Prised away from her desk at its Silicon Valley HQ, the Facebook executive talks to Hannah Kuchler about fighting fake news, working women and coming back from grief. ‘Jokes felt bad. Happiness felt bad’.
Dressed in a long white jumper over pale blue jeans, with her black hair blow-dried into a shiny shell, Sheryl Sandberg looks - as ever - supernaturally composed. She bounds up to hug me then takes the chair next to me at the corner of our table. “Check this out. Do you see this?” she says, studying the menu without pausing for small talk.
Facebook’s chief operating officer is famous for being more open than most executives: about crying in the bathroom at work, or how, as a recent widow, she slept in the same bed as her mother. This is fitting for a company that has redefined the word “sharing”. As we settle into our lunch, however, it is clear openness does not exactly mean spontaneity. Sandberg has to be one of the most on-message executives. Talking about business, she uses such a set phraseology I can almost recite her lines for her. New products are not only in “early days” but being introduced in a “privacy-protected way”. When, at one point, I ask her how she could best describe what it is like to suddenly be a single parent, she confesses it is “lonely, scary sometimes”, then briskly broadens her point to include the plight of poorer single mothers across the US - with statistics.
Then again, a script may be essential. The past two years have shaken Sandberg and Facebook, forcing both to grapple with existential questions. The loss of her husband Dave Goldberg, who died of a heart attack while exercising when the couple were on holiday in Mexico in 2015, has meant bringing up two children without their father. The company has faced mounting criticism over whether it is doing enough to regulate itself amid the rise of fake news and its own growing power to shape events, including last year’s US election. What this means for the biggest social network, which has almost 2bn users and raked in $10bn profit last year, is still unclear.
We’re at Sol, a Mexican restaurant on Facebook’s Menlo Park campus, a Disney-style fake main street complete with a cupcake shop and a nail bar. Sandberg has never eaten here. In fact, she tells me, I am the first person to tempt her away from lunch at her desk in her nine years at Facebook. When she arrives at the restaurant with a handler I wonder if it is because she needed help finding it.
“This is so exciting,” she claims, once I have explained that no one else can join us for lunch. Usually she has soup or salad at her desk at the centre of Facebook’s huge open-plan floor. Enthused by the laminated orange menu, she opts for a “big salad with chicken on it”. I choose the enchiladas al guajillo, a recipe from the owners’ great-grandmother.
Sandberg’s personal tragedy followed a series of extraordinary career triumphs. After working as chief of staff for Larry Summers at the US Treasury, she moved to become vice-president of operations at Google. Since arriving at Facebook in 2008 she has been responsible for transforming it into a $432bn business, earning herself a fortune worth $1.6bn, according to Forbes. The success of her first book Lean In (2013), a bestseller that pushes women to be more ambitious, made her a high-profile advocate for women’s rights.
Everything changed when Goldberg died. Grief-stricken, and out of “desperation” to connect with people, Sandberg eventually sought solace in writing a Facebook post. Connect she did: users shared the post 400,000 times and wrote about dealing with death in the comments.
“I had no desire to share my personal story within that post,” she says now. “I know why I did it, which is because there is so much silence. It wasn’t just the grief. It was the total isolation.”
Her thoughts on how mourners suffer when they are ignored are characteristically can-do: she suggests friends who worry that “How are you?” is a silly question, should instead ask: “How are you today?” because it accepts the turbulence of grieving.
Encouraged by the reaction to her post, she wrote Option B, with her friend Adam Grant, a Wharton professor. Published last month, the book combines her journals with research on resilience after grief and setbacks. Sandberg says she didn’t know she was writing a book at first. “If I didn’t journal for a few days, I felt like I was literally going to burst.” Then writing became more than cathartic, a way to honour her husband’s life.
Do people still ask her, “How are you today?” “Sometimes,” she says. “A grief expert told me one of the things that the book does is I get to keep talking about Dave. But for a lot of people, year two is a lot of silences. People have moved on. They don’t feel like they should bring it up, they don’t want to bring it up.”
