Sandberg Launches 'Lean In' Program at Howard

"You," the Facebook COO and author told the HBCU's students, "are the leaders we have all been waiting for."

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Sheryl Sandberg at Howard University (LeanIn.org)

(The Root) -- In a notable choice by an executive and author whose message about leadership has largely skirted challenges specific to women of color, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg chose Washington, D.C.'s Howard University as the site of the launch of her LeanIn.org campus initiative.

Sandberg, author of the best-seller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, announced in remarks at the historically black college's School of Business Executive Lecture Series on Monday night, "I'm launching the LeanIn.org campus program right here, right now."

LeanIn.org, of which she is founder and board chair, is an organization billed as "the next chapter" of Lean In. It facilitates the formation of 10-member groups of professional women who support each other in making career moves that reflect the book's advice. The new campus program will bring that effort to colleges, in a push that will include virtual appearances by Sandberg herself.

"This is the only one I'm doing in person," she said at Howard.

"You," she told the auditorium of business-suit-clad students -- mostly women, but at least a quarter of them African-American men -- "are the leaders we have all been waiting for."

After the release of Lean In, critics asked whether the text's perspective was elitist, whether the experience of women of color was adequately addressed and whether black women -- who've historically had to work outside the home in much larger numbers than have white women -- even needed advice on how to "lean in" at all.

That skepticism lingers. "Don't think we all fall for it," one reader responded to The Root's tweet about the launch of the campus initiative.

"My work has centered largely on women. I come to this with a gender point of view, and that will be largely what I talk about today," Sandberg said in a disclaimer at the beginning of her remarks. "But everything I talk about is also true of any group that has historically not been in power."

The bulk of her speech covered the basics of her women-in-the-workplace manifesto: gender inequality in positions of power; how sexist stereotypes about appropriate behavior can unfairly manifest in likability and performance reviews; research showing that women underestimate their capabilities and qualifications; and the importance of equal division of domestic labor between men and women ("If you want to do something nice for your wife or girlfriend," she said in what's become one of her signature lines, "don't buy flowers. Do laundry!").

But there were also nods to racial bias. "I wrote Lean In because men still run the world, because historically white men run the world and I'm just not sure that's going that well," she said with a laugh that was echoed by the audience. While women are underrepresented, both men and women of color are "sorely underrepresented" in leadership decisions, she added.