Should Women Entrepreneurs "Lean In" Like Sheryl Sandberg?

Carla Turchetti by Carla Turchetti on May 20, 2013
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“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

It’s one of the provocative questions Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg asks in her best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Sandberg, a Harvard-educated executive who came to Facebook via the U.S. Treasury Department and Google, centers the book around the idea that women are preventing themselves from attaining leadership positions and need to take responsibility for breaking through the glass ceiling by leaning in instead of stepping back.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” Sandberg writes.

Sandberg’s approach to the professional world has obviously served her well at big corporations. But do the same lessons apply to women entrepreneurs developing their own ideas and small businesses?

“Leaning in looks a little different from our ranks than within corporate America, but I think Sheryl Sandberg’s ideas still resonate,” says Lauree Ostrofsky, “chief hugger” and coach at Simply Leap coaching services. She agrees that women generally need to be more aggressive and, in Sandberg’s words, “take a seat at the table.”

“I coach women who want to work for themselves, and I have my own business, too,” Ostrofsky says. “I witness the nervousness around being good enough to deserve that seat. We get to decide that, no one else, and I think that’s what Sheryl is saying.”

Carmen Kosicek, a registered nurse who provides career counseling to her peers, says, “I am sitting at the table and love her book. I’ve been working on it, but now the jet fuel has been added. I am ready to lean in.”

Emilie Cushman, co-founder and CEO of the video interviewing platform Kira Talent, thinks the lessons in the book definitely apply to women who run their own businesses.

“Sandberg is clearly successful and the ‘lean in movement’ is definitely net positive,” Cushman says. “From my perspective, ambition and tenacity are the antidotes to both gender and age biases. Founding a company, raising capital, and recruiting a great team were more about setting a compelling vision and tenaciously going after it than anything else.”

Work-Life Balance

Sandberg is a wife and mother, and in the book she advises women to select a partner who will work with them to achieve work-life balance.

“When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home,” Sandberg writes.

Alicia Vanderschuere, founder and CEO of rosieMADE, a website that sells products from companies run by women, says the traditional workplace is not designed for women — especially those who want to have a family, too.

“Since I can’t change all of corporate America, I decided to build a system for women, by women,” Vanderschuere says. “I launched my company in November 2012 as a way to lean in myself and also to help other women entrepreneurs. I’ve read Lean In, and I am really excited about the focus this has created in the marketplace on women’s issues.”

Is Leaning In Something New?

Is the concept of leaning in something new, or is it a revival of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s?

“Those of us who have been entrepreneurs for years have leaned in for so long,” says Catherine Saxton, chairman of the Saxton Group, a public relations firm. “Sheryl Sandberg is merely a beneficiary of all the brave and bold women who marched in New York City in the 1970s, marched on Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s, and whose spiritual leaders were their peers,” Saxton says. “This is very old news, but if it inspires a new generation to keep climbing on our shoulders, carry on.”

Sandberg is clearly inspired to do so. “Writing this book is not just me encouraging others to lean in,” she notes. “This is me leaning in. Writing this book is what I would do if I weren’t afraid.”

Carla Turchetti

Carla Turchetti is a veteran broadcast, print and digital journalist who is passionate about small businesses and the stories behind them. Carla is a small-business columnist at the News & Observer, the regional daily newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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