The second anniversary of Goldberg’s death is this month. When I ask what she is planning, her eyes moisten. She says she will defer to her kids. “I still want to celebrate the day he was born, but if I could close my eyes and not live [for one day] . . . I would,” she says.
One of the surprises of Option B is its humour. Was that intentional? “I don’t know. It’s that you feel like you lose the right to be happy, and the right to joke, so jokes feel bad. Happiness feels bad. Dating feels bad. Everything that could be joyful. Watching a TV show felt bad.”
She is also on a crusade to get companies to recognise how death can rock employees. She talks admiringly of her òwn “boss”, Mark Zuckerberg, and how he built her confidence up after it “crumbled” on her first day back. “When I called Mark, crying that first night . . . saying, ‘Maybe I came back too early, I’m not contributing’, he said, ‘You should come back when you want,’ but didn’t leave it at that. He said: ‘But you made two really good points here today, so I’m really glad you came.’ ”
For her this was the important bit. “If he had just said, ‘You should come back whenever you want’, I would have heard: ‘You can’t do this.’ ”
A square plate, the size of a side table and covered in lettuce, avocado and chicken, is placed in front of Sandberg. It does not look Mexican. My lunch is extraordinarily orange: enchiladas in orange sauce, with orange rice.
“The chicken’s got a yummy . . .” she trails off, perhaps not used to describing food. “It feels like it’s been marinated for a long time, which is always good.”
Few companies have gained such influence, so quickly. Facebook has had its share of growing pains: panics over privacy, fears it could not make money and worries that it was becoming uncool. It overcame many problems with technology: better privacy settings, more sophisticated ad targeting and buying new apps such as Instagram or borrowing new features from Snapchat.
The current questions it faces about its role may be harder to solve. In a letter this year on Facebook, Zuckerberg laid out his hopes that the company would play a role in creating a “global community”. Despite almost 6,000 words and 82 mentions of “community”, it was short on specific technologies that could help.
I ask Sandberg if Facebook really is a global community that can be imbued with values, or whether it is, as it used to call itself, essentially a utility, like a phone network? She says they moved on from calling it that long ago, which perhaps suggests they now take for granted that people cannot do without Facebook.
“I think we have a very strong sense of values. Even when we were a utility, we had strong content rules: no pornography, no violence, no hate,” she says. The ability to enforce these rules in real time remains problematic: since our interview, a man in Thailand broadcast a video on Facebook’s Live service of himself killing his 11-month-old daughter. The video played in people’s newsfeeds for approximately 24 hours before it was taken down.
When I ask her what Facebook’s biggest challenge is, Sandberg again reveals her skill at swerving questions. It’s its biggest opportunity: to connect people around the world. Does she think people could spend too much time on Facebook (the average user spends 50 minutes a day between Facebook, Messenger and Instagram)? Extremes are always bad, some people probably sleep too much. Does she feel the weight of her power when she comes into work? She has a feeling of how much they need to do. Unlike many interviewees, she always knows when to stop, packaging up one- or two-line statements.
I try again on what seems to me the most important question: does she think as an organisation Facebook is waking up to the great power it has? But Sandberg does not seem to think Facebook is at a particularly important turning point.
“It’s a big responsibility, we’ve always taken that really seriously,” she says. “To keep people safe, to make sure they can share with who they want, to ensure terrorists don’t use our service.”
Trying to get more specific, I focus on fake news. Zuckerberg initially dismissed as “pretty crazy” the idea that Facebook posts carrying inaccurate headlines - such as the Pope endorsing Donald Trump - could have influenced the US election. But in the months since, Facebook has begun a project to support journalism, including partnerships with fact-checkers. “False news hurts everyone. It hurts our community, it hurts us as individuals,” she says. Yet she quickly adds, “Everyone is going to have to do their part, right? Newsrooms, people who are teaching literacy, and media companies and us. So we’re working really hard on the problem.”
