Inside Silicon Valley’s Original “Lean In” Circle

Sheryl Sandberg’s book has inspired women to start consciousness-raising groups for career women. This elite Bay Area group, the first in the country, agreed to let me in. posted on

“Like for most of us, this isn’t about the paycheck anymore. Buying a new pair of shoes or purse is nice, yes, but I want to do something bold, have an impact. Is that in ad sales or media? I don’t know. But I want to take risks. I want to be able to say, ‘Fuck yeah, I was cray cray,’” says the woman across from me.

Totally, I think. Except for that first part about the paycheck. And that second part about thinking that ad sales are badass. But beyond that, yes. Let’s go cray cray.

I’m sitting in a living room with nine women, mostly in their mid-thirties, in a newly renovated two-story multimillion-dollar apartment in San Francisco’s Marina district (yes, I got the tour). The women are high-level career women — most of them have worked at companies like Yahoo, Facebook, and Google over the course of their careers. But there’s a mix: a doctor, a Silicon Valley commercial real estate developer, a former finance exec-turned-consultant, and others. These are women who are obsessed with work, love what they do, and while making and reshaping themselves, they are killing it.

We are there to lay bare our career challenges, successes, failures, and road maps. To voice them, recognize them, and hold ourselves accountable for the goals and dreams we wanted in life. In other words, we are there to make sure that each of us was going to “lean in.’

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book has become a sensation in Silicon Valley and nationally. The premise is that if women want to be successful, they have to make personal changes to how they think and act. Yes, Sandberg acknowledges, they face obstacles and sexism in the workplace, but they can’t just pass the buck. It’s up to them as individuals to ask for a raise, take risks, and literally sit at the table — in other words, “lean in” — if they want to get ahead in the world, just like she did.

When Sandberg’s book came out, though, it was met with some harsh criticism, much of which focused on the claim that it ignored institutional obstacles and the true prevalence of sexism that hold women back, and for being elitist in its focus on the upper class.

Lean In groups, where women meet up in real life to discuss the lessons of Sandberg’s book, are the closest thing we have to a test of the book’s contents. After publication, Sandberg founded nonprofit LeanIn.org, which encourages women to start circles, akin to feminist consciousness-raising groups but with a business twist. She even provides a curriculum.

Some say it’s branding; others say it’s a movement. One journalist tried starting her own as a gimmick, and others have crashed newly formed groups.

But the circle in that Marina apartment isn’t just any Lean In circle — it is the first one ever, founded by Facebook ad exec Bianca Gates. At a Facebook holiday party last year, Bianca had mentioned to Sandberg that she was starting a group with her close friends to talk about their careers. Her only problem was that there was no agenda, and she was worried it would fall apart. Sandberg told her about her plans for Lean In. Bianca’s group, then, essentially became the beta test for the movement, before the book even hit the shelves. As Sandberg’s PR rep told me, it was “synergistic.”

One motivator, according to Bianca, was that despite the group’s work-adjacent tie — many were ‘07 Stanford Business School grads — they never discussed work. At their cocktail parties, BBQs, and even at the playground, the husbands talk shop, the women gossip. As someone who often talks with friends about work, I was surprised. “I can’t change the interactions we have at cocktail parties,” Bianca explains, “but I can create a more focused discussion at my house.”

They’re also close with Sandberg. Before the meeting started, they handed around printed-out photos (above) of the group posed, smiling, with Sandberg at a party. Bianca and her friends provide Sandberg feedback about what’s working on the ground.

Word spread. Over the past couple of months, Bianca has been inundated with emails and phone calls from women, some sending their résumés and cover letters, wanting to join her group. When it got too big, sub-groups splintered off. She’s helped create six groups so far. Bianca hinted that the latest one, an elite group for “heavy hitters,” includes some of the the most prominent female leaders in the Bay Area. It makes sense: Being a top exec brings its own workplace issues.

Tonight, at the apartment, the women, fueled by Olivia Pope–sized glasses of wine and dressed mostly in skinny jeans, sit comfortably around the tasteful beige living room. A tiered porcelain tray of snacks sits on the coffee table untouched.

Occasionally we hear the sounds of Bianca’s toddler, who is being looked after by the nanny (“the best thing that ever happened to me,” Bianca tells me). Her husband is out having a “Lean Out” dinner with another one of the husbands. (He explained he can’t be around the house during the meeting, otherwise he would babysit, like many of the other husbands do.)

