The XX Factor

In NYC, the Lean In Movement Is About More Than Just Sheryl Sandberg

Participants gather at an NYC Lean In Circle kickoff meeting.

Courtesy of Galo Delgado

More than 100 women from the tristate area gathered Tuesday night at a standing-room-only meeting of people who wanted to join Lean In groups. The strange part? Some of them barely seemed to know who Sheryl Sandberg was, and many hadn’t read her book.

I’ve been chronicling my own experience of starting and participating in a Lean In circle. When I heard about this gathering at the Wix Lounge, I figured I’d encounter die-hard fans of all things Sandberg. But the meeting-goers I met were not motivated by some personality cult around a world-famous author. The women they were most interested in connecting with were each other.

Over and over, women explained to me that the reason they were attending was to find a supportive group of women to connect with about their professional lives. Ariana Rodriguez, who wants to start her own yoga business, saw the event as “an opportunity to meet other strong women.” Orlanda Azevedo, who recently moved from California, is looking for her next steps professionally and thought this would be a great way to meet other women and network.

There were, of course, a few Sandberg acolytes. Lauren Tilstra had just finished Lean In. She is starting a new job in corporate communications on Monday, “my first time in a leadership role,” and thought the event had perfect timing for her. Pinzi Le, a recent college grad and a freelance digital consultant who describes herself as a “huge tech nerd,” has seen Sandberg speak and knew she’d like to join a circle.

While all ages, races, and many professional industries were represented Tuesday night, this interest in creating a supportive community was clearly resonating with a younger and well-educated set. The majority of the women in attendance were in their 20s and 30s. Fifty percent had master’s degrees.

The meeting was organized by Mary Dove, a Brooklyn-based therapist, who is a fan of Sandberg’s TED talk and book. She posted on LinkedIn that she wanted to start a Lean In circle. After she got 15 responses, she figured that was enough and planned to stop accepting requests. But after someone posted on her LinkedIn page that New York City is too big for a group that small, she decided to “lean in” to the challenge of organizing more women who wanted to participate. She enlisted Franne McNeal, an entrepreneur, teacher and career coach, to be her co-leader.

After the meeting ended, I asked a few women what they thought of the evening. Charmaine Boyd, a preschool and elementary school teacher who hadn’t heard of Sandberg until McNeal invited her to the event, said she met a great group of women and that she was going to be one of her group’s co-leaders. Yvette Joseph, who is a production assistant, said she enjoyed the meeting and felt it was great to “not feel like I’m alone in my [professional] goals.” Catie Maillard, who works in human resources, said she hoped her group “could keep the momentum going.” It will be interesting to see whether these groups of strangers, without prior social ties, will be able to keep the groups well-organized and meeting regularly. I plan to check in toward the end of the year-long program to find out how they did.