The Rise, Lean, And Fall Of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg

The reality of Silicon Valley is that it’s commerce by any means necessary. And the reality of Sandberg is that she’s excellent at it.

In Silicon Valley, the term “unicorn” is used to describe privately held startups that reach a valuation of over $1 billion. When the term was first popularized in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, there were just 39 such companies, representing a vanishingly small fraction of all startups: 0.07%. At the time, Facebook was the only “super-unicorn” (worth more than $100 billion) to emerge from the preceding decade. It’s fitting, then, that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — the person largely responsible for the revenue behind that huge valuation — had been figured as a kind of super-unicorn herself: the rare woman capable of wielding power while preserving her likability.

In dozens of profiles and interviews about the company and Sandberg’s role in it, that uniqueness was emphasized time and time again: “I can say very simply I have never seen anyone with her combination of infectious, enthusiastic spirit combined with enthusiastic intelligence,” Facebook board member Jim Breyer told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011. “She’s unique in that she has an extremely high IQ and EQ, and it’s really rare to get that in any single person,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained. She was known for “her interpersonal skills as much as her sharp intellect” (New York Times) with “an aerobics instructor’s bubbliness and the seriousness of a professor when it comes to her academics” (the Harvard Crimson).

That mix was framed as the perfect solution to Facebook’s “frat house” problem. Like so many startups, Facebook had started as a boys club headed by a boy genius. In 2007, the company had expanded to serve over 20 million users, but its leadership — Mark Zuckerberg — was still, well, boyish. The “product” was tremendously popular, but no one had quite figured out how to do the things necessary to build a sustainable, profitable business around it.

Enter Sandberg. She was “half empath, half Spock”: half mom, in other words, and half taskmaster. But she was also the “rare powerful executive with a soft touch” who wasn’t the kind of “robot M.B.A.,” as Facebook executive Christopher Cox put it, who would show up to meetings wielding words like “synergy.” Sandberg’s hiring was framed as adding a much-needed “adult in the room”: She was 15 years older than Zuckerberg, but more importantly, after years with the US Treasury and Google, she knew how to monetize Facebook’s product without killing the youthful “move fast and break things” spirit of the company in the process.

Between Sandberg’s arrival in 2008 and Facebook achieving “mega-unicorn” status in 2013, Sandberg developed an almost mystical reputation within Silicon Valley. A “Sheryl” became shorthand for “the kind of leader who’s willing to serve as second-in-command, complementing without overshadowing the wunderkind entrepreneur,” Bloomberg’s Brad Stone wrote in 2011, which highlights how hostile an environment Silicon Valley was — and is — for women who aren’t willing to cheerfully serve as second in command. “Every company we work with wants ‘a Sheryl,’” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen told Fortune. “I keep explaining to people that we haven’t figured out yet how to clone her.”

“Every company we work with wants ‘a Sheryl.’ I keep explaining to people that we haven’t figured out yet how to clone her.” 

This mythos was firmly in place well before the release of Sandberg’s corporate feminist manifesto Lean In, which transformed her into a best-selling author and global celebrity. And like all celebrities, her popularity was contingent upon reconciling seemingly irreconcilable qualities. She was a powerful female executive who wasn’t seen as a bitch; a “have it all” woman who didn’t hold it over others, instead setting other women on a path to achieve “it all” for themselves. She was the mom who didn’t ruin the party, but also made sure it didn’t go off the rails: a different sort of unicorn image, this time of her own devising.

That vision of Sandberg is markedly different from the portrait that’s emerged over the past month, amid fallout from a bombshell investigation from the New York Times, detailing Facebook’s internal attempts to deal with accumulating scandals. Under her oversight, the company played fast and loose with people’s data, turned a blind eye to abuses of the platform, and bungled the PR attempts to apologize for both. She requested an investigation into George Soros, then obfuscated her involvement; when evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election (and Facebook’s role in it) first came to light, she was reluctant to view it as a serious threat; she didn’t anticipate the intensity of the fallout from Facebook permitting the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest millions of users’ data without their consent. As John Herrman recently put it in the Times, Facebook “is in a constant state of crisis such that its executives’ responses to scandals end up becoming scandals themselves.” Arguably even more so than her boss, and the platform’s primary architect, Zuckerberg, Sandberg’s gone from Facebook’s savior to the embodiment of all that’s gone wrong with it.

