San Francisco -- To the general public, the face of Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg, the young computer whiz and Harvard dropout who co-founded the social networking giant.
But since joining Facebook in 2008, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg -- a Harvard Business School graduate whose resume spans the worlds of finance, advertising and politics -- has emerged as the business face of the Menlo Park company.
Sandberg, 42, will play a key role this year in steering Facebook toward what’s expected to be one of the largest initial public stock offerings in history. Her growing status as a power broker will be highlighted this week as one of six co-chairs of the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Last year, Sandberg was named Forbes magazine’s fifth most powerful woman in the world--and Fortune named her among the 12 most powerful women in business. Yet she still managed to balance her professional life with raising two young children, making her the ultimate role model for women who want to have it all.
Indeed, she’s a passionate advocate for women to claim a far greater share of the top corporate leadership positions. But she says the sharing of leadership starts in the home.
‘’A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world,” Sandberg said during a commencement address last May at Barnard College in New York City.
‘’To solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality, we need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored,” she said.
Deborah Gruenfeld, a leadership and organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, said Sandberg has become “a symbol for a new wave of feminism, where women can own their power by just being women, where you don’t have to see that as totally incompatible. You can be feminine and be a totally powerful person.”
Through Facebook’s public relations department, Sandberg has declined repeated requests during the past year for an interview about herself because she prefers to talk about the company.
Gruenfeld said Sandberg isn’t like other top executives who like to boast about their accomplishments. She said when they first met three years ago, Sandberg instantly “made me feel I was one of the most important people in the world.”
‘’She’s very down to earth, she doesn’t talk about herself at all,” said Gruenfeld, who is also co-director of the Executive Program for Women Leaders at Stanford. “She has a tremendous amount of gravitas and status and at the same time, she’s very warm and very approachable and very human.”
In many ways, Sandberg’s become more visible than Zuckerberg, 27, who prefers to focus on the technical aspects of developing the social network, which has grown to more than 800 million members.
Last September, for example, Sandberg hosted a lavish $38,500-per-person fundraising dinner at her Atherton home for President Obama. One of the guests was pop singer Lady Gaga.
And last week, it was Sandberg, not Zuckerberg, who represented Facebook in a meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and a select group of A-list Silicon Valley chief executives.
On her Facebook profile, Sandberg has posted photos of her in a bipartisan meeting with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. She’s also posted shots of her with singer Bono and football coach Lou Holtz.
And she interviewed TV star Oprah Winfrey for a show broadcast on Facebook. Forbes’ list of the world’s 100 most powerful women ranked Sandberg behind only German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and PepsiCo Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi.
Sandberg has also led some of Facebook’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Indeed, she’s no stranger to Washington, having served as the chief of staff for Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers under President Bill Clinton.
Sandberg first met Summers when she took his economics class at Harvard. After he became chief economist for the World Bank, Summers recruited Sandberg in 1991 to become a research assistant working on the problem of leprosy in India. (Coincidentally, Summers was later Harvard’s president when students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss came to him to allege then-fellow student Zuckerberg stole their idea for a social network.)
And while Zuckerberg has sometimes looked uncomfortable in public settings, Sandberg was jovial and at ease hosting a recent press conference with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to announce the expansion of Facebook’s Manhattan offices.
That New York office is especially important for Facebook because it’s near major Madison Avenue advertising agencies.
For now, Facebook is still a private company -- and a fast growing one. According to research firm eMarketer Inc., ad revenues grew from $738 million in 2009 to an estimated $3.8 billion last year. Including other revenue sources like Facebook Credits, eMarketer projects the company brought in a total of $4.27 billion in 2011, a 6.4 percent share of the overall $32 billion online advertising market.
Analysts credit Sandberg with much of that success. Shoring up the business side of Facebook is a major reason Zuckerberg recruited Sandberg away from Google, where she helped build the search giant’s ad revenue base as a vice president of online sales.
As “the adult in the room,” Sandberg gave Facebook the credibility that some startups lack, said Sam Hamadeh, chief executive officer of PrivCo., a New York investment advisory firm that tracks the inner workings of pre-IPO companies.
‘’Sandberg’s definitely the business brain behind Facebook,” Hamadeh said. “What Sheryl brought in 2008 is a sense that you must think about this as a company, manage it for revenues and have a business plan.”
Her background at Harvard, with the Treasury Department and at Google will be extremely valuable as Facebook prepares for a public stock offering that some analysts say could place the company’s value as high as $100 billion.
Hamadeh expects Sandberg, rather than Zuckerberg, to lead Facebook’s IPO road show because the Wall Street suits who may be wary of tech stocks -- following not-so stellar IPOs from Groupon and Zynga -- will be more confident in her traditional business background.
‘’The choice is a polished Harvard MBA versus a Harvard dropout,” he said.
Sandberg told a class of Stanford students in 2009 that she used to be sure she would never work for a for-profit company. “I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to make someone else’s life better,” she said.
But after Clinton left office in 2001, ending her Treasury Department stint, she went to Google because the company had a compelling vision to “take the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible,” she said.
She said she left Google for Facebook--which had about 70 million members at the time -- because Zuckerberg also had a compelling vision to “give people power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
Her rise to the top at Facebook has been an exception in the business world. In several public speeches and interviews, Sandberg has lamented a “stalled revolution for women” in the past 10 years, noting there’s been little change in the proportion of women, about 15 percent, who hold top executive or boardroom seats at U.S. companies. And that’s despite the fact that women comprised 50 percent of college graduates by 1981.
‘’That means when the big decisions are made, the decisions that affect all of our worlds, we do not have an equal voice at that table,” she told the graduates at Barnard, a private women-only liberal arts school.
The answer, she said, starts with parity in the division of labor at home, because wives who shoulder more of the burden of child care and housework than their husbands are more likely to lower their professional ambitions or drop out of the workforce altogether.
‘’I’ve become convinced that we made more progress in the workforce than we have in the home,” Sandberg said in a December 2010 speech at a TED conference for women in Washington. “And I don’t think Sunday football watching and general laziness is the cause. As a society, we put more pressure on our boys to succeed than we do on our girls.”
Sandberg has said she has a 50-50 partnership with her husband, Dave Goldberg, a former online music entrepreneur and current CEO of SurveyMonkey, a Palo Alto Web survey company. The couple married in 2004.
She advises women to choose their life partners wisely, to make sure they will be supportive of their professional careers, and then make sure they keep striving for jobs they will love, especially before they have children.
‘’Once you have a child at home, your job better be really good to go back, because it’s hard to leave that kid at home,” she said at the TED conference. “And if two years ago you didn’t take a promotion and some guy next to you did ... you’re going to be bored because you should have kept your foot on the gas pedal. Don’t leave before you leave. Stay in, keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to take a break for a child.”
Clara Shih, the 30-year-old chief executive officer and co-founder of Hearsay Social, a San Francisco business social networking software startup, recently got married and faces those same balance-of-life issues. In addition to running her company, she was elected last month to the Starbucks Coffee board of directors. (Sandberg has served on the same board since 2009, but recently announced she will not be seeking re-election.)
Shih is inspired by Sandberg, whom she has known since their days at Google. She said she and Sandberg talk by phone or e-mail about once a month.
‘’I really love my company and I would do anything to make Hearsay Social successful,” Shih said a few hours before heading out on her delayed honeymoon. “Thankfully, there are women like Sheryl who show I can do this while still having a very fulfilling personal life.”