SAN FRANCISCO — Days before Facebook's big moment, Sheryl K. Sandberg was half a world away, hobnobbing with the likes of Bill Gates and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Yes, Sandberg is Mark Zuckerberg's No. 2. And, if all goes well with Facebook's public offering, she will soon become a $1.6 billion woman.
But Sandberg, who has helped steer Facebook to once-unimaginable heights, had more on her mind than securities filings and ad metrics. She was attending the annual World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, where her subject wasn't social media — but women. Specifically, how women, in her view, must take responsibility for their careers and not blame men for holding them back.
Given that Sandberg is Facebook's chief operating officer, you might think that she was absurdly off topic. But Sandberg sees herself as more than an executive at one of the hottest companies around. She sees herself as a role model for women in business and technology. In speeches, she often urges women to "keep your foot on the gas pedal," and to aim high.
Her talks have gone viral. On YouTube, videos of her speeches have been viewed more than 200,000 times. Some have been included in syllabuses at the Stanford and Harvard business schools. Put simply, she exudes that certain something that seems to leave many people, particularly young women, a bit star-struck.
"There have been a handful of women that could have been the 'Justin Bieber of tech,' but Sheryl is the real deal," said Ann Miura-Ko, a lecturer at the School of Engineering at Stanford and an investment partner at Floodgate, a venture capital firm in Palo Alto, Calif. "Young women really want to be her and learn from her."
Some say her aim-high message is a bit out of tune. Everyone agrees she is wickedly smart. But she has also been lucky, and has had powerful mentors along the way. After Harvard and Harvard Business School, she quickly rose from a post as an economist at the World Bank to become the chief of staff for Lawrence H. Summers, then the Treasury secretary. After that, she jumped to Google and, in 2008, to Facebook.
She is married to Dave Goldberg, a successful entrepreneur. She doesn't exactly have to worry about money. Or child care for her two young children.
To some, Sandberg seems to suggest that women should just work harder while failing to acknowledge that most people haven't had all the advantages that she's had.
"I think she's had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research organization on work-life policy, and director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University. "Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they're actually derailed by other things, like they don't have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it."
But Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, who worked with her at Google, said Sandberg's high profile gave Facebook an edge in recruiting and retaining talent. "When you have women who say, 'Can I stay in? Can I have children and make it still work?' the existence of role models like Sheryl is very impactful," Singh Cassidy said.