Want to support more stories like this? Become a BuzzFeed News member today.

While the public perception of Sandberg has shifted dramatically — even Michelle Obama recently ragged on Lean In — as far as we know, little about Sandberg or her business strategy has changed. We’re just seeing the earlier incarnations of her image for what they were: well-polished distractions from the much darker reality of Silicon Valley. Multibillion-dollar tech companies do not ultimately exist to help us live more successful, fulfilled, connected lives. They are built to make money, and consolidate enough power to keep making it — and the executives that lead them excel by doing so with ruthless efficiency. Unicorns aren’t real, and never have been; the vast majority of us are not Sandberg’s mentees or her friends. We’re customers, and Sandberg’s most pressing business has always been business itself.

After Sandberg was hired at Facebook, a series of well-placed interviews and profiles — in Fortune, in Bloomberg Businessweek, in the New York Times and the New Yorker — began to mine her exceptional past, forging a narrative of singular success. Sandberg, these pieces recounted, grew up smart and nerdy in Florida, the child of an ophthalmologist father and a mother who’d dropped out of her French PhD program to be with her children. Even early on, Sandberg’s life was all business: “To the best of our knowledge Sheryl never actually played as a child,” Sandberg’s siblings told Time in 2013. “[She] really just organized other children’s play.”

In middle school in Miami, Sandberg was known as one of the “smart girls,” which was not a compliment. As she wrote in a 2013 essay for Seventeen, “we were not cool.” She was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” but asked the yearbook not to print the information so that she could get a date to prom. There are no stories of sports or rebellion shared from Sandberg’s childhood: just discipline and hard work, the sort that brought her to Harvard in the mid-1980s, where she excelled as an economics student and taught an aerobics class, which, as she tells it, taught her how to smile “when she didn’t mean it.”

“To the best of our knowledge Sheryl never actually played as a child. [She] really just organized other children’s play.”

At Harvard, she took a class from Larry Summers, which yielded a foundational story of the Sandberg myth: The entire semester, she didn’t say a word. Didn’t raise her hand, didn’t come to office hours, never outed herself as a know-it-all. But she turned in the best midterm exam in class, and the best final. Summers agreed to oversee her thesis; after graduation, he hired her to come work for him at the World Bank. “She always had ... the ability to lead people down any path, and always for good,” one of her former professors told the Harvard Crimson. She was superwoman.

Or at least that’s the two-dimensional choice most profile writers made to frame Sandberg. In college, she hadn’t considered herself a feminist, believing that equality had already been achieved — women just had to work hard enough. Which is what she did: first with Summers at the World Bank, back at Harvard to get an MBA, then rejoining Summers, who’d moved to the US Treasury under then-president Bill Clinton, and finally to Google, as one of the first “adults” (aka MBAs) to make the move from DC to Silicon Valley. At Google, Sandberg helped the company figure out how to make money from search and advertising, growing its advertising team from four people to 4,000.

Meanwhile, Facebook was floundering. It was more popular than ever — and had grown to more than 500 employees — but without a clear path to profitability. The company was also coming off a string of failures to protect user privacy, including the launch of a service called “Beacon” that shared user information without their consent. The offices were figured as a sort of never-never land: “Many recent college graduates wear flip-flops and jeans to work and scrawl graffiti on the office walls,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Previous attempts to bring in outside executives had failed, rejected by the insular Facebook culture like prospective nannies in Mary Poppins.

But then Zuckerberg met Sandberg at a Christmas party. What followed is often recounted as if it was a meet-cute in a rom-com, complete with a series of secret meetings to see if the two could work together. They couldn’t meet at Zuckerberg’s apartment because it was the apartment of a 23-year-old man-child, nearly wholly absent of furniture. So they met at Sandberg’s home, where, as a New Yorker profile explained, Sandberg — known for waking up at 5 a.m. to start tackling her inbox — would be forced to kick Zuckerberg out at midnight.

