a terrific campaigner.”
Sandberg could also seek to represent Florida, where she spent much of her childhood, though she has developed strong ties to California. Her family has been building a home in Menlo Park, near Facebook’s headquarters, and her husband, David Goldberg, is CEO of SurveyMonkey.com LLC, a Palo Alto, California-based startup that helps businesses conduct surveys.
After Treasury, Sandberg spent more than a decade in corporate America. At Google, she played a role in turning the search engine into the most lucrative form of advertising on the Web. She defected to Facebook in 2008, becoming the shrewd business adviser to Zuckerberg’s visionary coder, helping build the social network’s ad business. In startup parlance, her role was providing adult supervision.
Even with Google’s initial public offering under her belt, Sandberg wasn’t able to keep Facebook from holding a stock market debut that was criticized for being overpriced and poorly managed, spurring lawsuits and regulatory scrutiny. The company’s shares traded above the IPO price of $38 only on the first day of trading in May and then dropped by more than half.
The stock has recouped some its losses since falling to a record low in September as Facebook executives, including Sandberg, have assuaged concerns about the company’s ability to accelerate growth. Even before taking the Facebook job, Sandberg was getting overtures to run other companies, according to “Lean In.” One of those was LinkedIn Corp., the professional social-networking service run by Jeff Weiner, who became CEO in 2009, the year after Sandberg started at Facebook.
Sandberg also has experience on the board of Starbucks Corp. and remains a director at Walt Disney Co. Bob Iger, the current CEO, plans to step down in March 2015.
Sandberg has a net worth of about $400 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The majority of her wealth comes from her shares of Facebook. She also owns options to purchase additional Facebook shares, exercisable this May, as well as small stakes in Starbucks and Disney.
With Facebook surpassing one billion members and expanding into areas such as multimedia and mobile apps, Sandberg has plenty of challenging work left to do at the social network, said Martha Josephson, a partner at recruiting firm Egon Zehnder International Inc.
“She doesn’t feel she’s completed her work at Facebook,” Josephson, who is also a friend of Sandberg’s, said in an interview. “There is absolutely no indication in her circle of friends that she has any thought of doing anything else.”
Whatever her next step may be, it’s clear that Sandberg has stirred passions around the subject of women and their opportunities -- and challenges -- in the workplace, Josephson said.
One clue to the path Sandberg envisions for her future is LeanIn.Org, a nonprofit group she created in conjunction with her book, which ranks as the top nonfiction title on both the New York Times’ and Amazon.com Inc.’s bestseller lists. On the site, users can form groups called “Lean In Circles” to discuss topics such as leadership, negotiation and storytelling.
“We started from this place of ‘let’s stop talking about what’s wrong,’” said Gina Bianchini, who co-founded LeanIn.org with Sandberg. “Let’s start talking about what women can do and encourage support.”
Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is among partners of LeanIn.org, offering Lean In resources to employees.
Eventually, history may look back on Sandberg’s tenure at Facebook as a launch pad for larger role in the public eye. For this reason, there is a parallel to be drawn between Sandberg and another prominent feminist, said Marie Wilson, a women’s-rights advocate and founder of the White House Project.
“Gloria Steinem was a tap dancer,” Wilson said. “She tap-danced her way out of Toledo. Facebook could be Sheryl Sandberg’s tap dancing.”