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I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Sheryl Sandberg is a problem. There are few bigger names in American corporate business and even fewer female names. Sandberg has long been an outspoken proponent of women pursuing professional careers, and she has made a name for herself as one of the nation’s most successful examples. Her first book Lean In Women, Work, and the Will to Lead hits the shelves this week, but a backlash against the author has already hit the internet.
The first significant inklings of controversy arose after Jodi Kantor and Maureen Dowd each published critical articles in the New York Times expressing skepticism about Sandberg’s “feminist” ideology, given her privileged background. The UK’s Daily Mail promptly blew these criticisms out of proportion, running a takedown piece that sarcastically mocked Sandberg for being rich. And just like that, bloggers everywhere had a new target from which to launch lazy, unfocused denunciations.
But by most reasoned accounts, the advice that Sandberg offers to women in the new book is quite useful. Don’t underestimate your abilities, she insists. Take risks. Think personally, act communally. Why these don’t sound like the vacuous ramblings of a hypocritical boardroom-sharpie. They sound like cogent and well-reasoned (if a bit cliché) nuggets of compelling insight. Taking a closer look at Sandberg’s rise to the top, it’s easy to see that she’s an entirely capable, hard-working woman who has earned the success she’s achieved. And even if she hasn’t actually “started from the bottom” so to speak, her experience and the counsel she has fashioned from it are certainly no less credible.
Sandberg was born in Washington D.C. to upper-middle class parents. Her father was an optometrist and her mother a PhD-certified French teacher. She attended public school in Florida (“always at the top of her class”) before graduating summa cum laude from Harvard with a degree in Economics. She would later return to earn her M.B.A. from the prestigious business school. During her time at Harvard, she became close with one of her professors, Larry Summers, who would go on to become the US Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration. Her connection with Summers would pay dividends for her career; she hire as his Chief of Staff, and ever since then, her rise has been meteoric.
In 2001, following the end of her stint at the White House, Sandberg joined Google Inc. as Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations. The next several years saw Google rapidly ascend to the top of the digital food chain, eventually cementing its reputation as the premier web-related company in the world. By 2007, Sandberg had developed the kind of resume that most honest American people in business might only dream about. So what did she do? Naturally, she became the COO of Facebook. Her success at Google had made her a high-profile prospect for several prominent companies; she was mulling over an offer to serve as a senior executive for The Washington Post Company when Mark Zuckerberg suggested she come work for Facebook instead. Within two years, Sandberg made the company profitable through her introduction of discreet advertising. Last year, she officially joined Facebook’s board of directors, making her the company’s first female board member.
Sandberg has been ranked in Forbes Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Business” feature for the past five years, and she has also been spotlighted in such notable publications as Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Most recently (and most impressively), Sandberg was included in Time Magazine’s highly regarded annual feature on “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.”
Regardless of the criticisms, Sandberg has faced, her success speaks for itself. Now that her book has been released to the public, perhaps we might finally be able to more accurately gauge how people feel about this extraordinary woman’s personal and professional advice. By all means, get out there and read the book yourself; if you have criticisms, go ahead and share them. But do so at your risk. Remember: Sheryl Sandberg has connections in Washington, as well as within the two most powerful web-based companies on the planet Earth. Does that sound like the kind of person you want to disparage in a snarky Facebook post?