Miami-Dade County

Sheryl Sandberg: From North Miami Beach High to Facebook’s No. 2

Sheryl Sandberg and her friends, pictured in the 1987 North Miami Beach Senior High School yearbook.
Sheryl Sandberg and her friends, pictured in the 1987 North Miami Beach Senior High School yearbook.

Editor's Note: This article originally ran in February 2012. This week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sanberg, a 1987 North Miami Beach Senior High School graduate, released a new book, "Lean In," about women in the workplace.

The seven women, best friends since North Miami Beach High, gathered for a 40th birthday weekend at a beach resort a couple of years ago.

“No husbands, no children, girls only,” recalls Eve Greenbarg-Albright, one of the seven.

They talked about kids, family, work. They ordered take-out food or made pizza. “We’d be just as happy with Slurpees, M&Ms and chips,” says Greenbarg-Albright.

An unremarkable bonding weekend for old friends — except for the location, which remains a closely guarded secret. When one of the seven friends is Sheryl Sandberg — No. 2 at Facebook, Forbes-ranked fifth most powerful woman in the world and likely to become a billionaire when Facebook’s stock goes public this year — privacy becomes paramount.

Greenbarg-Albright will say only this: The resort is “somewhere in Mexico.”

Sandberg, 42, has reached the heights of success in business while still finding time to speak about the need for women to support each other. And that’s what she practices, too, maintaining a circle of women friends from middle and high school in North Miami Beach, their relationships forged while riding bikes or camping out for concert tickets. Smart and accomplished in their own right, they have remained close for as long as three decades, as Sandberg moved from Harvard grad to the Treasury Department, to Google and now Facebook.

“To understand Sheryl, you have to look at this core group of female friends,” says Brad Meltzer, a best-selling thriller writer who was a year behind them at North Miami Beach High and knows all seven. “They’re smart, dynamic women who have always supported each other. ... It’s a rare thing to have friends who are so close for so long.”

One of the group, Elise Scheck Bonwitt, a Miami-Dade lawyer and mother of five, says Sandberg’s support of women is “just her carrying out what we had in our relationships in high school.”

Some things have changed. Once the women kept in touch by forwarding round-robin letters via the U.S. Postal Service. Now they have a private space on Facebook. All are married. All have kids. A quarter-century after high school, they still get together once or twice a year, “but it’s harder than it used to be,” says Scheck Bonwitt, as the group juggles work and families.

Sandberg isn’t talking to journalists right now; a public relations agency says Facebook executives are in a “quiet period” required by federal regulators as the company prepares for the initial public offering of its stock in the next few months, a move expected to generate $5 billion.

Friends believe the foundations for Sandberg’s stunning success are rooted in her South Florida years. As second in command to Facebook company creator Mark Zuckerberg, she’s become known as the steadying influence on a company filled with brilliant, mercurial entrepreneurs without a lot of organizational or people skills. Fifteen years older than Zuckerberg, she’s considered a personable, smart and efficient manager who has helped the company grow dramatically. Since she arrived four years ago, Facebook has gone from 130 employees to 2,500, from 70 million users to more than 800 million.

Her North Miami Beach friends say she’s extremely bright, commanding, with a way of connecting. “Driven and motivated,” says Greenbarg-Albright. “When she walks into a room, she is very confident.”

Socially adept, too, Greenbarg-Albright adds. “She makes friends very easily. Very inviting and welcoming, a good conversationalist. She’s interested in other people. She doesn’t speak about herself, never. It’s ‘How can I help you? What is your interest?’ She focuses on others.”

Scheck-Bonwitt says Sandberg has an ability to make everyone feel special. “Every single person she meets becomes the most important person in the world... She always makes you feel the focus is on you.”

Born in Washington, Sandberg moved to Miami-Dade when she was 2. Her mother, Adele, taught English as a second language and founded Ear Peace — Save Your Hearing, a nonprofit that teaches teens how to prevent hearing loss. Her father, Joel, is an ophthalmologist still practicing in Hollywood.

The parents declined to be interviewed, but their Facebook pages offer a few clues about them: Adele has 137 friends, and her top interest is SurveyMonkey, an online company run by Sheryl’s husband, Dave Goldberg. Joel has 172 friends and one of his favorite movies is Refusenik, a documentary on the movement to free Soviet Jews.

The pair raised a brainy bunch: Sheryl, the eldest, was followed by David, who also went to Harvard and became a pediatric neurosurgeon who now practices at Miami Children’s Hospital. Michelle, the youngest, followed them to Harvard and now is a pediatrician in Santa Clara, Calif., near Sheryl’s home.

