Long before Ching-Ching Chen and Preeya Sud knew that they would be going to Harvard Business School as first-year MBA students, they shared a common passion even though they were worlds apart. Both women had read and devoured Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling manifesto of female empowerment, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
To these young professionals in investment banking and consumer products marketing, the book’s title, encouraging women to step up and achieve their ambitions, was more than a catchphrase for them. Though already accomplished, they recognized themselves in the book as professionals who struggled to overcome self-doubt.
When Sandberg came to Morgan Stanley’s headquarters in New York in early March of 2013 for her book launch tour, Chen rushed downstairs to the company’s auditorium to hear the chief operating officer of Facebook. Chen, then an analyst in Morgan Stanley’s global capital markets business, recalls telling her boss she was going to meet Sandberg. “He jokingly said, ‘Of course you are. Just make sure when you come back to lean in.’ It was a phenomenal speech. I was really touched by the message.”
‘FOR ME, CONFIDENCE AT WORK WAS SOMETHING I HAD ALWAYS STRUGGLED WITH’
Sud, across the pond in London working for Procter & Gamble as a senior assistant brand manager, bought Lean In soon after its publication. “There was a buzz at work about the book and I read it and a lot of it just resonated with me,” she recalls. “For me, confidence at work was something I had always struggled with.”
Fast forward two and one-half years later and the two women met each other as new MBA students at Harvard Business School. This past fall, both were assigned to Section C and ultimately the same team on an applied learning project to create a micro-business this past year. Their shared interest in Sandberg’s tome quickly became front and center between the two of them and four male classmates on the FIELD3 (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) team.
For all of them, the issues that Sandberg addressed in her book had become very real at HBS, especially because Harvard’s infamous case method style of teaching required all students to actively participate in class discussions. “I came in thinking I was pretty confident,” says Chen, 26, who graduated from Duke University with a B.S. in economics and had been in senior recital in violin, piano and voice performance. “I survived a job on Wall Street and yet I was terrified to speak up during my entire first semester. Old habits die very slowly. One of my professors summed it up perfectly. As I was struggling to find the confidence to speak in class, she told me you cannot wait for the perfect comment. You have to put your hand in the air and say what you are thinking.”