5 Things to Learn from Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg

In a revealing new interview, the exec blames Hollywood for dearth of female execs in Silicon Valley, discusses IPO, her company's moves into China, and underage users.

Ken Auletta profiles Facebook's COO in this week's New Yorker and here's what we learned from the executive--who first made The Hollywood Reporters Women in Entertainment Power List last December at number 95. Back then, she told THR that at Facebook she had a "deep commitment to the entertainment business right now" and added she spends a great deal of time meeting with key advertisers in Hollywood.

The story, titled "A Woman's Place", discusses her decision to come to Silicon Valley, her rise at Google, and the ways she's helped Facebook grow, but it focuses mostly on her views on how women are held back, and hold themselves back, in the tech world's corporate culture. (The piece ends with her giving a rousing commencement speech at Barnard College.)

1. Along the way we learn that Hollywood is partly to blame for this culture. Though it might be expected that such a forward looking industry would be progressive, Sandberg discovers deep seated causes that undermine women:

Hollywood also deserves some of the blame. Several female computer-science majors at Stanford pointed to the depiction of women in films like “The Social Network,” where the boys code and the girls dance around in their underwear. Sandberg says that the impact of popular culture struck her when her son was playing a Star Wars game. “When I grow up, I want to live in space and be a Star Wars person as a job,” he told his mother.

“I’d like to come, too,” she responded, “because I always want to live near you.”

“You can’t come,” he said. “I’ve already invited my sister, and there’s only one girl in space.”

At first, Sandberg laughed. And then it dawned on her that “there is only one woman in these movies.”

2. She ran her recent TED speech by Gloria Steinem before giving it--and its become its own viral sensation:

Before speaking at TED, Sandberg sent a draft of her speech to feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, who is a friend. Steinem described it to me as “terrific,” a “summary of what we both want—a world where half of homes are run by men, especially raising children, and half our institutions are run by women, especially armies.”

By June, Sandberg’s TED talk had been viewed more than six hundred and fifty thousand times. Patricia Mitchell, the president and C.E.O. of the Paley Center for Media, who organized  TEDWomen, is someone whom Sandberg describes as a mentor. She recalls a women’s conference that she recently attended in Ghana, where, “almost to a person, the women had seen Sheryl’s talk.” To Mitchell, Sandberg’s talk has had such broad appeal because she wasn’t complaining; she was saying, “Let’s look inside.”

3. Though Facebook execs have been reticent about discussing a possible IPO, Sanberg admits its inevitable:

Although there was a flurry of stories in mid-June, reporting that Sandberg had been meeting with investment bankers in preparation for taking Facebook public, two senior executives at the company flatly deny this. The speculative fever annoys Facebook’s senior executives, because they see it as a ploy by Wall Street to drum up more business. “What the banks are doing is driving up hope and hype,” one of the executives complains. “It puts pressure on other companies to go public, because a big Facebook I.P.O. eats up capital. It puts pressure on Facebook because we want to end these conversations, because it’s a distraction internally.” Sandberg does, however, acknowledge that investors and employees want to make a profit, and that an I.P.O. is inevitable. “We will go public at some point,” she says. At the end of this year, Facebook is expected to have five hundred shareholders, which will trigger S.E.C. regulations that require a company to disclose its finances to the public. It is likely that the company will go public soon after that, in the first six months of next year.

4. Facebook is really counting on becoming a part of the way consumers watch TV:

Chris Cox, the engineer who oversees Facebook’s product development, says of television, “You go home at night and there’s nine hundred and ninety-nine channels. . . . The real problem in that world is: What should I watch?” Perhaps you could read
TV Guide, perhaps you could type “best Thursday sitcom” into Google, or perhaps you could scan some newspaper reviews. Cox wants you to be able to see on your screen what your Facebook friends are watching. “You should turn it on and it should say, ‘Fourteen of your friends liked “Entourage” this week. Click to watch.’ ” The idea is for Facebook to “tune in to everything around you,” he said. “We call it social design.”
To put it another way, Facebook is trying to come up with an approach to organizing the Internet that’s entirely different from what Google has done. Google’s answer to “best Thursday sitcom” has long been determined by algorithms that analyze billions of Web pages—the so-called wisdom of crowds. Facebook will try to guide you through the preferences of your friends.

5. Auletta did not get Sandberg to spend much time on charges that Facebook launched a smear campaign on Google earlier this year, or on worries over underage users of the social media site. On the delicate dance Facebook is doing with the Chinese government, Auletta writes:

Another of Sandberg’s challenges is how to enter China, where the government has a particular interest in knowing who your friends are and what they say. “If you want to be connected to the whole world, you can’t be without connecting China,” Sandberg says. Both Sandberg and Zuckerberg extoll a recent article in
Foreign Affairs by Clay Shirky, in which he argued that social media creates “a public sphere” that can help authoritarian countries transition to democracy. One Facebook executive said he knows that dissidents who go on the site might be identified by the government and punished. But as long as dissidents aren’t misled by Facebook and know that imprisonment is a risk—and he believes they do—it’s a choice they should be allowed to make. “Thomas Paine knew what he was doing,” he says. Not to engage China, another senior executive says, is to duplicate the U.S. embargo of Cuba, which “didn’t work.”

Ken Auletta will conduct a live chat with Sandberg on July 11 on the New Yorker's website.