When Sandberg agreed to come to Facebook, it was treated as both a “coup,” as longtime tech columnist Kara Swisher puts it, but also as a “good match” straight out of Jane Austen. Whereas Zuckerberg was “socially awkward and reserved,” Sandberg was “polished, personable, chatty and at ease in the limelight.” Zuckerberg loved that Sandberg handled things like strategy, HR, and politics — “all that stuff that in other companies I might have to do.” He was allowed to focus, according to Fortune, on “what he likes: product and engineering.” “Without her,” Zuckerberg told Bloomberg Businessweek, “we would just be incomplete.”

Included in the stuff that Zuckerberg didn’t want to do was preparing Facebook for a public offering and continuing to facilitate its “scalability” — aka, its global expansion and continued monetization. Both required more cold-blooded tactics than anyone who thought of Sandberg as a kind of corporate aerobics instructor might expect. Three years into her tenure, she’d poached dozens of employees from Google, rendering her persona non grata at her former company. “She steals executives,” an unnamed Google source told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, and “used Google as a fertile ground to snap up anybody she possibly could.”

Auletta reported that Facebook employees grumbled at the hiring of “FOSS,” or Friends of Sheryl Sandberg, many of them from the Clinton administration — but that grumbling stopped when those friends helped figure out a way to monetize Facebook conversations with ads. In 2011, the company admitted that they’d hired a PR firm to perform opposition research on Google and leak it to reporters, an early version of a recently revealed strategy undertaken by the company to look into George Soros’s funding of anti-Facebook groups. At the time, Sandberg admitted: “We made a mistake.”

But did they? Authorizing opposition research on competitors or critics — against Google, against Soros — fits into the job description of “being the adult in the room,” and handling the things the kids weren’t equipped to. As the Atlantic’s Ian Bogost points out, “that epithet has been interpreted too literally and without guile. It was never really meant to involve deepening the sophistication with which Facebook understands ‘community’ or ‘connecting people.’ Her job was to make the company profitable, and she did.”

Back in 2010, Sandberg had given a TED Talk on “women in the workplace,” the heart of which would go on to become Lean In. Later, she told the Guardian that she’d been warned the talk “would be the official end” of her career, as it would peg her as a woman executive, oriented toward women’s issues — not just an executive, full stop. It didn’t matter that her “success lessons” were all, in reality, quite unthreatening: “Sit at the Table” (don’t allow men to become the center of decisions when you’re in the room), “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” (find someone who’ll split labor and doesn’t treat you or your job as insignificant), and “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” (don’t refuse opportunities just because you’re planning a family, and don’t quit the workforce simply because child care is expensive). To even acknowledge that women were acting and/or treated differently than men in Silicon Valley seemed radical.

Which helps explain why some lauded Lean In as a feminist landmark: The Financial Times called it a “third-wave feminist book,” evidencing a blatant misunderstanding of the third wave; a fawning Time cover story declared, “It’s probably not an overstatement to say Sandberg is embarking on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe gender since the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971.”

Many, many feminists begged to differ. Dozens of critics and researchers have underlined the flaws in Lean In, focusing especially on its narrow focus on women who are heterosexual and/or already occupy the upper echelons of the class hierarchy. But the overarching feminist critique of the text is straightforward: It doesn’t actually challenge the status quo, or patriarchal control of it. It just tells women how to better manipulate the existing system.

Working inside an established framework was precisely what made Sandberg so popular in Silicon Valley and palatable on the world stage. In her theory, the responsibility wasn’t on men to change; it was on women to lean in — gracefully, perhaps in a power pose, but never forcefully or abrasively. Which is why she rejected the idea of instituting quotas that would force companies to change the makeup of their workforce or C-suite: She didn’t want anyone ever doubting that a woman hadn’t been hired on their own merit.

More than any other quadrant of American business, Silicon Valley remains loyal to the gospel of merit. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are,” TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington wrote in a blog post titled “Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Blaming Men.” “If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really stinking rich.”

Or so the Valley would very much like to believe — even though leadership positions are overwhelmingly occupied by white men, and women make up just 13.8% of the workforce in the largest Bay Area tech firms. Subscribing to Lean In didn’t mean disavowing belief in that system. It just meant agreeing that barriers to prohibit meritocracy from functioning should be removed. You just need to fiddle with a few things, this logic suggests — like allowing pregnant women to park closer to their offices, or find a partner who knows how to do laundry — and the best women will rise to the top.

