SAN FRANCISCO — Sheryl Sandberg may already have it all – she’s a Silicon Valley superstar, feminist icon, best-selling author and celebrity A-lister in nearly every ranking of the planet’s richest and most influential people.
But is the billionaire chief operating officer of Facebook quietly laying the groundwork for more – a campaign for elective office?
The valley buzz in recent months has suggested that Sandberg may be exploring just that, perhaps a future U.S. Senate run – or something even bigger.
In a sold-out appearance at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in March, Sandberg’s charismatic appeal was on full display as she appeared to drop hints about her future.
“Men still run the world,” she told the audience, many of whom were female Millennials clutching copies of “Lean In,” her popular literary manifesto.
“I’m not sure how that’s going,” she said with a smile.
The 44-year-old Sandberg is a Democrat, and with top party officeholders well past traditional retirement age – including Gov. Jerry Brown, 75, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 74, junior Sen. Barbara Boxer, 73, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at 80, the oldest member of the Senate – party insiders say it’s time to get serious about cultivating the next generation of elected leaders.
Which is why Sandberg may represent the “Lean In” opportunity for California Democrats – one that involves the political advancement of a woman who some argue is almost as widely recognized as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and second only to Michelle Obama in her feminist cultural impact.
Sandberg has reached millions of women with the “Lean In” philosophy through in her book, which has sold more than 1.6 million copies, and the spinoff national Lean In nonprofit organization that supports female empowerment.
Sandberg, whose own career has been marked by a ferocious upward trajectory, acknowledges that women in the workplace can be held back by gender bias. But she exhorts women to put aside their self-doubts about juggling work and family, and take steps – such as asking for a raise or a tougher assignment – to climb the professional ladder.
One online gossip column suggested earlier this year that Sandberg may be ready to “Lean In” to the political world – and could be eyeing a 2016 challenge to Boxer. The report was denied as “100 percent untrue” by the Facebook COO’s camp. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment last week about Sandberg’s future.
Although it’s only been whispered so far, the possibility that Sandberg – one of the Democrats’ most generous donors – might someday run for office has already met with raves from some of Silicon Valley’s leading political movers.
“Sheryl would be a very, very compelling candidate,” said Steve Spinner, a top Silicon Valley entrepreneur and leading fundraiser for President Obama. “She’s poised, she’s smart, she’s global. … She is thoughtful, strategic and very patient.
“Sheryl could run for president one day,” Spinner said.
Sandberg, already a de facto ambassador of Silicon Valley who has hosted several world leaders on tours of the region, has made moves in the past year that suggest an interest in areas beyond the tech universe.
Last month, she launched a campaign with the Girl Scouts called Ban Bossy, a social media-based effort to encourage leadership among girls.
Alison Howard, a political science professor at Dominican University in San Rafael, said Ban Bossy connects Sandberg to millions of Americans who may not be “the aggressive CEOs,” but who still want their daughters to reach high.
“These campaigns are a way to raise your national name,” Howard said. “Doing these kinds of public service campaigns shows she’s looking to broaden her appeal.”
Insiders say Sandberg is unlikely to tip her hand – and turn her ventures into political targets – so early.
But they say a jump into politics would make sense.
“Let’s credit her for being an incredible pioneer,” said Mary Hughes, a Democratic political consultant who founded Close the Gap, an advocacy group aimed at electing more progressive women to office in California. “From everything we know about the choices she’s made, this a woman who sees the next hill and heads for it.
“I don’t know we’ve had a candidate, male or female, who could bring to the effort of a statewide campaign the level of sophistication, complexity and depth that she can,” Hughes said.
Elena Lucas, 25, leader of a Lean In Circle in San Francisco – one of thousands of such discussion groups registered nationally to help women focus on professional and personal goals – said Sandberg’s positive message on leadership is something the country needs.
“Hillary Clinton, (Massachusetts Sen.) Elizabeth Warren, Sheryl Sandberg – just nominate her to an administration position and see what happens,” said Lucas, a business development associate at Infinity Wind Power, an alternative energy firm. “There’s the dream ticket of women in politics.”
Some political observers, however, caution that Sandberg’s public profile and tech influence alone are not enough to create magic with voters – not in a state that has rejected a parade of mega-wealthy neophyte candidates, most recently former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Hughes noted that Sandberg is “a woman who comes from tech, but who spent five years in government – and that’s the distinguishing factor” from failed political candidates from the business world who have suggested that “government would work better if it was run like a business.”
As chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in the Clinton administration from 1996-2001, Sandberg developed “an understanding that there is a power of government to do good,” Hughes said.
But some critics have slammed the “Lean In” mantra as an elitist message aimed mostly at white, middle-class women. A Washington Post review of the book said the wealthy, Harvard-educated Sandberg “is too often tone-deaf to her voice of privilege, (making it) hard to close the distance between lucky her and the women who could most benefit from her advocacy.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that “‘Lean In,' yes – it’s important to take charge of your career and be the captain of your own ship.”
But many women lack the support systems and nurturing that Sandberg enjoyed, she said, so “a lot of people who struggle … will never reach the privileged moment of being able to ask, `I want a raise.“’
That means that should Sandberg want to get into politics, she will have to demonstrate that she “knows what milk and bread costs,” Levinson said. “She can’t be out of touch.”
Sandberg has shown she’s sensitive to the issue. Her appearance at the Commonwealth Club was marked by self-deprecating humor about her home life, a stylistic departure from Whitman, a fellow Atherton billionaire who posed aristocratically alongside a horse for Fortune magazine at the start of her failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
So far, in her ventures outside the boardroom, Sandberg has shown a knack for something that is rare in politics, said Hughes – “a compassionate appreciation of coming from somewhere other than big success.”
“And if people can see that, they don’t really care what you have,” Hughes said, “because then they know who you are.”