By Adam Lashinsky
January 24, 2011

The Facebook executive explains how she’ll take advantage of the unique pow-wow in Switzerland to pursue the cause of disadvantaged women and girls.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has done very well for herself. A veteran of McKinsey, the Clinton Treasury Department, Google and now Facebook, she attends the World Economic Forum in Davos as much to promote causes as to further Facebook’s agenda. I called her ahead of the meeting in Switzerland specifically to take her pulse on her non-commercial goals for Davos. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Obviously you’ll do Facebook business in Davos. But you view the meeting as an opportunity to do more than business, right?

Correct. Davos brings together a pretty unusual group of people. It’s an influential group of people. But it doesn’t include people who need the most help, like women who are recovering from wars or who are captive sex slaves in Asia. So Davos is an unusual opportunity to gather influential people and then get them to focus on really hard issues.

You’re co-hosting a breakfast in Davos on behalf of Women for Women International. Tell me about that group.

It was started by a woman named Zainab Salbi, who is originally from Iraq. Her thesis is that war and other conflicts are rampant but that the victims of war have changed. Certainly World War II had a huge impact on civilians, but it mostly affected men in uniform. In today’s wars the primary victims are women — and the children who go with them. Her premise is that if you help women rebuild you rebuild society.

Women for Women runs a one-year program that helpsĀ  women grow from being victims to active citizens. It teaches them their legal rights and how to get jobs. Each woman in the program is paired with a woman from the U.S., and increasingly other places, who pay $27 a month to help support the woman they are sponsoring. The sponsor also writes lettersĀ  and acts as an advocate.

The breakfast you’re co-hosting in Davos features Somaly Mam. Tell me about her.

Somaly Mam is a woman from Cambodia who doesn’t know who her parents are. She was sold into a brothel at age 12 by a man who may or may not have been her grandfather. She was a sex slave for 10 years, raped repeatedly on a daily basis. She watched her best friend murdered in front of her. Eventually she escaped, and today she runs a foundation committed to saving girls who are sex slaves the way she was. She’s the most inspiring woman I’ve ever met. There are millions of girls who are sex slaves. The governments in their countries are often complicit in their plight.

This is my first exposure to either of these groups. I assume one of your goals in Davos is to make these issues better known by some of the men who will be there.

Yes. For example, investor Glenn Hutchins of Silver Lake read Somaly Mam’s autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence. He has invited men from his field, investors, to the breakfast, the kind of people who don’t typically spend time thinking about these things.

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, who will introduce Somaly Mam in Davos, tells a story in his book Half the Sky [written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn] of how we was crossing a border in Asia and guards were searching bags looking for unauthorized copies of Western movies while just in front of them underage girls obviously were being forced to cross the border against their will. The border guards’ reaction was: ‘It’s not our job.’ Of course, the U.S. government cares about intellectual property rights and has pushed this issue. We need governments to push equally hard on sexual slavery.

A theme of the World Economic Forum meeting is risk. What’s the biggest risk facing the world?

Complacency. I’ll give you an example. Some 1.5 million children die each year from drinking unsafe water. That is a completely solvable problem but we are too complacent to solve it. In our complacency we are complicit.

What of the other activities you have planned for Davos are you most excited about?

I’m speaking on a panel on the impact of social media on government and business. [The full title of the panel is “Handling Hyper-connectivity: How should governments and businesses operate in a hyper-connected world?” and other panelists include John Chambers of Cisco (csco) and Carl-Henric Svanberg, chairman of BP (bp).] The impact is profound, and it’s a great opportunity to talk with other people about it.

When I think about why I love working at Facebook it’s this: It gives everyone a real identity and an individual voice. I studied economics as an undergraduate and we learned about the ‘invisible victim,’ the victim you don’t know and can’t comprehend. There are 110,000 people on organ donation lists in the U.S. and each day 18 die waiting for a donation. On Facebook people have made personal connections that have led to donors saving lives. Part of what we do is create an opportunity to make the world’s invisible victims visible.

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