Lean In Belfast founder interviews Sheryl Sandberg

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  • Mary McKenna, a technology entrepreneur and angel investor from Northern Ireland, recently attended a fireside chat between Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In Belfast founder Nuala Murphy. The fireside chat took place in London and was hosted by the British Library. Mary shares her experience with Sync NI.

    As June reached its end, I gathered with 44 other Northern Irish women in London to join Sheryl Sandberg and Nuala Murphy of the Lean In Belfast circle for a fireside chat. Sheryl needs no introduction – as one of the tech industry’s “celebrities”, she has worked to encourage more women into occupying senior and leadership roles across all industries.

    The British Library was a full house as 246 other women, 3 men and a 9 week-old baby assembled to hear her speak, in what was a gathering of several Lean In Chapters across Europe. Much has been made of Sheryl Sandberg’s position at Facebook, where she was the first female to join the Board of Directors (not to mention her best-selling book for women, Lean In, described by reviewers as “a massive cultural phenomenon and an instant catchphrase for empowering women”).

    This is some of what she had to say at the fireside chat:
    • - The original ambition was to get to 1,000 Lean In Circles across the world: the current number is 33,000 Circles in over 150 countries
    • - 85% of Circle members are able to report a positive change in their life as a result of being part of their Circle (that is, to take on a new challenge, ask for a pay rise or reach for a leadership role)
    • - There are simply not enough mentors and sponsors out there for the women in the world
    • - One more woman who reaches for leadership at any level changes the balance in overall numbers
    • - As a general confidence builder, write down 3 things you did well that day every night before you go to bed. Sheryl started doing this the day after her husband died, as a way of recognising that she was coping (she’s moved on from that to recording her 3 daily moments of joy)
    • - She never makes jokes any more about getting old. Working in a very youthful environment with a boss (Mark Zuckerberg) who is 15 years younger than she is, she used to do this all the time.  For Sheryl, 2017 is the year that her late husband will not turn 50
    • - We need more women to work c-level roles that lead on to the CEO job - at the moment, there are not enough young women entering these roles
    • - She gave a special shout-out to the 8 women of a Dublin Lean In Circle, who asked for & subsequently received pay rises
    I was fortunate to catch Nuala Murphy for a few questions (the woman who started the Lean In Belfast group 3 years ago, and CEO & founder of Moment Health, a digital solution that focuses on maternal mental health issues such as postnatal depression and associated anxieties). 

    When I first met Nuala a few years ago, one of the first things she ever told me was that she was going to connect with Sheryl Sandberg and bring her to Belfast. She hasn’t done the latter (yet), but she was in the Fireside Chat interviewer seat on Friday evening in the British Library, interviewing the world’s most powerful woman in tech. 

    See our interview with Nuala below:
    So Nuala - did you ever in a million years think you would be interviewing Sheryl Sandberg on stage in London?
    It wasn’t even on my radar - I always hoped we could bring Sheryl to Belfast. But I didn’t think she would bring Lean In Belfast to the centre stage at The British Library in London for the first community led event in Europe! That was just incredible, and we are all so very grateful for that - as is she. We have many great women on our leadership team and in our community who are achieving amazing things because of their involvement in Lean In. Through our Lean In Circles, we are making a positive difference to people’s lives.

    My friend gave me Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead when I was pregnant with my first son Henry.  I read the book and was totally inspired, but also frustrated at the reasons and stats behind why there are too few women in leadership roles across all industries. Like so many ambitious women who read Lean In, it felt like Sheryl was writing the book about me! 

    I met Sheryl for the first time last year when I was asked to join the Regional Leaders Programme in San Francisco. I was so very nervous you know, I think it’s called impostor syndrome. I was overwhelmed by the whole experience but so delighted at the opportunity to learn. As soon as I met her it is evident how down to earth she is. Her warmth and complete gratitude towards the work we do as part of our volunteer led networks resonates across her team and friends. At that time her husband Dave had passed the year before, so she really called on us and thanked us for being her life work. Our support was very special in such a difficult time. Coming back from that conference, I met with such amazing women who coached me on how to build leadership in Lean In Belfast and to get organised for growth. And that’s just what we’ve done, adding Allstate as our corporate partner for 2017!

    So, I was so looking forward to interviewing her, and very proud that our Belfast Chapter was chosen to play that role. And you know what - I really enjoyed myself, and we had fun! 

    And what has starting Lean In Belfast meant to you?
    Dimple Lalwani said it so eloquently on Friday evening. “Sheryl - when you speak to us, it’s like we are reading our own feelings, emotions and stories. You are one of the most authentic people we know and the ability to resonate with your stories makes us feel that we’re all part of this journey together”. 

    Lean In Belfast started out as four women in a coffee shop, and it grew so quickly it was unbelievable. There was obviously a huge need in society for this. Women from all walks of life were coming together to share and learn from each other. They were also committed to offering help for all members, from public speaking and interview skills to funding applications and negotiating salaries.

    It’s such an honest network of individuals, committed to empowering each other to achieve their ambitions - and also to campaign for gender equality through inclusiveness and dialogue. Research tells us more diverse teams are more productive and boards with women on them out perform those that don’t. You and I both know gender equality is good for business. 47% of the UK workforce is made up of women but only 13.2% of FTSE 250 directorships are held by women. £23 billion is the estimated yearly value to the Exchequer in unleashing female talent.

    Any tips for anyone else who has their heart set on reaching out to a "celebrity" in their field?
    If it’s just for celebrity status, I’d say forget about it. I didn’t know who Sheryl was before I read Lean In, and it was only really after she made a post on her Facebook page supporting our first birthday (our sign ups kept pinging) that I realised that this woman is a global sensation. When I read the book, I connected with her values. 

    For me, I always wanted to help women struggling in their careers who needed support to work things out, especially when starting a family. But we help many women, and not just working women either. We all have ambitions. And we can all achieve them if we surround ourselves with the right people.  In the workplace, we know that success and ambition is perceived positively in men - but negatively in women. Why is that? 

    I think that everything in life & business is about people? What do you think Nuala?
    I think it’s about respect. It’s important to treat others as you would like to be treated. I love listening to peoples’ stories. I love hearing people’s thoughts. And I especially love making new friends and helping others. I love helping people do great things, which is why my purpose with my own company Moment Health and Lean In combined so beautifully. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now without Lean In. I am extremely grateful to everyone at the foundation for their support and encouragement along the way. 

    The leadership that Rachel Thomas delivers is unbelievable, and I experienced this when we had a meeting with all of our European leaders on Saturday. The respect she gives her team members, us and anyone involved in Lean In is truly inspirational, and the success of Lean In has been down to this. Many organisations could, and should benefit from this type of leadership. It’s something I’ve not been exposed to in my career to date. Because of Lean In, I have developed leadership skills I didn’t know I had. 

    I gained my confidence again after it had been badly knocked. And I flexed that resilient muscle that Sheryl talks about in her new book co-authored with Wharton Professor Adam Grant - Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

    Nuala Murphy is the CEO and Founder of Moment Health and the Founder of the Lean In Belfast Circle. You can contact Nuala at @nualafmurphy or at @leaninbelfast.

    Mary McKenna is a tech entrepreneur and angel investor. You can contact Mary at @MMaryMcKenna.

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