Sheryl Sandberg addressed the graduating class of 2017 at Virginia Tech's commencement this morning armed with one central theme: resilience.
Sandberg knows a thing or two about resilience, having unexpectedly lost her husband David Goldberg two years ago while they were traveling on vacation in Mexico together. Since then, the Facebook COO and Lean In author's life has changed forever, and she has spoken candidly, including to Refinery29, about her grief process and how she plans to move forward.
It takes strength to speak out and turn your attention outward, rather than focus on the pain, when you're grieving. But that's exactly what Sandberg has done since her husband's death, by founding her organization Option B, which helps communities build resilience in the face of adversity. She has also co-authored a book called Option B, which is "part memoir and part operating manual for surviving the hardest moments in our lives."
Virginia Tech is just one of the communities where she has recently spoken — and it's fitting that she would come to Blacksburg, VA, given that this year marks the 10-year anniversary of the shooting on the university's campus, during which a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17.
During her speech, Sandberg alluded to the Virginia Tech massacre — "And then there are the shared losses. The Virginia Tech community knows this" — but did not address the specifics.
Instead, she focused on positive topics, like turning phrases such as "collective resilience" into action.
Be there for your friends and family. And I mean in person — not just in a message with a heart emoji. Even though those are pretty great, too.
"We build resilience into ourselves," she said. "We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That’s called 'collective resilience.' It’s an incredibly powerful force — and it’s one that our country and our world need a lot more of right about now."
As part of her Lean In organization, Sandberg has founded more than 33,000 circles in 150 countries in which small groups discuss how to take steps toward gender equality. Not too long ago, she was in Beijing, where she met women from Lean In circles across China. In China, if you're unmarried past the age of 27, you're called a sheng nu — a "leftover woman," she told graduates.
The stigma that comes with being a "leftover" can be intense. "One woman — a 36-year-old economics professor — was rejected by 15 men because (wait for it) she was too educated," Sandberg said. "After that, her father forbade her younger sister from going to graduate school."
One of China's Lean In circles addressed this lingering injustice by creating a play called The Leftover Monologues, which celebrates being "leftover" and tackles often taboo topics like sexual harassment, date rape, and homophobia. That's where the importance of building narratives together in an act of collective resilience comes in, said Sandberg: "The world told them what their stories should be, and they said, 'Actually, we’re writing a different story for ourselves. We are not leftover. We are strong, and we will write our own story together.'"
Sandberg's chief advice for graduates in their own communities was to truly be there for their friends and family — which means, if a friend experiences loss, don't just say, "I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do?" Instead, say things like, "I know you are suffering and I am here with you" whenever you feel that there's "an elephant in the room" (that person's grief), and follow up in concrete ways.
"Be there for your friends and family," she said. "And I mean in person — not just in a message with a heart emoji. Even though those are pretty great, too."
The speech was broadcast live on Sandberg's Facebook page, and you can watch it there in its entirety.