The parents were deeply involved in Temple Sinai in North Miami Beach and the effort to free Soviet Jews. In 1982, when Sandberg was 13, she was featured in a Miami Herald article about Soviet Jews. The story noted she had attended her first rally for Soviet Jews when she was a year old: “Since then, she has participated in protest marches, handed out petitions and worked on letter-writing campaigns to help Soviet Jews.”

“Sheryl was always motivated, always wanted to have an impact, and that stems from being very active in Soviet Jewry,” says Greenbarg-Albright, who has known Sandberg since elementary school, when they attended a Jewish summer camp in Georgia.

For three of the women, the friendship with Sandberg began at Highland Oaks Middle School in North Miami-Dade , say Greenbarg-Albright and Scheck-Bonwitt, who have agreed to be the spokeswomen for the group. Originally there were eight in the group, though they lost close contact with one after high school.

Three attended middle school with Sandberg, and three others became friends when they entered North Miami Beach High in 10th grade. An eighth friend became close after entering school in 12th grade. All were Jewish, from affluent families, striving to do well in school “and we were all kind of athletic,” says Greenbarg-Albright.

Some of them played together on a B’nai B’rith volleyball team. “We did a lot of bike riding and we swam in the lake behind their [the Sandbergs’] house,’’ says Greenbarg-Albright. They hung out after school at each other’s houses. “Some of us wanted to ... watch TV, kind of relax, but Sheryl felt we had to do something. ‘Let’s get on a bike.’ There was really not a lot of sitting around with her.”

They were also heavily involved in student government. Sandberg was sophomore class president, and three others in the group held the other sophomore offices. When they became seniors, two of the group led the class, while Sandberg was on the advisory board.

On weekends, they hung around Loehmann’s Plaza on Biscayne Boulevard or barbecued in Greynolds Park. They went to Police and Journey concerts. Greenbarg-Albright recalls that one time the whole group, including Sandberg, camped out overnight at a record store near the 163rd Street Mall to get tickets to a Genesis concert.

The group loved taking tough classes, honors and advanced placement. Ray Fontana, the current principal at North Miami Beach High, says that at the time when Sandberg was a student, the high school had “the highest advanced placement scores in the nation.” Test scores at the school were “off the charts.”

Meltzer, the author, said the school had such a good reputation that he gave a fake address to go there. “You should have checked the water, because there were so many that went to the Ivy League.”

The 1987 yearbook lists Sandberg as being in the National Honor Society and on the senior class executive board.

Sandberg and six of her friends took out a full page advertisement in the yearbook, featuring two photos of the group and modified lyrics of Through the Years, a song made famous by Kenny Rogers in 1981. “When I didn’t care for anyone but you/ I swear we’ve been through everything there is/ Can’t imagine anything we’ve missed/ Can’t imagine anything the seven of us can’t do.”

Those pictured on the page include Debbie Howitt, who later lost close touch with the group (though she remains friends with Sandberg and the others on Facebook). The page doesn’t include Beth Redlich, who transferred to North Miami Beach High in 12th grade and has remained one of the seven who still gather frequently.

During high school, Greenbarg-Albright doesn’t recall any overt discussions of feminism — Sandberg later was linked in news reports to feminist and “post-feminist” thinking — “but being a strong woman just made sense to us. We believed there was nothing that we couldn’t do. ... I wish I could say we talked about feminism and politics, but it was more boys and college. We were normal kids.”

All seven dated boys on and off in high school, but both Greenberg-Albright and Scheck Bonwitt say the focus was on college and careers, not high school sweethearts.

It paid off: A Herald story on top 1987 graduates named Sandberg as ninth in her class with a 4.646 grade point average.

Scheck Bonwitt went to Columbia, Greenbarg-Albright to Northwestern, Mindy Lockshin and Jami Rozen to Penn, Pam Solomon to Barnard, and Redlich to Tulane. They visited each other and kept in touch with letters — one starting with a single page and sending on to the next, who added a page and sent it on.

Sandberg’s post-Miami life has been well documented in newspaper stories and, last year, a New Yorker profile. At Harvard, she majored in economics and co-founded an organization called Women in Economics and Government. After graduation, she became a research assistant for two years at the World Bank, working for one of her professors, Lawrence Summers. She returned to Harvard for an MBA, then worked for McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, before becoming chief of staff in the late 1990s for Summers when he was named an assistant secretary at the U.S. Treasury Department.

She married a Washington businessman. “It lasted about a year,” says Scheck Bonwitt. “He’s a great guy. It didn’t work out.” Sandberg’s divorce was the only one among the seven women.

