LeanIn.Org pushes women to stick with career ambitions

LeanIn.Org, founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, 'plans to focus on very practical and actionable skills that women can use in the workplace and that men and women can use to combat gender biases,' says its president, Rachel Thomas.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg delivers a speech in New York City in February 2012. She has started a nonprofit group, LeanIn.Org, headed by Rachel Thomas. It aims to foster female leadership through educational and other tools and programs for both women and men.

Rachel Thomas was busy working at Subtext, Inc., the second company she had helped to found, and juggling her job with raising two small children in 2010.

She was proud of her work at Subtext, which sold digital reading products to elementary and secondary schools, but says she had also started to push herself a little less in her career as the pressures of balancing business and family life bore down.

One Saturday morning, she fed her kids breakfast and sent them on an errand with her husband so she could get some work done. That day, she heard Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, deliver a now-famous speech called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Ms. Sandberg’s message, about the need for women to “lean in” and seize high-power job opportunities, appealed to her.

“At times there’s a bit of loneliness when you’re a woman and trying to balance career and family on a daily basis,” says Ms. Thomas, now 42. “I was struck by how we need to be talking about this more, and be more open about the experience of being a woman who is ambitious in her career but also very dedicated to home and family.”

Today Ms. Thomas brings both her commitment to open discussion and her experiences as a female business leader to her new role as president of LeanIn.Org, founded by Ms. Sandberg, whose speech was the seed from which sprouted her best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Ms. Sandberg won’t say how much she provided to start the nonprofit LeanIn.Org, but the group’s Lean In Foundation, which Ms. Thomas also heads, owns the book copyright, and proceeds from it will support the organization.

Ms. Thomas says her experience with her first start-up company taught her that open and honest communication about a difficult subject can bring out the best in people, a lesson she hopes to apply in her new job.

In 1996, at the beginning of the dot-com era, she and a friend founded BrainTrust, a Bay Area enterprise that sought to bring promising recent college graduates into high-growth, temporary-to-permanent jobs in the technology industry and other fledgling companies.

BrainTrust quickly grew to operate in four cities with more than 350 clients, many of which were Web companies or the businesses that supported them. Five years later the tech bubble burst – and, in a matter of months, BrainTrust’s pipeline of jobs began to dry up.

Ms. Thomas and her BrainTrust colleagues were candid with their employees about the loss of business. Her company’s leaders helped workers with their job searches, even helping to polish their résumés. Because of that show of commitment to them, her employees continued coming to work and helped to keep BrainTrust afloat for almost another year.

LeanIn.Org aims to spark some candid discussions of its own, as part of its mission to foster female leadership. It plans to put the advice and research in Ms. Sandberg’s book to practical use through educational and other tools and programs for both women and men. The goal is to encourage women to retain their professional ambitions even when they start a family, while also promoting equality for women in the workplace. To those ends, the nonprofit is offering three main components:

  •  Lean In Community, an online space where participants are encouraged to discuss and exchange ideas.
  •  Lean In Education, which provides free online educational programs from researchers and experts at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Topics include how to negotiate more effectively, or how to use body language to project professional competence.
  •  Lean In Circles, which operate like a book club: Small groups meet monthly, share experiences, and work through the educational content Lean In provides.

In all three, says Ms. Thomas, “The goal is to focus on very practical and actionable skills that women can use in the workplace and that men and women can use to combat gender biases.”

Ms. Thomas knows that Lean In can’t close the corporate world’s gender gap all by itself. But she hopes that some candor will help.

“People generally don’t like to talk about gender issues,” she says. “But by pushing it out into the public discourse, there’s been a very strong response to the message of Lean In.”

She adds, “We hope this national conversation becomes individual conversations between manager to employee, husband and wife, parents talking about it to children.”

Rachel Thomas, president, LeanIn.Org

Education: Bachelor's degree, English and government, Georgetown University

Career highlights: Co-founder, Subtext, Inc., a company that sold educational products to schools, and co-founder of BrainTrust, an employee-recruitment company for technology and other industries

Salary: She declined to provide it.

What she's reading: She is re-reading Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg – this time with a highlighter.

This story originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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