Sheryl Sandberg’s Inspiring Speech At Harvard Business School

HBS alumna and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, graduated from the Harvard Business School in 1995. The charismatic alumna and one of Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires returned to campus yesterday (May 23) to deliver the Class Day keynote address to graduating students.

The event is part of a student-led ceremony traditionally held the day before Harvard University’s Commencement exercises and the HBS diploma ceremony. She returned to Harvard with her parents and children and appeared on the dais in a bright blue dress with a red button with the initials NGB to honor the death of Harvard MBA Nathan G. Bihlmaier who accidentally drowned over the weekend.

Sandberg, who graduated in the top 5% of her HBS class, paid tribute to Bihlmaier in her opening remarks and then launched into an inspiring, often humorous and sometimes provocative speech. Sandberg, 42, dispensed plenty of career advice, disclosed details of how she paved her own way to success in Silicon Valley, and addressed gender issues at work. And she noted that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was all of 11 years old when she graduated with her MBA degree in 1995.

Her speech in its entirety:

It’s an honor to be here today to address HBS’s distinguished faculty, proud parents, patient guests, and most importantly, the class of 2012.

Today was supposed to be a day of unbridled celebration and I know that’s no longer true.  I join all of you in grieving for your classmate Nate.   There are no words which can make this better.

Though laden with sadness, today still marks a distinct and impressive achievement for this class.  So please join me in giving our warmest congratulations to this class.

When Dean Nohria asked me to speak here today, I thought, come talk to a group of people way younger and cooler than I am? I can do that.  I do that every day at Facebook.  I like being surrounded by young people, except when they say to me, “What was it like being in college without the internet?” or worse,” Sheryl, can you come here?  We need to see what old people think of this feature.”

When I was a student here 17 years ago, I studied social marketing with Professor Kash Rangan.  One of the many examples Kash used to explain the concept of social marketing was the lack of organ donors in this country, which kills 18 people every single day.  Earlier this month, Facebook launched a tool to support organ donations, something that stems directly from Kash’s work.  Kash, we are all grateful for your dedication.


It wasn’t really that long ago when I was sitting where you are, but the world has changed an awful lot.  My section, section B, tried to have HBS’s first online class.  We had to use an AOL chat room and dial up service.  (Your parents can explain to you later what dial-up service is.)  We had to pass out a list of screen names because it was unthinkable to put your real name on the internet.   And it never worked.  It kept crashing.  The world just wasn’t set up for 90 people to communicate at once online.  But for a few brief moments, we glimpsed the future – a future where technology would power who we are and connect us to our real colleagues, our real family, our real friends.

It used to be that in order to reach more people than you could talk to in a day, you had to be rich and famous and powerful.  You had to be a celebrity, a politician, a CEO.  But that’s not true today.  Now ordinary people have voice, not just those of us lucky to go to HBS, but anyone with access to Facebook, Twitter, a mobile phone.  This is disrupting traditional power structures and leveling traditional hierarchy.  Control and power are shifting from institutions to individuals, from the historically powerful to the historically powerless.  And all of this is happening so much faster than I could have imagined when I was sitting where you are today – and Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old.


As the world becomes more connected and less hierarchical, traditional career paths are shifting as well. In 2001, after working in the government, I moved out to Silicon Valley to try to find a job.  My timing wasn’t really that good.  The bubble had crashed. Small companies were closing.  Big companies were laying people off.  One CEO looked at me and said, “we wouldn’t even think about hiring someone like you.”

After a while I had a few offers and I had to make a decision, so what did I do? I am MBA trained, so I made a spreadsheet. I listed my jobs in the columns and my criteria in the rows.  One of the jobs on that sheet was to become Google’s first Business Unit general manager, which sounds good now, but at the time no one thought consumer internet companies could ever make money.  I was not sure there was actually a job there at all; Google had no business units, so what was there to generally manage? And the job was several levels lower than jobs I was being offered at other companies.

So I sat down with Eric Schmidt, who had just become the CEO, and I showed him the spreadsheet and I said, this job meets none of my criteria.  He put his hand on my spreadsheet and he looked at me and said, “Don’t be an idiot.”


  • It was a hypothesis. Symantically, there is no assumption in my remark.

  • Lao Tzu

    Many people care more about making money than being remembered. Why do you make the assumptions that Sheryl cares about being remembered?

  • JustSaying

    Three years later, her husband is no more with us.

  • radical?

    Sheryl Sheryl Sheryl. You have two children. Your husband works. I’m sure you both work very very hard at your jobs. Perhaps even 80 hours a week at times.

