Sheryl Sandberg

When Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s second-in-command and chief operating officer, took the stage at the Barnard College commencement this past June, the executive pulled no punches. In her speech, she encouraged the all-female graduating class to eschew fear and to make fewer compromises when balancing their professional and personal lives.

The women of her generation had failed to seize the reins of leadership and close the “ambition gap” between men and women, Sandberg, 42, told the graduates. But, she said, “You can do it if you lean in. So go home tonight and ask yourselves, ‘What would I do

if I weren’t afraid?’ And then go do it.” Following the speech, women from a wide generational spectrum praised Sandberg, who has risen to such heights in a male-dominated industry, as a voice of female empowerment.

Her message should come as no surprise, since social activism played such an imperative role in Sandberg’s upbringing. Her parents, Joel and Adele Sandberg, helped establish the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry, and newly immigrated Soviet Jews escaping anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union often stayed at their home. Sandberg’s Harvard undergraduate thesis explored how economic inequality leads to spousal abuse, and she co-founded a group called Women in Economics and Government.

Since leaving a top executive position at Google and joining the Facebook team in 2008, Sandberg has helped the social-networking site to increase revenues. On her watch, Facebook has grown from 70 million active users to about 800 million, solidifying her role as one of the most important players in Silicon Valley.

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