The husbands aren’t allowed to know what happens in the group. Everything shared is strictly confidential, even from your “S.O.” In Fight Club style, if you run into another member in public — or as they say, “out of circle” — you can’t just mention something discussed in the group without permission. You don’t know who might be with them. It has an AA quality to it. They allowed me to join only as an honorary member — I had to share just as they did — with the promise I would veil certain identities and not reveal who said what.

Like the subject matter, the rules of this group are serious: If you miss two meetings — or are even five minutes late to two meetings — you get kicked out, per Sandberg’s suggestion. There’s homework. The evenings oscillate between “educations sessions,” where they learn about a topic (recent subjects included negotiations and team dynamics), and “exploration sessions,” where someone picks a theme for a conversation and they share mostly their stories of success. One month, they each submitted three pictures that defined them for a slide show, for a talk about their identities and goals.

The night’s agenda is written on a large white pad on an easel. One woman, armed with an iPhone timer, is moderating. First up: six-minute “check-ins” where each woman provides an update on work. One woman describes a pitch at a huge meeting that went horribly wrong, (“Did you play it high versus low?”) Another had closed a massive deal (applause — “You go, girl!”). One had turned down a promotion at work (“Wait, what? Why not? Let’s back up here…” “Whoa, that is major.”) And another was facing major reshufflings. (“Don’t be afraid. Don’t let fear overcome you.”)

Next, we move on to the main topic of the night: “What is your 18-month goal and your long-term plan?” — a question taken from chapter four of the book.

The book actually doesn’t come up that much, otherwise; sometimes not at all. Some attendees, in fact, haven’t read it. “That’s Sheryl’s story. We are here to tell our own stories,” explains Bianca. “Her story was inspirational, but what will our book be in 10 years? This is our road map.”

They mostly look to the Lean In curriculum for guidance on group structure. Some sessions are based on the videos and discussion guides posted on LeanIn.org. But they are already beginning to develop independently on top of that. It isn’t so much about learning new skills — most of the women have been in the business school classes taught by the professors in those videos. While I was there, they even decide one of them should make a video for the site herself. The main point is accountability. “Verbalizing it, putting it out there, will help manifest it,” one of them says. “If you share it, it makes it stronger.”

Over the course of the night, the women reference personal conversations with Condi Rice (she’s given up politics for good to pursue “passion points” from the outside) and Mark Zuckerberg (“the future comes faster than you think it does”). They cite StrengthsFinder 2.0 as well as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (hardly a feminist tome).

The language is a mix of business jargon (vectors, stock prices, skill sets, functionals, pivoting) framed in the language of well-trained managerial communicators (“what I’m hearing is”) with a feminine twinge (“thank you for sharing”) and a gutsy edge — plus equally gutsy laughter. They are having fun. They’re planning a Lean In Las Vegas trip.

I’m having fun too, in spite of myself. I feel disconnected from these women on account of their lifestyles, but I find myself laughing along with them. It is as easy to imagine dishing crazy gossip with these ladies over martinis as it is trying to hold your ground against any one of them across a boardroom table.

This, it’s worth noting, is not an opportunity for male bashing. Sexism in the workplace is hardly mentioned at all, either. Many attendees had kids, including small babies, but work-life balance rarely comes up.

Instead, they ask each other challenging questions about work itself: “What is it about your boss’s job that you don’t want?” They share networking ideas and potential connections. They also surprise each other: “I feel like I can relate to you on a new level now that I know your passions.”

They make lofty declarations and offer feedback that sounds like life mantras for the Silicon Valley set:

“This is basically choose your own adventure.”

“Being curious is best thing you can do.”

“In the Valley, you take risks, which means you get burned sometimes. What do you do, and how do you move on?”

“I want to take a position that forces me into thinking instead of just staying on course.”

“If risks turned out positively for everyone, everyone would take them, and they wouldn’t be called a ‘risk.’”

“Steve Jobs said the best thing that happened to him was getting fired.”

“Things always work out, if you have the right attitude. Period.”

“I can do anything I want.”

That last quote speaks to one of the undertones of the circle, and perhaps Sandberg’s book. These women are at the top of their games — of the game, for lack of a better term. Even if they created these advantages for themselves, they can still count them as advantages. Not all of them came from wealthy backgrounds. But now they’re living at, or at least near, the top.

I worried that when it was my turn to share, my lack of multimillion-dollar deal stories and my need for a paycheck would alienate me from them. But I go ahead and tell them about the good and bad things at work — what I’m trying to improve, things that had gone well, and things that hadn’t. Their world and their problems seem far from mine, but I speak and they hear what I am saying.

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