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Sheryl Sandberg's legacy at Facebook


For 14 years, Sheryl Sandberg has been the grown-up at Facebook. She's the sophisticated foil to Mark Zuckerberg's hoodie-wearing whiz kid. She's the one who seemed natural testifying before Congress.


SHERYL SANDBERG: Senators, let me be clear. We are more determined than our opponents, and we will keep fighting.

PFEIFFER: This fall, she's leaving Facebook. It's the end of an era for one of the most prominent women in business and for the company now known as Meta. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more. And a note - Meta pays NPR to license NPR content.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Long before Sheryl Sandberg was known for "Lean In," there was another term people used when talking about her. Kim Scott worked for Sandberg at Google in the mid-2000s.

KIM SCOTT: Sheryl is really exceptionally talented at understanding how to scale businesses.

BOND: Scale - that's Silicon Valley jargon for growing a business from a startup into a powerhouse. Sandberg herself reportedly once said she felt she was put on earth to scale organizations. And she did that, first at Google, where she helped build a massively profitable advertising business, then at Facebook. In a podcast interview, Sandberg said she discussed scale with Mark Zuckerberg for months before accepting the chief operating officer job in 2008.


SANDBERG: By the time we worked together, we had really talked about kind of who we were, what we believed in, what we thought the potential was of Facebook to scale, how we would scale.

BOND: On her watch, Facebook became the dominant social network and defined the business of targeted advertising on smartphones, all built on the rich trove of what the company knows about its users. And last year, it became one of the world's most valuable companies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Facebook has joined the trillion dollar club. It's now the fifth member of the exclusive group, along with Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's parent company, Alphabet.

BOND: But it's also created what critics deride as a digital surveillance system that feeds on people's personal data and fosters discrimination, misinformation and violence. Rashad Robinson leads the racial justice group Color of Change.

RASHAD ROBINSON: For years, we have been deeply concerned about the role that Facebook plays in our society, that Facebook plays in our democracy, the impacts on our communities. And those concerns only become deeper and deeper as the days, weeks, months and years go by.

BOND: And the central figure in Facebook's controversial business model is Sandberg. When Zuckerberg brought her on, he was a 23-year-old Harvard dropout known for the motto move fast and break things. Sandberg was 38 and as comfortable in the halls of Congress as in corporate America thanks to stints at the Treasury Department and consulting firm McKinsey. Once she published "Lean In," her manifesto encouraging women to climb the corporate ladder, she became the global girlboss. For the people she mentored, like Kim Scott at Google, Sandberg was a firewall protecting her from office politics.

SCOTT: She had been kind of a s*** umbrella for me. In other words, she had shielded me and the other people that we worked with from a lot of political nonsense.

BOND: At Facebook, Sandberg played that umbrella role publicly. She took charge of policy, communications, relationships with regulators and lawmakers. Zuckerberg once described it as the things he didn't want to do. Katie Harbath worked in public policy at Facebook until last year.

KATIE HARBATH: She was in some ways very much, you know, a co-CEO, you know, in external terms, with Mark. It was one of the few companies, I think, that if it was the White House or Congress or you name it, they were perfectly fine having Sheryl be representing the company and not necessarily having the CEO.

BOND: But Sandberg's focus on being that shield for Facebook and Zuckerberg eventually became a major line of attack. She was accused of deflecting and denying big problems, from Russian interference in the 2016 election to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal to the January 6 Capitol riot. Harbath says those criticisms came from inside Facebook as well.

HARBATH: Part of her legacy will certainly be the fact that those things need to be paid attention to a lot sooner to make sure they don't become really big problems before you're ready to handle them.

BOND: As instrumental as Sandberg was in making Facebook what it is today, even critics say she should not be blamed for all of the company's problems. Robinson of Color of Change is no fan of Facebook, but he credits Sandberg for her work on racial equity, including advocating for a civil rights audit. But as Robinson sees it, there was only so much Sandberg could do.

ROBINSON: At the end of the day, the company is controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, who is chairman and CEO and majority shareholder.

BOND: Over the past year, Zuckerberg has renamed the company Meta to signal its shift in focus to the metaverse, an immersive virtual world. The CEO is now the same age Sandberg was when he hired her. And one thing is clear - while Sandberg shared in Facebook's successes and failures, the future of Meta belongs to Zuckerberg alone.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.