By asking nicely, with an aerobic instructor’s smile on her face, for the mere semblance of equal treatment, Sandberg became a global celebrity.

That’s an admittedly cynical view of Lean In, but one that reflects the flaws in its arguments. Part of the reason Lean In was so broadly popular was because the changes Sandberg suggests are so basic as to embarrass an actually equitable society. These weren’t third-wave feminist ideas; they were simply evidence that the demands of first- and second-wave feminism — things like the right to be treated as a person, or equal pay for equal work — had not yet been obtained.

By asking nicely, with an aerobic instructor’s smile on her face, for the mere semblance of equal treatment, Sandberg became a global celebrity — what cultural theorist Leo Lowenthal calls an “idol of production.” Zuckerberg was seen as an innovator, as was Steve Jobs — men who slotted into the long history of celebrated male entrepreneurs and inventors. But Sandberg’s primary skill was leadership. Getting things done. “For all her success, she’s nothing like a man,” Time magazine declared in 2013. “She may currently have thousands of people saying ‘Right!’ to her, but she’s refined her technique since elementary school. Now it blends an overwhelming amount of data with a weapons-grade ability to nurture and an exquisite organizational acumen.” If she couldn’t complete a task, she’d poach someone who could. She was “ruthlessly prioritizing,” as she likes to say, but not busting any balls along the way.

Now, in the wake of Facebook’s recent scandals, the Lean In organization built on Sandberg’s blueprint “is trying to figure out how independent it can actually become from the Sheryl Sandberg brand,” as Nellie Bowles recently wrote in the Times. And since 2013, the cracks in that blueprint itself have become increasingly apparent: Sandberg herself has admitted how hard it is for single and/or working-class women to lean in. But other fundamental limitations of leaning into the status quo — rather than trying to change it — were visible from the start, perhaps most glaringly when Sandberg’s attention to Lean In was labeled a “distraction” from her work at Facebook.

No one would dare say it publicly — bad optics! — but Fortune reported that inside the company, Facebook employees chafed at how much time she spent on the project (Sandberg wrote the book on weekends and at night). In the 2013 annual shareholders meeting, a stockholder pushed Sandberg on how, given the amount of promotion and traveling she’d done for the book over the last year, she could assure him that “you’ll be just as committed to Facebook over the next 12 months as you were the previous four or five years.” (In the second quarter of 2013, Facebook’s revenues went up 53%.)

Leaning In was a fine hobby, in other words, so long as it didn’t interfere with Sandberg’s real work, or detract from her and Zuckerberg’s shared “vision” of the company, described by the Daily Beast as “a global marketing powerhouse that controls everyone’s data.” Reading that phrase now, it sounds both accurate and plainly sinister. But at the time, the company had successfully glossed itself in the language of “connection” and “friendship.” Facebook apologized when users reacted poorly to the latest feature that gave away their data or violated their privacy, but it also understood that the more they could accustom users to sharing their data, the more they’d succeed. Sandberg endorsed that strategy in her picks for her favorite books of 2013, a list that included The Lean Startup, which she praised for advising companies to push features on the market long before they were perfected. “Facebook figured out this approach long ago,” she said. “We even have posters all over our buildings that remind people, ‘Stay Focused & Keep Shipping.’”

You could call that philosophy — along with “move fast and break things” — fundamental to innovation. Or you could call it reckless — a conclusion borne out by the violent and geopolitically significant ramifications of Facebook’s “imperfect” expansion into countries like Myanmar and the Philippines. And at Facebook and in Silicon Valley, many of the perceived virtues of moving fast and breaking things were about to become vulnerabilities. Something was fundamentally broken at the core of the company — a company built, at least in its contemporary and most toxic iteration, on Sandberg’s business model.

When clearer signs of Facebook’s malfeasance began to surface, Sandberg was initially shielded from blame. Part of that protection was coincidental: In May 2015, her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly of heart failure. Two years later, she released her second book — Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy — focused on grief and recovering from tragedy. Sandberg used the opportunity to address one of the fundamental flaws of Lean In, describing just how little she had understood about the difficulties of negotiating family and the workplace as a single mother. Suddenly, Time magazine’s Belinda Luscombe wrote, “Superwoman became very human.”

