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Lean In strives to move beyond Sheryl Sandberg

The women's empowerment group tries to chart its way forward without the Facebook exec's founding influence

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Staff members of Lean In, the organisation founded by Ms Sandberg, in Palo Alto, California.

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Ms Sandberg largely won over the feminist mainstream, and she became one of the group's iconic leaders.

Palo Alto, California

THE door to the Lean In office in Palo Alto, California, has Sheryl Sandberg's name on it. The email addresses for Lean In employees bear her initials. And millions of dollars in funding every year for the women's empowerment organisation comes from her.

But inside, surrounded by wall art reminding women to be bold, the Lean In staff has a singular message - Ms Sandberg now has little to do with the group she founded. "I don't want to take anything away - how could I? - from Sheryl as the inspiration for the work that we do," said Rachel Thomas, the president of LeanIn.org. "But the book came out six years ago. It's become less and less about Sheryl with every passing year."

The sentiment extends beyond Silicon Valley. "Sheryl's not really Lean In," said Emily Schwarz, who runs Lean In Atlanta, a group of about 2,000. "We are Lean In."

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This is a startling change for an organisation that still has Ms Sandberg's face pop up when you scroll over the About Us tab on its website; as recently as October, she was the lead author of a Lean In-branded essay in The Wall Street Journal.

It coincides with a radical shift in perception of Ms Sandberg in her day job as Facebook's chief operating officer. In recent weeks, Ms Sandberg's work at Facebook has been the subject of damaging headlines, from her slow response to Russian manipulation of Facebook to the way her team went on the attack against critics. Pundits have called on her to resign.

Now, the Lean In movement is trying to figure out how independent it can actually become from the Sheryl Sandberg brand. Ms Sandberg's workplace feminism revival began with her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Research she popularised at the time - about how women do not negotiate as strongly as men do for raises, about how posing like Superwoman in the bathroom can help women stand more authoritatively for a presentation - is now mainstream. Her phrases became part of the lexicon.

But it was always going to be tricky to have a feminist movement led by a billionaire corporate executive. Now, jabs at Ms Sandberg make some crowds cheer. "It's not always enough to lean in," former first lady Michelle Obama said onstage in Brooklyn this month while promoting her memoir. Using an expletive, Mrs Obama added that Lean In stuff "doesn't work all the time".

Lean In inspired outrage from the start. On the left, critics panned Ms Sandberg's advice as only for other wealthy white women and said it ignored structural problems in society. On the right, a chorus tried to argue that the gender wage gap was exaggerated, and a cottage industry of writers emerged to fight ideas she popularised, like microaggressions.

But Ms Sandberg's message largely won over the feminist mainstream, and she became one of its iconic leaders. According to the organisation, more than 40,000 Lean In Circles now meet regularly around the world, from Fremont County, Wyoming, to New Delhi and Paris. Some were drawn to Lean In exactly because of Ms Sandberg's business success. They wanted more economic power, and here was a mother of two who had figured it out and whom they could aspire to be like.

"You're looking at someone who's in Silicon Valley, a billionaire, one of the most powerful people in the world," said Julene Allen, describing why she founded Lean In Dayton in Ohio. "How can I be more influential?"

Yet, as Ms Sandberg's wealth and fame grew - movie stars and other celebrities began showing up at her parties - she started losing the support of some in her tight-knit Silicon Valley community. And Facebook began confronting concerns that it was a harmful force in society. After the 2016 election, the social network was revealed to have played a role in distributing Russian propaganda to Americans, stoking genocidal rage in countries such as Myanmar and disrupting elections around the world. That tipped the delicate balance of having a corporate leader as a feminist leader.

"I no longer ascribe to her view of corporate feminism as a heroic thing," said Katherine Goldstein, who hosts a podcast, Double Shift, about working moms. "Its inherent message is that corporations and workplaces are basically benevolent and good."

When I attended a few Lean In Circle meetings in 2013 and 2014, most of us had Ms Sandberg's book - with her face on the cover - on our laps. Her life story inspired us, a group of mid-20s professionals in San Francisco confronting workplace challenges for the first time. And I found the advice, like to stop insulting my own work and to not be afraid of being disliked, useful. The manifesto, which was full of intimate anecdotes, made Ms Sandberg a household name. It took her out of simply being Facebook's No 2 and reframed her as a thought leader and, many fans thought, a potential candidate for president.

Today, the staff of Lean In works in the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation office, which is named after her and her husband, who died in 2015. Ms Sandberg still hosts Lean In Circle leaders at her house. But what has changed is that some of those leaders and even friends of Ms Sandberg's are playing down her role and positioning her as a peripheral character to the movement. "From the very beginning, Sheryl drew people in," said Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor at Stanford and a co-director of the university's Executive Programme in Women's Leadership. "But I don't think of her as all that central to what's happening right now."

Alexa Crisa, a digital strategist who leads Lean In Atlanta alongside Ms Schwarz, told me: "We don't work at Facebook. We work with Lean In. We only ever even mention who Sheryl is to explain why her experience is relevant to women. That's where it ends to us in terms of the mention of Sheryl." Ms Allen, in Dayton, said: "We've taken this thing, and we're driving it."

These women were the ones Lean In suggested I call. Most of anyone not on its list had a different take. Gia Punjabi, a senior finance analyst at Levi Strauss & Co, founded a Lean In Circle in San Francisco in August 2017. She said that she had noticed a recent drop in interest and that she suspected it was tied to Ms Sandberg's changing brand. "At the end of the day, Lean In is something that's integrated with Sheryl's name," Ms Punjabi said. "You can't know one without the other."

Ms Sandberg has her defenders, some of whom post on public Facebook pages with the hashtag #IStandBySheryl. And Ms Sandberg has been engaging directly with women on the platform. "Sharon - thank you for being a voice on the importance of 50/50 relationships for women," she wrote to a user who had shared a Forbes essay headlined The Sheryl Sandberg Bashing Explained. Many in Ms Sandberg's corner argue that the news coverage of her role at Facebook has been unfair. They say it is sexist and focused more on Ms Sandberg than on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and chief executive. Some I spoke with called the claims that she was involved in nefarious behaviour false news. "It's starting to sound a little bit like a witch hunt," said Nuala Murphy, the founder of Lean In Belfast in Northern Ireland and chief executive of Moment Health, a health technology startup.

One chilly day in November, I visited the Lean In office in an open-air shopping centre in Palo Alto. There, I met Ms Sandberg's long-time friend Ms Thomas, who led me past a "Proceed and Be Bold" sign and into a room called "People First". "Has Sheryl inspired a lot of what we do here? Of course," she said. "But it's really grown way beyond Sheryl." Ms Thomas added that moving beyond Ms Sandberg's name was always the agenda for Lean In and was what Ms Sandberg had wanted. NYTIMES