Unlike many tech billionaires, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg did not make her money by coming up with an ingenious idea and riding it to an acquisition or an IPO. The road to riches for Sandberg was to pave the way for others -- to turn their big ideas into big successful businesses.
She steadily built a career, first in politics, and then in advertising sales for Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL). In 2008 she took on one of the most powerful positions in a field that remains dominated by men when she became the second-in-command at Facebook.
Sandberg's talent is in being an operational genius -- someone who runs things flawlessly and can turn chaos into cash. While she may not be a visionary like her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, she is the general who knows how to create value, bring order to chaos, and most importantly, how to monetize.
From the Hill to the Valley
Early in her career Sandberg found a mentor in future Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers, who was a professor while she attended Harvard. The future Facebook COO worked for Summers after graduation, first at the World Bank, then at the Treasury Department, stopping in the middle to get her MBA from Harvard Business School. Sandberg, who had been a research assistant for Summers at the World Bank, had graduated to chief of staff when he became Treasury Secretary.
It was her government credentials and high profile that helped get Sandberg hired as Google's vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations, but she came to Facebook at least partially because of a relationship she built with Zuckerberg.
Though the two are by all accounts opposite personalities, with Zuckerberg being an awkward introvert and Sandberg a polished extrovert, the two immediately hit it off when they met in 2007 at a Christmas party, according to The New York Times.
"What followed was an intense, six-week business courtship, during which the two dined together multiple times a week," the paper reported.
That friendship has helped the two, who famously begin and end their weeks by spending an hour together, find a way to mesh their very differing styles.
Sandberg's ability to make friends and win over people has also helped her fit into the culture at Facebook where, as an executive who dresses well and happens to be a woman, she may have clashed with the jeans-wearing, entrepreneurial boys club. She cut that off at the pass, the Times reported, by walking from desk to desk and introducing herself on her first day.
Sandberg joined Facebook at a critical time in the company's development both pre- and post-IPO.
She led Facebook through the crucial post-IPO period when it seemed possible it would fail. She helped the company move from being a cool, social network, to a business that has ads, which is another stumbling point when many "cool" products fall apart. While its stock was tanking and questions as to its very future were being raised, Sandberg steered the company to its current, highly successful path.
Sandberg is widely credited with being the architect of Facebook's mobile strategy, which accounted for an astounding 90% of the company's revenue growth over the last six quarters.
While she certainly did not operate without help, she was the leader of the brand's move to mobile and its ability to monetize once it got there. Whether that would happen was something that was very much in doubt in the early days after Facebook's 2012 IPO. Sandberg's a large part of why in the third quarter the company reported $1.95 billion in mobile ad revenue, up 122% from last year's September-ended quarter. Mobile ads now account for 66% of Facebook's advertising revenue and 61% of total revenue.
The rewards of working at Facebook
Sandberg was named to Facebook's board of directors in June 2012. "Sheryl has been my partner in running Facebook and has been central to our growth and success over the years," Zuckerberg was quoted as saying.
The vast majority of Sandberg's wealth comes from her Facebook holdings. In 2014 she joined the famed Forbes list of billionaires for the first time, and by the illustrious standards of the list, she just made it with $1 billion in assets. That put her at No. 1,565 on the list of 1,645 and made her the last woman ranked. She's ranked well below some of the other notable women on the list.
Lean on her
Sandberg had few role models to follow, but that has not stopped her from providing an example for the young women coming up behind her through her Lean In book and foundation.
The book looks at gender differences in the workplace and offers practical advice for women to help them achieve their goals. In it, Sandberg attempts to help women break a cycle of thinking that has held them back.
"At a certain point, it's your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters," Sandberg wrote. "Women need to shift from thinking 'I'm not ready to do that' to thinking 'I want to do that -- and I'll learn by doing it.' "
In general, Sandberg advocates taking risks and reaching for goals, even if you're not 100% qualified, because "that's what men do."
Sandberg may have had to blaze her own trail to becoming a billionaire, but she's doing her part to make sure the road is not quite so rocky for the generation coming behind her.