When Summers became Treasury secretary in 1999, Sandberg — just 29 — continued as his chief of staff. In 2001, after the Democrats lost the presidential election, Sandberg decided the Internet was the future. She went to work for Google, taking over the fledgling company’s ad program, which had four people working for it. In 2004, she married Goldberg in Arizona, another event that brought the seven women together. Sandberg and Goldberg had two children as she continued to expand Google advertising until it was raking in billions of dollars.

But Google’s highest executive positions were all taken, and after lengthy conversations with Facebook’s Zuckerberg, she jumped ship in 2008 — after debating the money-making potential of friends linking up on the Internet.

“There was this open question: Could we make money, ever?” she told The New Yorker. She decided there was potential.

Last month, when Facebook filed its finances to prepare for a stock offering, the company reported $1 billion in profit last year on revenue of $3.7 billion.

In the New Yorker article last year, Zuckerberg said he was more of a strategy person than a manager. He said he named Sandberg chief operating officer because she “ ‘handles things I don’t want to,’ such as advertising strategy, hiring and firing, management, and dealing with political issues.”

Through all this, the seven women have remained close. When Mindy Lockshin Levy was pregnant with twins and a doctor ordered bed rest, the others joined her for a weekend at her bedside in the Washington, D.C., area. “I think of them as sisters,” says Greenbarg-Albright. “I can open up about anything, something trivial like an issue with my kids or a life-altering event. Fundamentally, we are the same people we were when we were younger.”

Despite Sandberg’s rise, Scheck Bonwitt said, “She’s always very supportive. She’s always made time for everybody.”

In their younger years, their gatherings tended toward the athletic. Greenbarg-Albright remembers a Colorado meeting where they decided to bike up a mountain. Greenbarg-Albright gave up halfway, while Sandberg and several others made it to the summit.

Their most recent gathering was last October when Sandberg, now living in Atherton, Calif., came to South Florida for her brother’s 40th birthday. Between visits, they’re constantly in touch. When Pam Solomon Srebrenik takes a kid to Orlando, it’s posted on their private Facebook page. When Scheck Bonwitt has down time at her son’s chess game, she calls Sandberg and they talk for an hour.

All seem to lead hectic lives. Scheck Bonwitt has a law and mediation in North Miami-Dade. Greenbarg-Albright, after sports marketing stints with the Seattle Supersonics and Miami Heat, is mostly a full-time mom in Broward County, with a marketing consulting service on the side. Lockshin Levy works for a major management and technology company in the Washington, D.C., area. Jami Rozen Passer is managing director of a real-estate firm in Fort Lauderdale. Redlich was a photographer at the Holocaust Museum before becoming a full-time homemaker in the Washington area. Pam Solomon Srebrenik in North Miami-Dade operates KFC franchises.

Scheck Bonwitt and Greenbarg-Albright admit that they speak cautiously about Sandberg to a journalist. “I feel very protective of her, because there’s such a spotlight on her,” says Greenbarg-Albright.

Scheck Bonwitt says Sandberg has only good things to say about Zuckerberg. “She likes him. They’re really different, but she has a great relationship.”

At Facebook, Sandberg has continued the female networking that she began in high school. The New Yorker article noted that last year she gathered 12 Facebook female executives together to organize a Woman’s Leadership Day. And she continues speaking on the topic of women and leadership around the country. The talks may refer to Facebook occasionally but not much. “This is Sheryl being Sheryl,” says Scheck Bonwitt.

Sandberg’s basic theme is that women’s own hesitations and mindset often keep them from reaching the top. At a commencement speech at Barnard College last May, she talked about how only 15 percent of top jobs in corporate America were held by women.

“I encourage you to think big,” she told the all-female graduating class.

“If you ask men and women questions about completely objective criteria such as GPAs or sales goals, men get it wrong slightly high; women get it wrong slightly low. More importantly, if you ask men why they succeeded, men attribute that success to themselves; and women, they attribute it to other factors like working harder, help from others.

“Ask a woman why she did well on something, and she’ll say, ‘I got lucky. All of these great people helped me. I worked really hard.’ Ask a man and he’ll say or think, ‘What a dumb question. I’m awesome.” So women need to take a page from men and own their own success.”

This speech in its many variations has spread widely on the web. The 15-minute talk she gave at a TedWomen conference in Washington in December 2010 has been viewed more than a million times.

One point she emphasizes is that women often take whatever salary a company offers while men tend to negotiate aggressively. The recent Facebook SEC filings reveal that in 2011, she received the top overall compensation at the company: $30.9 million.

That’s a huge number, but way behind the stock options she negotiated when she joined the company four years ago. Forbes Magazine estimates that those options will soon be worth between $1.3 billion and $1.8 billion.