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.”