Handling Hyper-connectivity: Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In hit stands just a month ago, yet it has inspired a reaction that most authors could only dream of.

Its author is a successful technology executive in Silicon Valley. So we wondered, how are female executives in countries like India, Romania, and Chile, responding to the message?

The book itself, which reads more like the memoir of a corporate tycoon than a feminist manifesto, has been accused by book critics for being elitist. Its advice focuses on all-American, primarily white, mostly college-educated, married, wealthy women. For all its shrewd tips about handling office politics and ascending the corporate ladder, the book has its limitations.

A recent interview by VentureBeat with British entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow, who is also the mother of two kids, proved to be revealing. In the U.K., the The Independent newspaper recently estimated that working mothers spend a third of their salaries for child care. “It feels like we have to pay to work,” Wosskow quipped.

For Wosskow and many other female entrepreneurs, Sandberg’s anecdotes about her billionaire CEO friends and private jet journeys don’t reflect reality. As Jia En Teo, cofounder of a Roomorama, put it in an interview with VentureBeat, “In Asia, women’s struggles are exacerbated. Being too ambitious, too expressive, too opinionated, too individualistic: These traits are nor conventionally encouraged.”

VentureBeat gathered half a dozen women entrepreneurs around the world. For them, “leaning in” is not just a new way to approach work: It may mean breaking social norms. Here’s a sampling of views from women entrepreneurs around the world, in their own words.

(Did you read Lean In? Did you find the advice useful? Please let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!)

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Debbie Wosskow, CEO of Love Home Swap (London)

“Lean In has been the topic of conversation among the female entrepreneurial community in the U.K. over the last few weeks, and that’s good, because we don’t normally talk about that stuff.

However, the U.K. has some basic structural issues that make it difficult for women to manage child care and careers, especially if they are running a startup in which earnings are low and risk is high.

Sadly, Sandberg’s solution — and that of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (who installed a nursery next to her office at her own expense) — just aren’t realistic for most of us. It’s not about hating women who have succeeded. It’s about practical problem-solving for those on the journey.

Yes, it’s true that as a woman, no one is going to make it happen for you unless you have a seat at the table. But this book is perhaps more useful for younger twentysomethings at the start of their career then those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth.”

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Jia En Teo, cofounder of Roomorama (Singapore)

“Whether we agree or disagree with Sandberg, Lean In is certainly relevant to the challenges women face in wanting, or aspiring, to have it all.

Women of our generation in Singapore, perhaps more than in the rest of Asia, have grown up alongside, and been given the same opportunities as, men. We were told that we could achieve anything we set our minds to.

However, we reach a certain age, and we come under pressure from family, society, and our physiology to get married and start a family. The widespread perception when a woman does not desire this — or delays the process by too long — is that there is something “wrong.” While we have choices, society is not yet ready to accept, and not judge, all the choices that women choose to make.

Women have not leaned back but have leaned in to achieve what they want. Yet the situation these successful women have found themselves in is that the pool of potential partners is not only small but also shrinking around them as they become more accomplished in their careers. While Sandberg speaks of juggling career and family, and how women have created glass ceilings for themselves? There is the other side of the coin.

It seems to me that women who want to have it all believed that they could — but have found the scale has tipped away from them.”

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Ai Ching Goh, cofounder of Piktochart (Malaysia)

“More women in Malaysia are stepping up to become entrepreneurs and are trying to obtain a work-life balance.

Does a major revolution need to happen in order to give proper support to a career-loving parent like Sheryl Sandberg? Yes, and it’s already starting to happen. The current generation is more sensitive toward things like a female washroom in the office.

But I can’t speak for everyone. The Malaysian population is very diverse. At one end of the spectrum are Muslim men who are allowed to have four wives; at the other end, we have an urban working population that is very much similar to large cities all over the world.”

Check out more interviews with the CEOs of Mydala, iSTARStories and ShareYourCart on the next page. 

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Adela Salagean, founder of ShareYourCart (Romania)

At 18, I didn’t want to have kids or commitment. I just wanted to conquer the world and have an impact. By the time I was 28, I had a loving husband and a newborn baby, and I was building a great product, ShareYourCart.com.

I can say I have it all. But it’s damn hard.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book definitely touches some soft spots and very hot issues for young women in Romania. I honestly believe most young educated mothers in Romania would be revolted by her view on things. They want their natural right of raising their child healthy without the modern pressure of putting a career over motherhood or even at the same level of importance.

I don’t believe women should force themselves to be more like men nor should be considered inferior if they choose to do the most natural thing in the world: motherhood.

My husband loves me for being a woman and a mother. My business partner appreciates me for being a woman and bringing to the table the specific set of skills that women master easier than men. Under no circumstances would I want to be more of a man. That would make me feel less like myself, less happy and less accomplished.”

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Terri Anderson, founder of iSTAR Stories (Chile by way of New Zealand)

“I was consulting for some members of a Chilean government department on managing an education project. I thought I had done a great job and made an impact. We went for drinks after the last day and they raised a toast to me … having more children.

I think the dialogue is useful. I don’t get why people are slamming Sheryl Sandberg for being successful and therefore out of touch. She could hardly have written it were she unsuccessful. It is a good example of the double standards she is talking about: Would we criticize a successful man for writing about business?

As an entrepreneur, I pick my own hours, which can mean working on the laptop in bed half the night, so I can spend time with my family. Importantly, so does my partner. Fact is, in an ideal world the whole child care debate would not be all about women. It should be recognized that people have careers and people have families. So women would be able to feel a bit less victimized in the workplace, and men would have the freedom to not have their choices judged, too.

Ironically, I have been advised to not mention the fact that I am a mother when I seek out venture capital. I wouldn’t be interested in children’s books if I didn’t have a kid growing up in Chile and needing books! And would my son’s father ever receive the same advice? It’s total crap. I always say I am a parent rather than a mom; in my mind it gives me a better status.”

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Anisha Singh, founder of Mydala (Delhi, India)

“Sheryl’s message in Lean In is a simple but a powerful one — that we as women need to step up and make the change.

Nowhere is it more clear than in a country like India, where even though we’ve had a female prime minister and president in the past, the inequality glares you in the face every day. Largely, women in this country don’t second guess themselves — that would be too modern. They just don’t decide anything themselves because it would not be acceptable by societal standards.

I plan to give this book to all the fabulous women who work for my company. Even if they can’t relate to Sandberg’s lifestyle, they can all relate to the message. Several times in the past, I have hesitated to speak up when I should have. Like Sheryl, I have often downplayed my accomplishments while my fellow entrepreneurs will happily tell the world.

While this book isn’t the only bridge that will make us cross the chasm, it certainly gets us thinking on ways to make the shift in equality happen.

On a personal note, I moved back from New York to start Mydala about three-and-a-half years ago while I was pregnant. The initial climb was quite rough since it was hard being a female who had recently moved back from the U.S. being taken seriously — let alone that I was also very pregnant and trying to raise VC funding. I was told by an investor that they didn’t want to invest because I was just too pregnant, and that was probably one of the nicer comments I had heard up until then.

My daughter is now three-years-old, and Mydala is one of the largest mobile Internet companies, as we did end up raising funding from a great set of investors.

Lean In was just one of those books that made me feel that we all have the same doubts that we need to get past, including working mom’s guilt.”

Top photo: Sheryl Sandberg. Credit: World Economic Forum via photopin cc