    Who’s caring for your children? Are your children getting the nurturing they need from both of you? Do you know the side effect of children without nurturing parents? Assuming you put them in a day care, have you seen the low quality in day cares and after school programs?

    How much love and attention/nurturing did your parents give you? Did that help you get to where you both are today? Are you giving the same amount of love to your children?

    Now, that’s all about you. You both are motivated and smart. Smarter than the average bear. Do you really think that average America can do what I said above? Aren’t the average couple stressed to breaking points already? Aren’t divorces at all time record highs? I wonder how long your marriage will survive. I’ll check back on this in 5 years.

    Why are you pushing your viewpoints on women. Why is our nation becoming a nation of wimps who cry ‘I’m a VICTIM’ at every moment of their lives? Why are you Sheryl telling women to cry victim. Are victims a lower more cowering species anyway? So in the end aren’t you telling the ‘not so smarter than the average bear’ women in America to cry victim and get favoritism? Is that how you want women to gain an advantage? Favoritism? Is that how you got to where you are today?

    AAAWWW poor Sheryl, we better hire her or else she’ll litigate.

  • MS

    what a load of crap

  • Smi_josepha

    Awesome speech.  The bit about honesty is so true.  I regret not telling my previous company CEO the things that he needed to hear.

  • Neal Gorenflo

    Sandberg’s thought is similar to an idea in Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis that careers should be lattices not ladders.  But the dominant theme of the book is that grads should forget the traditional idea of jobs / careers altogether and take direct control of their economic destiny through institutions and practices that democratize economic life (open source software, open hardware, cooperatives, credit unions, public banks, participatory budgeting, coworking, hackerspaces, car sharing, etc.).

    I have to agree with Mike below, Sandberg is the wrong person to model.  She, or more accurately Facebook, symbolizes everything that’s wrong with our world.  Facebook’s Zuckerberg is lionized for exploiting the most sacred of things, human relationships.

    Why not have Linus Torvalds instead?  He’s more accomplished and more representative of what’s needed.

  • Dr Bhaskar Das

    Very inspiring speech of Ms Sandberg. i endorse her reference to need for gender neutrality in corporate sector. if it’s not addressed soon we shall fail to leverage a major chunk of the available human talent pool. 

  • This is conventionally faux-provocative neo-establishmentspeak to a pre-brainwashed audience. Pleasantly naughty clichés to hear, of course, but leaves one mighty hungry. Ms. S is so evidently capable of better, and will need to challenge herself way beyond this if she’s going to be remembered as anything more than a lucky rider on the right rocket.

  • Guest

    Much of the speech was great. I especially liked the parts about using simple language, rocket ship careers, and getting overwhelmed with PowerPoint. But, I don’t agree with Ms. Sandberg’s vision of  a better world: “And four, most deeply, that your generation accomplish what mine has
    failed to do. Give us a world where half our homes are run by men and
    half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a
    better world.” I don’t think that would necessarily result in a better world. A better world is one in which people achieve what they strive for – whether that is home maker or executive, and whether that results in a 50/50 split or not. Ms. Sandberg also said that women are better off marrying women (regardless of whether or not they are even attracted to women) unless they marry the right man. Blanket, provocative statements like these discredit Ms. Sandberg and detract from an otherwise strong speech.

  • CLG123

    My hope would be that Ms. Sandberg will “walk the talk” in terms of making Facebook a leader in providing compelling, flexible career options for women.  She gave a speech several months ago in which she implied that it’s women’s fault that they are not “taking their place at the table” or something like that. In this more recent speech, she at least seems to have softened that line a bit  (as it’s a bit more difficult for the rest of us to grab a seat at the table when we don’t have Larry Summers as a personal career concierge). The reality for the rest of us is that most companies look down on women who have families (yes, even women with tippity-top MBAs), and/or fail to provide flexible opportunities that allow them to combine their work and family aspirations. 
    Now, if only a large, recently-IPOed company with plenty of cash in the bank could take the lead here in, say, allowing for things like job-sharing, compelling part-time & remote work, etc…..

  • Great to read and even greater to feel the things..

  • yay

  • guest

    … one ..

  • Community

    The number used word in the speech is “I” … sad state of affairs.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks Misiek. Just fixed the spelling of Lori’s name.

  • Misiek

    John – thanks for transcribing it. I believe that Laurie you are referring to is Lori Goler.

  • prasanna sabat

    Excellent interview!!!

  • JohnAByrne

    Unfortunately, there is no video. Harvard Business School did not tape or stream the event.

  • Prashanthidgunji

    Do you have the video of this speech, it is inspiring

  • L.

    Dear John….thank you for your transcribed post of Ms. Sandberg’s speech today. I am truly grateful. Onward we shall press. L.