Stockholm in my American Heart

Natalia is a journalist and public speaker on behalf of U.S. Embassy Sweden, focusing on women's empowerment and entrepreneurship, a passionate story-teller and proud mom.

“Lean In” & Get on the Rocket Ship: Interview with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

For Sheryl Sandberg, the answer was instant: speak out on women’s issues.

Today, business leaders have a greater responsibility than just to their shareholders and their bottom-line. The most visionary CEO’s speak truth to power, give purpose to people and focus on a wider contribution to society. They use their powerful platforms for the good of others, not themselves.

Sandberg, Facebook’s compelling COO, has become a global symbol in the fight for women’s empowerment. She has articulated a potent vision on why women’s leadership is key to greater productivity and creativity, and encouraged legions of women around the world to “Lean In”, as the title of her famous 2013 book suggests, and simply “Go for it!”. She has helped professional women see and bring out courage from within that may have remained buried otherwise. She has certainly done so for me.

Questions of how we can attract and retain women in leadership roles, especially in the sciences, engineering and tech careers, have been permeating the local dialogue here in Stockholm on the eve of Stockholm’s major Tech Fest conference, which begins tonight with a major women in tech forum. “STHLM Tech Fest” has attracted thousands of people from all over the world, including a strong presence from American with companies like Facebook in attendance.

This event could not be more timely as one year ago today, President Barack Obama came to Sweden on a historic visit— one that underscored shared values rooted in a greater social consciousness, innovation and women’s leadership. Working on the challenge of increasing women in STEM careers is a priority of President Obama and one that is shared with our friends, the Swedes.

As we seek strategies and solutions to this challenge, one thing that remains transformative is story-telling— women speaking out on their pitfalls, mistakes, regrets, as well as successes, helps the next generation of learn and prepare. For this reason, I’m so grateful and excited to share the below interview with the amazing Sheryl Sandberg.

Could you share your top three “blessings in disguise”?

There have been many times in my life where I have taken a path that seemed to be in the opposite direction of what I was “supposed” to do. A few of those examples are:

1. Being open to change in my career – At the beginning of my career, it would have been impossible for me to predict that I’d be working for Facebook – the internet wasn’t even invented yet and Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school! My parents always emphasized the importance of pursuing a meaningful life and that is what has guided me, no matter what industry or company I’m working in.

2.  Getting on the rocket ship – when I was offered the job at Google, I had other seemingly more stable options that made me nervous about taking a job where it was mostly unclear what my role would involve. I brought my dilemma to Eric Schmidt and he gave me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received. He said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.” Regardless of how people were advising me, I knew he was right and that I had to get on.

3. Speaking out about women – One of my favorite things that we ask ourselves at Facebook is “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” A few years ago, my answer to that question was “Write a book about feminism”. Now, after having written Lean In and establishing, I’m so happy I didn’t listen to people who said this would ruin my career and faced my fears to help other women speak out about these important issues that we all face.

It’s been over a year since “Lean In” was published, what have you learned in this time about the challenge of women’s leadership? Has your “Lean in” message evolved over time?

In the past year, I have traveled all over the world—China, Korea, India, France, and Japan—and although our cultures are so different, one thing remains stubbornly the same: our stereotypes of men and women. We believe men should be assertive, aggressive, leaders. And we believe women should speak when spoken to, raise their hand, be communal.

We are all held back by these narrow stereotypes that keep women from receiving the same encouragement men get to lead and keep men from receiving the same encouragement women get to nurture. However, as people understand the biases and stereotypes that are holding women back, we can begin to change them.

What has been so rewarding for me is hearing the many women’s personal lean in stories and how they’ve overcome their own struggles.

Many European countries, including Sweden, have substantive programs to facilitate working life, such as tax-subsidized daycare, yet the U.S., which does not have similar benefits, has relatively similar numbers of female CEO’s and representatives on boards, and no country is close to equality. Why do you think that is?

I often make the point that women suffer from the tyranny of low expectations. We make up half of the population but, in the United States, only 24 of Fortune 500 CEO’s and 19% of Congress. In the last election here, all the headlines read, “Women take over the Senate!” Twenty percent is not a takeover: it’s a travesty.

The fact of the matter is, in the vast majority of countries in the world, women have less than 7% of the top CEO jobs. Look at a country like Norway: it has the some of best public policy in the world yet only 3.4% of women run their big companies.

Policies are important—we need public policy reform and institutional reform—but we also need all of us to become aware of our cultural stereotypes and how they hold women back.

The U.S. and Sweden have a strong relationship when it comes to entrepreneurial activity. In fact, Facebook’s only international server is located in Luleo, Sweden. Have you ever been to Sweden? If so, what are your impressions?

Sweden is an amazing country with people who are incredibly innovative and forward thinking. I have sadly not been to visit in my Facebook capacity, but we are very pleased with our operations there.  Swedish people are early adopters of technology and some of the most popular services on the web today have started there like and Spotify, which is very impressive. There is certainly a very vibrant tech community and I look forward to experiencing it for myself one day in the future.

Natalia Brzezinski: How can we use technology, particularly social connectivity and networking, to better empower women in entrepreneurship?

Sheryl Sandberg: Empowering women online is incredibly important. We first need to address the access gap, which affects women all over the world, especially in countries with a large gender equality gap. Building services where women feel safe and can connect comfortably is the first step. Once online, there is a great deal of possibility, especially on Facebook. Anyone can be an entrepreneur by simply creating a free business page to successfully connect and communicate with exactly the right people.

Another tool for women is Lean In Circles, small groups that meet regularly to learn and grow together. Circles are as unique as the people who start them, but they all share a common bond: the power of peer support. Today there are more than 19,000 Circles in 72 countries, and they are changing lives—75% of members attribute a positive outcome in their life to their Circle. Women are asking for more and stepping outside their comfort zones, and that includes starting the companies they always dreamed of. We have materials to start Circles up on for anyone who is interested in learning more.

What’s a more effective agent for change: government or business? And how can they work better together?

I believe that there is a place for both but individual institutions or businesses are often able to enact change much more quickly. For tech companies, it is important that governments and businesses work closely together. It is encouraging to see that governments from around the world are coming to the table to learn more about internet companies, improve outdated norms and work to provide an environment where people, businesses and organizations can use technology to flourish.

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