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Facebook Exec Sandberg Challenges Howard U. Students

Alafaka Opuiyo | 10/23/2013, 3 p.m.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," addresses students at Howard University's School of Business in Northwest on Oct. 15. Nancy Shia

With the professional landscape of the country lacking in the number of women and other minorities in power positions, Sheryl Sandberg, a chief operating officer for social media front-runner Facebook, opted during a recent discussion with an audience of Howard University students to not sugarcoat her message of racial and gender inequality in government and private industry.

“Men still rule the world and up until a few years ago, white men still ruled the world,” Sandberg said on Oct. 15 to the audience of bright-eyed, well-groomed students who filled the university’s School of Business auditorium.

However, instead of lecturing the students, Sandberg, author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” engaged them in a candid discussion about the dire need for inclusive leadership.

“Better decisions are made when there is diverse leadership,” Sandberg said. “Inequality in the workplace comes from inequality in the home . . . Women typically have to choose between having kids and having a career [whereas] traditionally, men do not have to make these decisions.”

Sandberg’s words resonated among her attentive audience, with Sam Belcher, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) candidate, divulging that his father treats him and his sister differently.

“We are both ambitious and goal oriented, but there is still a difference in how [my father] reacts to each of our professional goals,” said Belcher, who noted that reading Sandberg’s book had given him far more insight into his father’s behavior.

“During case competition, female classmates will do a lot of research, but when it comes to presenting the information they’ve found, they are timid and don’t want to take ownership of their work,” Belcher added.

Sandberg agreed, saying that while women often credit their success to others or to luck, men have no problem attributing their success to themselves.

In her book, she urges women to have more self-confidence and to “own” their accomplishments.

Debra Osemwegie, 22, a senior public relations major, is a member of “Cleo 8” – a support group, comprised of eight female Howard University students majoring in public relations, business and entertainment.

“A friend and I thought that we were among women who had the goal of being successful, [so] what better way to ensure success than to pool your resources with like-minded people,” said Osemwegie. She went onto explain that part of her group’s inspiration came from the strong leadership of Cleopatra, the Egyptian monarch.

But some of the students wondered if Sandberg’s comments were relevant to African-American women, Osemwegie said.

“[Although] I’m happy that she offered a solution to a problem that affects so many women who are trying to build [or] advance their careers, I [also] felt she adequately acknowledged the difference in the challenges African-American women face in the workplace,” Osemwegie said.

Sandberg, who received a bachelor of arts degree in economics and an MBA from Harvard University, spoke at Howard as a guest of the university’s School of Business Executive Lecture Series.

At the conclusion of her talk, Sandberg provided additional food for thought.

“Put your phones down and think. What would you do if you were not afraid,” she asked.

Following a moment’s pause, she challenged her audience saying, “Now go out into the world and do it.”