As I go to ask another question, my mouth is full. Sandberg smiles, “I feel that’s the hard part of this lunch, it doesn’t have the natural, I ask you a question, you ask me a question,” she says, back in sharing mood. She has eaten most of the chicken, left much of the lettuce and appears to be done.
With her smooth manner, it’s little wonder that there has been speculation that Sandberg could run for political office, but she says that since her husband’s death she feels more tied to Facebook, where people continue to post memories on his page.
When she was young, she thought she would work in government or a non-profit, never a company. What changed? “I think when technology happened, that Google, Facebook, these companies have as much of a mission as other organisations,” she says. Maybe even as much power and influence as governments, I suggest. “I don’t know if that’s right. But they have a mission,” she says.
Zuckerberg too has been the subject of more speculation since his letter. Rumours were fuelled when he embarked on a US tour to meet community groups, churches and businesses that appeared remarkably similar to an election campaign trail. Does she think he might run for president? “No.”
And you? “Nope, I’ve said no.”
The queen of leaning in is still hoping for a female president, even if it will not be her. On election night, Sandberg was ready to wake up her daughter and son so they could see Hillary Clinton become the first woman to accept the presidency. “But they’re nine and 11, so they’ll get their chance. Hopefully soon,” she says.
How does she assess the state of the women’s movement? There are signs of defiance - such as the Women’s March after the inauguration - and of despair, at the rolling back of access to abortion. “I think we need to review some of the historical context. The women’s movement has been going for over 100 years, and we’ve made a lot of progress, but there are places in the world where women don’t have basic civil rights,” she says.
Sandberg gave $1m to Planned Parenthood recently. She had donated before in private but says it is now “really important” to show support for the organisation which, she adds, does more than provide abortions, offering health services to poorer women.
She worries “about the lack of public policy on women and families”, she says. “I think the US needs a better safety net . . . If you’re a single mum or even a dual-parent working family, what do you do if you’ve got a sick child?”
Silicon Valley has come in for particular criticism, most recently when a former software engineer at Uber spoke out against the ride-sharing company for ignoring her accusations of sexual harassment. On this she is less expansive. “I think we have challenges for women in this industry. We have the same biases. We have a problem with women in leadership,” she says.
Lean In the book gave birth to Lean In the organisation, a network of 1.5m working women around the world organised in “circles” for support, from entrepreneurs in Paris starting businesses to Chinese women quitting state-owned enterprises and saying no to arranged marriages. Sandberg meets them when she travels.
Sandberg was criticised for putting too much emphasis on what the individual can do - with advice such as sitting at the table, not in the corner, at meetings - rather than the importance of institutions. On this point she is animated. “I think it is a false, false contest that was never . . . It was always both. I said it was both. It’s both,” she stresses.
Chief executives complained to her that female staff were asking for pay-rises. She declines to name the guilty parties but says that when she said she left work at 5.30pm to see her kids, “someone told me I couldn’t have gotten more headlines if I had murdered someone with an axe . . . I got flowers from an entire Yahoo and Google department saying, ‘Thank you. We’re all leaving at 5.30pm now’.”
The book was also held responsible for readers breaking up with their boyfriends. “You can date whoever you want, but you should marry the nerds and the good guys,” she advised. You dated the bad guys? I ask. “A little bit.”
I tell her I’m 30 and unmarried: who should I be looking for? “The guys who want an equal relationship. Guys who want to support your career. You have a great career,” she said. Embracing the idea of Sandberg as agony aunt, I ask how you tell who the good guys are. “You ask and you ask early and you are not afraid of offending. If they’re going to be offended by the answer, you don’t want to date them anyway.”
Sandberg often livestreams on Facebook interviews with famous or brave women. At the end she asks a question emblazoned on posters all over Facebook’s campus: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
As she reaches for her small Facebook-branded notebook and her smartphone, in a case emblazoned with “Ban Bossy”, I finish by putting her own question to her.
Speaking quietly, she comes in closer. “I think I write this book because it is personal and it is very open,” she says, tears welling. “I want some good from the tragedy, just something good.”
Then she snaps back to composed, hugs me again and leaves.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.