Sheryl Sandberg: The education of Silicon Valley’s most influential woman

SOURCE: Allison Shelley / Getty Images / AFP
Sheryl Sandberg owes her professional success, in part, to her academic background.

By Shekinah Kannan 

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She’s grown Facebook’s user count to USD$2.28 billion. She’s ranked as one of Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women” in business. She’s an advocate for women in leadership positions. She’s a mother of two and one of the wealthiest women in the world with a net worth of US$1.6 billion. She’s none other than Sheryl Sandberg, one of Silicon Valley’s most recognisable faces.

The Facebook chief operating officer has had a long list of accomplishments long before she landing the coveted role in 2008. The daughter of an ophthalmologist and a college-level French educator, Sandberg’s academic journey was distinctive, yet illustrious – much like her professional one.

Sandberg was unexpectedly unexceptional at math

In her highschool years, she was in the National Honor Society at North Miami Beach Senior High School –– where she graduated ninth in her class with a GPA of 4.6. 

According to Investopedia, her journey to tech greatness wasn’t the most conventional. She was “unexceptional at math” in high school and also taught aerobics.


Looking back, Sandberg has expressed that there are many things she would’ve done differently. In the trailer for “Firsts”, TIME magazine’s multimedia project featuring 46 groundbreaking women, she said one of her biggest high school regrets was not participating in math competitions because she would have been the only girl.

“In public schools, for a girl to be smart was not good for your social life,” her mother Adele had reportedly told The New Yorker.

She majored in economics

Sandberg went on to major in economics at Harvard.

Here, she had the esteemed Lawrence Summers as a thesis adviser. Sandberg described Summers as her first and “most important” mentor in various interviews. Summers, who later became US Treasury Secretary, is credited for launching Sandberg’s career.

Sandberg said in an HBR interview that being mentored by Summers “helped tremendously”. “I’ve had a lot of mentors over the course of my career, Larry being one of the absolutely most important. And certainly the first,” she was quoted saying.

Sandberg added that she would not have gotten her opportunities at the World Bank and Treasury Department without him.

While things clearly worked out for Sandberg, her journey wasn’t without its struggles. Sandberg claims she “struggled” during her freshman year. 

“I eventually learned how to write five-page papers; more importantly, I learned to love learning. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by students and professors who had a deep desire to analyse, dissect, argue, and comprehend. I found passion in economics, philosophy, poetry, and late-night debates with classmates — a gift I’ve treasured ever since,” she said.

It was Harvard that also sparked her passion for gender equality. In her undergraduate years, she founded a group initiative called “Women in Economics and Government.” She also continued to teach aerobics during her four years at the university – leading students at the Malkin Athletic Center.

After graduating summa cum laude in 1991, her first job out of college was at the World Bank, where became a research assistant for Summers – who is now the World Bank’s chief economist. According to The Crimson, she spent her time there taking on health projects addressing leprosy and other ailments. 

Lant Pritchett, a colleague from her time at the World Bank and current professor of international development at the Kennedy School, said Sandberg “learned, like many people straight out of school, that she didn’t know the practicalities of what she did, but she learned fast.”


She has an MBA

After spending two years working for Summers, Sandberg enrolled at Harvard Business School where she attained her MBA and graduated with distinction in 1995.

Although she and the rest of Facebook’s leadership think “degrees are always secondary” to skills, Sandberg has stated that her business school qualification gave her “a basic understanding in business” and that she got “great value” from her overall experience.