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Sheryl Sandberg steps down from Facebook parent Meta after 14 years

In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
By Euronews  with Reuters

Meta Platforms Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose close partnership with Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg powered the growth of the world's biggest social network, is leaving the company after 14 years. 

Her announcement, made in a Facebook post on Wednesday, initially sent the social media firm's shares down 4 per cent, but the stock was nearly flat in after-hours trade.

The move comes as Meta struggles with slowing growth and rising costs. It is transforming from a social media company to one focused on building the metaverse, a collection of virtual worlds that could be a decade away.

"When I took this job in 2008, I hoped I would be in this role for five years. Fourteen years later, it is time for me to write the next chapter of my life," Sandberg wrote.

Chief Growth Officer Javier Olivan will take over as chief operating officer, Zuckerberg said in a separate Facebook post, although he added that he did not plan to replace Sandberg's role directly within the company's existing structure.

"I think Meta has reached the point where it makes sense for our product and business groups to be more closely integrated, rather than having all the business and operations functions organized separately from our products," he said.

Olivan has worked at Meta for more than 14 years and has led teams handling Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.

Sandberg's departure marks an end of an era for Meta, which is shifting focus toward hardware products and the "metaverse" after years of scandals over privacy abuses and the spread of conspiratorial content on its platforms, as well as plateauing user growth on its flagship app Facebook.

The second-in-command to founder Zuckerberg, who was 23 years old when he hired her, Sandberg is one of the most visible executives at the company and the lead architect of its often-criticised ads-based business model.

Bringing management experience and knowledge of the then-nascent digital ads industry, she transformed Facebook from a buzzy startup into a revenue behemoth, while also positioning herself as the face of feminism in corporate America.

At the time, Facebook was making $272 million (€255 million) in revenue, for a net loss of $56 million (€52.5 million), according to regulatory filings. Meta ended 2021 with revenue of $118 billion (€110 billion) and earnings of $39.4 billion (€37 billion).

Sandberg said in her post that she will continue to serve on Meta's board after leaving the company in the fall.

When asked about her next steps, she told Reuters she was focusing on philanthropy at a "critical moment for women."

"We've hired so many great leaders. I feel really good about that. The next leadership team is in place to take the company forward," she said, mentioning Chief Business Officer Marne Levine and President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg by name.

A pillar of Facebook

Sandberg has been a staunch defender of Facebook over the course of its many controversies, consistently arguing that executives were learning from their mistakes and honing the company's tools to better police against harmful content.

She told Reuters last year that she and Zuckerberg had a responsibility to fix systems that had failed, while rejecting reports that she was losing power at the company.

"People love headlines about corporate drama, and I think it's fair to say they particularly love headlines about sidelining women," she said in the January 2021 interview.

Sandberg's tenure covered both Facebook's original settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission in 2011 for privacy violations and a subsequent blockbuster $5 billion (€4.7 billion) settlement for violations of the earlier deal.

Under her leadership, the company was buffeted by revelations in 2018 that UK consultancy Cambridge Analytica had improperly acquired data on millions of its US users to target election advertising.

The same year, UN human rights investigators said the use of Facebook had played a key role in spreading hate speech that fuelled violence against the Rohingya community in Myanmar.

Former Facebook product manager and whistleblower Frances Haugen last year leaked internal documents that she said showed Facebook put profits over user safety and lacked adequate controls to remove harmful content in languages other than English.

Who is Javier Olivan, Meta's next COO?

Spaniard Javier Olivan is taking over as the company's chief operating officer after playing a crucial but largely behind-the-scenes role stoking company's growth for 15 years.

Olivan, who grew up in the Pyrenees region of northern Spain, holds degrees in electrical and industrial engineering from the University of Navarra and a master's in business administration from Stanford University.

Before joining Facebook in late 2007 as head of international growth, Olivan, 44, worked at Japan's NTT and Siemens.

When he joined, Facebook was a young company with about 40 million users and now has nearly 3.6 billion users across Facebook and other apps such as Instagram.

While overseeing its international moves, Olivan pushed Facebook's expansion into countries such as India, Japan, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil, according to an interview he gave in 2010 to VentureBeat.

Olivan, who according to media reports enjoys paragliding and surfing, has most recently served as chief growth officer. In that position, he has managed features and functions that span Facebook and Instagram as well as messaging apps WhatsApp and Messenger.

In his new job, he will continue to lead infrastructure and corporate development. But his portfolio will also include advertising and business products, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post on Wednesday.

One thing is unlikely to change. Olivan will continue to stay out of the limelight as he carries out the COO job. This contrasts with Sandberg, who appeared before Congress, wrote a best-selling book about women in the workplace and often represented Facebook to outside audiences.

"This role will be different from what Sheryl has done. It will be a more traditional COO role where Javi will be focused internally and operationally, building on his strong track record of making our execution more efficient and rigorous," Zuckerberg said.

Now that Meta is a mature business with $118 billion in revenue, Olivan may have less autonomy than Sandberg did when she joined in the company's early years, said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at ad agency GroupM.

A key question is whether Olivan will be "more attentive," to issues regarding data privacy as well as protecting brands from having their ads appear next to unsuitable content, Wieser said.