Sandberg had always cultivated a soft, open image — in the “lean in” era, she’d become known for the all-women gatherings at her house, and for a personal style that rejected any connotations of uptight severity — but Goldberg’s tragic death rendered her an even more sympathetic figure, especially to the hundreds of thousands of women who’d become her core audience: her base. But Sandberg’s base is not the same as Silicon Valley — or congressional oversight committees, or reporters, or stockholders. Her vulnerability had been an asset to her personal image, but as the reactions of the last month have suggested, it was insufficient to deflect the larger issues brewing for her company.

Those larger issues, like the company itself, are sprawling and complex. There wasn’t just one scandal — the sort that could be handled with an apology or a bit of PR maneuvering — but a barrage of scandals, beginning with a failure to acknowledge Facebook’s role in the spread of misinformation during the 2016 election, and worsening from there. There were the various forms of Russian interference, the massive data breach, the algorithm tinkering that wreaked havoc with the traffic and business models of various news organizations, the hyperpartisan pages, the fake accounts used for political purposes, the Macedonian teens, and the fomenting of civil unrest, violence, and even ethnic cleansing. Facebook had, after all, set out to break things. And perhaps one of the things it had broken was democracy.

The blame was initially directed at Zuckerberg, and then gradually expanded to include Sandberg. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018, Fast Company singled out Sandberg’s inability to control the fallout. “It’s Sandberg who’s the best-selling author, public speaker, Oprah interviewee, and public figure in her own right,” Ainsley Harris wrote. “And unlike many other second bananas, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere in corporate America, it’s Sandberg who has the chops and stature to lead Facebook out of the mess it’s in.” But Sandberg had remained largely out of view. “This revolt feels different,” Harris explained. “For the first time, users are up in arms over Facebook’s core business model. That’s Sandberg’s domain. Yet she has been invisible.”

It wasn’t until November — and the New York Times investigation — that Sandberg became the focal point for external and internal blame. She reportedly pushed for others to take the fall for actions she’d approved or overseen, including opposition research intended to “slime various and sundry detractors,” as Kara Swisher put it, including George Soros. “So now come the calls for her comeuppance.”

The logic makes sense: Why blame Zuckerberg? He’s just a kid. Blame the adult in the room. Blame the unicorn. But optics make that blame difficult, or at least difficult to act on: As one anonymous Facebook employee explained, “One does not simply fire the author of Lean In and pretty much the sole female executive in top leadership.”

And so Sandberg soldiers on, even as employees increasingly turn against her, however privately. Externally, Swisher and others have interpreted the critical pile-on against Sandberg as sexist, or ammunition for those retrograde few arguing that this is what happens when women attempt to “have it all.” Others have pointed to the ways in which her fate exemplifies the hollowness at the heart of leaning in: Sandberg’s advice has always centered on getting a seat at the table, Molly Roberts argues, and then keeping “everything exactly the same,” from how Silicon Valley conceives of women to how Facebook considers its responsibility to society at large. Within this paradigm, “leaning in” is fundamentally about abdicating responsibility or desire for substantive change.

That reading feels true — but also just one component of a large, complex reaction. When Sandberg became a public figure, she was represented as exceptional, a paragon of female leadership, rooting for every woman in the world. But there was something missing from that image: her actual work at Facebook. The reality of Silicon Valley is that it’s commerce by any means necessary. And the reality of Sandberg is that she’s excellent at it. Which explains why her COO behavior was treated as a “revelation”: There was so little room in her tidily constructed image to accommodate behaviors presumed natural for men operating within a capitalist system.

Back in 2013, one of Sandberg’s former professors was trying to explain her appeal and aura to Brad Stone at Bloomberg Businessweek. “One time my wife said, ‘There are so many things that you want to be envious about and hate her. And you just can’t.’” Sandberg’s armor of likability is gone now, and it’s far easier to blame her for what Facebook’s become. But in blaming, or even hating, her — without situating her within the larger context of Silicon Valley, the demands of venture capital, and the logic of the stock market — she becomes something just as mythical as she was before: a supervillain. ●

Topics in this article

Skip to footer