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Facebook executive talks careers to Harvard Business School grads

Harvard Business School alumna Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, spoke at the school’s Class Day.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Harvard Business School alumna Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, spoke at the school’s Class Day.

Less than a week after Facebook’s troubled debut as a public company, Sheryl Sandberg, the social network’s chief operating officer and a Harvard Business School alumna, returned to Cambridge Wednesday to deliver the keynote address for the school’s graduating students.

In her speech, Sandberg barely mentioned Facebook’s recent $16 billion initial public offering, which is drawing scrutiny from federal regulators and investors. Instead, she spoke about gender roles in the workplace and her own path to becoming second-in-command at the giant social media company.

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“We need to acknowledge openly that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership,” said Sandberg, 42, adding that women need more encouragement to pursue higher level executive roles.

Sandberg, named the fifth most powerful woman in the world last year by Forbes magazine, has been outspoken on issues facing female executives, generating headlines by saying she leaves work at 5:30 p.m. to be home for dinner with her two children. That reaction “showed me this is an unresolved issue for men and women,” she said — a message that struck a chord with Harvard Business School student Tiffany Niver, 26, of Omaha.

“Her point was to say that [we] are the future business leaders, and this is an agenda item,” Niver said.

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Sandberg also said it was something of a risk to join Facebook in 2008, when it didn’t have much of a business model and was being run by cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, who had dropped out of Harvard just four years earlier.

Now, Sandberg said, she is considered to be one of the ­elders at Facebook — the one young workers go to when they want someone who remembers life before the Internet.

Older or not, Sandberg has increasingly become the public face of the company, and has taken the lead role when it comes to dealing with Wall Street. When Facebook came to Boston this month as part of its pre-IPO roadshow, it was Sandberg, not Zuckerberg, who met with hundreds of ­potential investors in a Four Seasons Hotel conference room.

In her Harvard speech, Sandberg only touched on Facebook’s status as a brand-new public company, instead talking about how the social media platform is increasingly giving ordinary people a louder voice.

She did joke that as students leave school and start careers, they should be sure to keep in touch — where else? — on Facebook. “We are public now, so you can click on an ad or two while you are there,” she said.

Sparsh Bhargava, 26, a graduating student from Boxborough, said he didn’t expect Sandberg to talk about the stock offering. “I was hoping for what she gave us,” said Bhargava: an inspirational message for graduates just about to start their careers.

Sandberg graduated with honors from Harvard University with a degree in economics in 1991.

As a business school student, Sandberg was in the top 5 percent of her class, graduating in 1995. She worked at the World Bank and in the US Treasury Department.

She came to Facebook after six years at Google Inc., where she was vice president of global online sales and operations. On her watch, Facebook grew into a worldwide social network that now claims more than 900 million users.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.
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