In Minneapolis visit, Facebook's Sandberg visits 'Lean In' book club

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2013 - 11:22 AM

Sheryl Sandberg, author and Facebook COO, took her empowerment message to Twin Cities women.

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Sheryl Sandberg, center, author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” asked women at a Lean In circle to raise their hands if they’d ever been told they were “too aggressive” at work.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • Star Tribune,

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At the second of two meetings Sheryl Sandberg had in Minneapolis on Tuesday night with readers and fans of her recent book, a few members of a critical audience were present: teenage girls.

One of them was Sarah Borntrager, 16, who listened closely as Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., encouraged a group of female military officers and federal staffers to “lean in,” the admonition that became the title of her bestseller, which sparked a renewed national conversation on women and workplace issues.

Borntrager, a junior at Farmington High School and daughter of a woman who is a civilian Air Force financial analyst, said girls too often lean back.

“I see that actually a lot in high school,” she said. “Someone who tries to make a stand for something, a girl, will be seen as obnoxious, as if she just keeps rambling, but a guy will be able to get his point across and be listened to. It’s something that shouldn’t be.”

Sandberg gave a keynote speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing on Wednesday, the nation’s largest annual conference of women in high-tech. The night before, she visited two of the thousands of Lean In circles that have sprung up since her book was released in March. Nearly 300,000 people have registered their support on Facebook for the Lean In Foundation, which receives all proceeds from sales of the book. About 9,000 circles have registered, and many more are active but unregistered.

Linda Brandt, a public health specialist for Hennepin County, describes her circle as “Girl Scouts for adults,” and she hosts a group of about 30 at her home in southeast Minneapolis.

The women — ranging from photographers to dancers to librarians to advertising professionals — packed into Brandt’s living room waiting for Sandberg to arrive. Among them was Sandberg’s mother-in-law, Paula Goldberg, a prominent Minneapolis resident and executive director of PACER, an antibullying group that advocates for children and young adults with disabilities.

When the black Chevy Tahoe pulled up to the front of Brandt’s home, the doors popped open and Sandberg beamed as she started meeting the women. “Oh my god, this is so exciting!” she said.

The women introduced themselves one by one and explained what they think the Twin Cities contributes to the Lean In movement.

“I think Minneapolis has an incredible community of both really powerful businesswomen but also a thriving arts and communications and advertising and, you name it, people do it here,” said Michelle Chester, an advertising brand strategist who lives in Minnetonka. “So I think that combination of left- and right-brain leaders is really valuable in the Twin Cities area and I also think there’s something to be said for being a powerful woman sitting at the table but also still maintaining your Minnesota Nice, because that’s part of who you are when you’re born and raised here.”

Other women mentioned the scrappiness of Midwesterners as an important contribution to leaning in, the inventiveness of the Twin Cities and its diverse economy.

Sandberg makes an economic case for the Lean In movement, and she likes to bring up Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of workforce participation by women. Japanese women often stop working when they have a child, and Goldman Sachs projects the Japanese economy could be 15 percent bigger if 8 million more women worked.

“Japan’s GDP cannot grow unless they get more women in the workforce,” Sandberg said. “In two decades, three decades, the U.S. could face the same problem.”

In order to continue to grow, the United States will need the full participation of the workforce, she said, which will require women to step up and their partners to split the work at home, something that she said is still not happening enough. When it comes to particular firms, any company with strong female leadership has a competitive advantage over those who do not, she said.

“This is about our economic growth,” Sandberg said.

One criticism the superstar Facebook executive has taken since publication of the book is that she’s an elite. She went to Harvard, was mentored by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and after perfectly timing her transition from Washington to Silicon Valley, became extremely wealthy.

Anna Picchetti, a product manager, said the group at Brandt’s home helps refute that criticism. The group is racially, demographically and professionally diverse, and the women live in a place that has been rated by Intuit as the fifth-best city in the U.S. for women entrepreneurs. The fact that the group is not elite, yet draws powerful inspiration from Sandberg, lends a certain grass-roots credibility to the Lean In movement, she said.

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  • The women who attended the Lean In circle at Linda Brandt’s house in Minneapolis on Tuesday night gathered for a group portrait with Sheryl Sandberg, who was at center wearing a dark top.

  • Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and author of the bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, dropped in on one of the Lean In Circles she inspired in the home of Linda Brandt in Minneapolis Tuesday night, October 1, 2013. Three of the women attending the Lean In circle at Linda Brandt's house waited outside on the front steps, decorated for the occasion, for the meeting to begin. ] JEFF WHEELER ‚Ä¢ jeff.wheeler@startribune.com

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