There was a time early on at Facebook when pretty much every other company in Silicon Valley was on the hunt for its own “Sheryl.” It was shorthand for a female executive who could transform a company from a scrappy, bro-ey startup to a fast-growing business, as Sheryl Sandberg had famously done with Facebook.
But all these years later, as Sandberg prepares to leave the company after 14 years, the mythology surrounding her — and what it means to be a “Sheryl” — has become decidedly more mixed.
She is both responsible for making Meta one of the most valuable companies in the world through its ad business and also responsible for normalizing the vast privacy intrusions that enable that business model. She is the most recognizable female executive in America and an inspiration to innumerable women around the world, as well as the person who has wielded her power behind the scenes to protect Facebook — and her own reputation — at all costs.
The evolution of Sandberg’s legacy can be traced back to key moments in Facebook’s history.
2008: Dividing duties with Zuck
One of the early decisions that would wind up having a domino effect on Facebook’s future was the way Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg decided to divvy up responsibility. Building products was — and remains — Zuckerberg’s primary passion. Sandberg, by contrast, had always worked on Google’s ad business and had ties to Washington, having worked at the Treasury Department under former Secretary Larry Summers.
In an interview with Steven Levy for the book “Facebook: The Inside Story,” Sandberg described the division of labor as being “very easy — he took product and I took the rest.”
“The rest” wound up including not just the business operations, but Facebook’s communications and relationship with D.C. As Facebook’s public relations and political reputation began to take a beating nearly a decade later, a lot of the blows would wind up landing on Sandberg.
2010: ‘Lean In’
In 2010, Sandberg delivered the TED talk of all TED talks. The kind that makes one of the world’s most intractable issues — bias against women — seem utterly fixable in 15 minutes or less. The talk, titled “Why we have too few women leaders,” urged women to take a seat at the table, get their partners to pitch in and, above all, to lean in to promotions and opportunities and whatever else women sacrifice in anticipation of starting a family.
The talk became the basis of a book released in 2013, which spawned a global movement, with “Lean In” circles — groups of women supporting women — popping up in 188 countries around the world. “Lean In” made Sandberg a household name and, for a time at least, shielded her from some of the scrutiny that would begin to come Facebook’s way.
2012: Facebook’s IPO
When Facebook went public in 2012, it made Sandberg, who is now a billionaire, very, very rich. But more than that, it cemented Sandberg’s reputation as a business genius. Facebook went from losing money in 2008, the year Sandberg joined, to making money hand-over-fist, setting the company up for a public-market debut that, despite early stumbles, quickly saw Facebook’s stock price soar.
Sandberg got a lot of the credit for making that happen. (The New York Times quoted one Stanford engineering professor at the time, who called Sandberg the “Justin Bieber of tech.”) Facebook had the product, the fast-growing audience and the buzz, but not the discipline to make money off of it all until she got there.
2015: Tragedy strikes
Sandberg’s life was forever changed in 2015 with the sudden death of her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg. That tragedy not only temporarily affected Sandberg’s day-to-day work at Facebook, but it created a new outlet for her advocacy: this time, focused on dealing with grief.
She wrote at length about how she coped in the days and months after his death, including what helped her and what didn’t, and channeled it all into another self-help book called “Option B,” which deals with lessons on resilience and facing adversity.
2017: Breaking ranks on FOSTA/SESTA
Facebook’s fortunes in Washington were already in trouble by the fall of 2017. The 2016 election had started a backlash on the right over alleged censorship of conservatives on the platform. On the left, folks were already starting to blame fake news and targeted ads by the Trump campaign for Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Into this environment came FOSTA/SESTA: a bipartisan package of bills that would whittle away at Section 230 protections for the first time in the name of stopping sex trafficking. The tech industry hated the bill, but Sandberg broke ranks with her fellow Silicon Valley executives, coming out in favor of a modified version of the bill in November 2017. Facebook’s backing is widely viewed as having pushed FOSTA/SESTA over the line. For Sandberg, the moment was also defining, revealing the ways she worked behind the scenes to burnish the company’s reputation in Washington.
Early 2018: Cambridge Analytica scandal
Outside of Facebook, Zuckerberg bore most of the blame for allowing so much Facebook user data to be scooped up and sold to Cambridge Analytica for political purposes. It was Zuckerberg who appeared first in front of Congress to apologize for Facebook’s missteps.
But inside the company, Cambridge Analytica was reportedly a turning point in Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s relationship, with Zuckerberg personally blaming his No. 2 for being too slow to address that and other issues at the company, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Fall 2018: Delay, deny, deflect
A November 2018 exposé in The New York Times, published in the aftermath of both the Cambridge Analytica debacle and the Russian troll scandal, focused attention on Sandberg’s alleged misdeeds like never before. According to the Times, Sandberg had tried to limit the amount of detail Facebook shared about Russian intrusion and even reprimanded the company’s then-head of Security for sharing information about it with Facebook’s board.
That story also exposed Facebook’s efforts to push negative coverage of competitors through an opposition research group and investigate ties between George Soros and Facebook’s critics. Sandberg, who initially attempted to distance herself from that work, eventually accepted blame for it, writing, “I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us.”
The story started a new round of rumblings about whether Sandberg’s days at Facebook were numbered.
2021: The Capitol riot
Through the Trump years, Sandberg, a known Democrat and Clinton supporter, took a less central role in representing Facebook in Washington. But as the company’s second in command, she was still called on to answer for Facebook’s failure to prevent the Stop the Steal movement from spreading before the Jan. 6 riot.
In an interview with Reuters, she pushed blame onto other platforms, saying, “These events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”
Sandberg’s reluctance to accept any responsibility for the riot struck people both inside and outside of Facebook as a sign of how little the company and its most senior executives had learned about their impact on the world.
2022: Defending Bobby Kotick
Sandberg’s most recent scandal came to light just months ago, when the Journal reported that she twice intervened in reporting by The Daily Mail on a since-retracted temporary restraining order that had been taken out against her ex-boyfriend Bobby Kotick. The Journal reported that Meta employees had been involved in trying to squash the story and that the ordeal had sparked an internal investigation of Sandberg.
It’s unclear what that investigation found, though a Meta spokesperson told the Journal that Sandberg never “threatened the MailOnline’s business relationship with Facebook in order to influence an editorial decision.”
Meta has defined Sandberg’s career thus far, but she plans to “write the next chapter of her life” after leaving the company this fall. Whether she likes it or not, Facebook will continue to be a main character.
Owen Thomas contributed reporting.