When I met Sheryl Sandberg I was 26. I was new to show business (actually, any business) and new to publicly speaking my mind. I was also the product of a mother who told me that basically everything I said and every piece of art I created was of value.
This, my Lennys, is the perfect recipe for being in constant trouble on the Internet. And that's exactly where I found myself — at the cross section of valid concerns articulated by thoughtful cultural critics and the hot rage directed at women with both potbellies and ideas — when Sheryl came into my life. I was frozen with fear of offending people whose opinions I trusted and anger at being harassed by fucksticks. And I wasn't sure how I could continue to persist as a public voice when the voice in my head was so addled.
At this point Sheryl's first book, Lean In, had already rocked (and sometimes roiled) women across the nation as it asked them to step up and take charge of their professional destinies. And, despite Sheryl's poise and clarity, she also found herself in the hot seat for expressing her belief system. But as all role models do, she didn't shy away from the challenging conversations. And with Lean In Circles, which encourage women to meet in small groups to discuss professional goals and challenges, she expanded the mission detailed in the book, forming a movement with results. She created an essential dialogue about wage equality and the lack of women in positions of leadership.
I expected to admire Sheryl, to be impressed by her fierce intelligence and conviction, her work-life balance, her blowout. But what I didn't know is that we would connect deeply and fully, spending a long night after our initial talk curled on her couch, discussing the challenges and triumphs of sharing yourself with the world. She lent me insanely comfortable sweatpants and pulled out a pint of frozen yogurt with two spoons, and I felt like I was in a Nancy Meyers–penned movie about two professional, soft-pants-wearing women just workin' it out.
Since then, we have been workin' it out. Sheryl recognized that I needed some coaching to actually seize my newfound power, to stop thinking of myself as indebted to everyone who had ever smiled at me and to start thinking of myself as an asset. She asked me if I knew how much my male contemporaries were making, if I had a business manager, and when I was planning to have children. I was shocked to realize there were some questions I had never actually asked myself.
I wasn't scared to embarrass myself in front of this insanely accomplished woman, to admit my bevy of fears and shortcomings, because Sheryl fosters that sense of openness and camaraderie, whether with people on her Facebook and Lean In foundation teams (team! A word I learned to use in a sentence from Sheryl!), or the women she talks to all across the world.
I could write a novella about how much I love watching her put her kids to sleep, completely present and totally in tune. It was only fitting that she forced me to celebrate my 30th birthday in style, insisting milestones must be treated as such, that celebrating yourself is a right, not a privilege.
I feel lucky to talk to her about her latest initiative, Together Women Can, a campaign celebrating the power of women supporting each other and encouraging women to be allies and mentors to each other in the workplace and beyond. She preaches what she knows.