REDWOOD CITY, Calif. - Lean In is leaning down.
In Phase 2 of her national movement for female empowerment, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is seeking a younger demographic: She wants high school and college students to become part of the "Lean In" generation before they enter the workforce.
So there she was early Friday, in the faculty lounge with 28 former and current female students from Sequoia High School, chatting about their futures, taking questions and posing for photos before delivering a commencement address here.
"I really believe this is the Lean In generation," Sandberg, author of the best-selling book Lean In, told the rapt students.
Sandberg invited a USA TODAY reporter to shadow her at the high school, near where she lives and works. The visit is part of an outreach program via the non-profit Leanin.org, a community created to encourage and support women, to buttress the book's themes of self-confidence, deconstructing stereotypes and rebranding feminism.
"Treat yourself as an equal," Sandberg told the students.
At Sequoia, where 97% of students go to college, an excited group of students eagerly awaited the chance to chat with Sandberg. "She's a pioneer for our generation," says senior Joy Robinson, 17. "We don't all aspire to be CEOs, and her message on feminism makes it clear we can do anything."
Araceli Efigenio, a 17-year-old senior who owned a copy of Lean In before she learned she was going to meet the Facebook exec last week, says the book taught her "not to be afraid" of tackling ambitious, long-term goals.
The sit-down with Sequoia students was not a one-off photo opp for Sandberg. During her book tour earlier this year, she occasionally dropped in on high school students to spread the Lean In gospel. But those visits were private gatherings and the message was limited to small groups.
During a 15-minute commencement speech that followed, Sandberg told nearly 400 graduates to "believe in yourselves. Don't listen to anyone who may attempt to put limits on you."
"I see too many people holding themselves back because they feel intimidated," she said later. "I see too many people sitting not at the table, but on the side of the room."
ADDRESSING FINANCIAL DISPARITIES
Friday's discussion and speech are part of a carefully crafted message to an estimated 3.4 million high school graduates and 1.78 million college grads in the USA. Until now, Sandberg tailored her message with laser-like focus for young female professionals.
A major theme of Lean In is the financial disparity between the sexes, based in large part on a confidence gap.
But the career and financial gap is established long before men and women enter the workplace. Males have higher expectations for starting pay ($79,700 to $66,200 for women) and prime career pay ($162,300 to $126,500), according to a 2011 Charles Schwab survey of teenagers.
When last spotted, Sandberg was doing her best celebrity impersonation in the press: the cover of Time magazine, a segment on 60 Minutes and splashed across the front page of USA TODAY.
She was pitching her first book, Lean In, which landed No. 1 on the New York Times' best-seller list for non-fiction. The thin book sparked a national dialogue on the evolving roles of women in the workplace, and raised the profile of Sandberg, sparking rumors of a distant run for political office. She denies any interest in a political career.
The flurry made Sandberg the object of adulation - and, in some cases, derision. Most of the criticism leveled at the 43-year-old mother of two centers on the decades-old debate over whether working women can "have it all" - a career and family.
"People love the book and there are those who think I'm horrible (because of it)," she told the students.
The Lean In generation is ripe for change because it is connected via social-networking services such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, raising the opportunity for more open and honest conversation about gender in the workplace, Sandberg said in an interview Thursday.
The message has spread rapidly. Some 600,000 copies of the book have been sold, and it recently returned to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. "I'm enormously gratified by its success, but more satisfied with activity" around the Lean In movement, she said, noting 200,000 members in the movement.
Her mission transcends equal rights; she makes an economic argument, too. "We should use the talents of the full population," says Sandberg, who once said she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to go home to see her kids.
Women are 51% of the U.S. population and 47% of the workforce, yet only 4% are CEOs and 17% board members, according to market researcher Catalyst. They also earn, on average, 77 cents for every $1 a man earns, says the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
In aligning herself with influential women such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., feminist Gloria Steinem and tech CEOs, Sandberg - Facebook's No. 2 exec after CEO Mark Zuckerberg - insists progress can be made on equal rights.
"This generation can lead us to gender equality in the workplace," she said Thursday.
Copyright 2013 USATODAY.com
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