Mary Dove is in the throes of planning her fall New York City Lean In Circle events, capitalizing on the momentum and interest sparked by Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book about how women can achieve their goals by stepping in, rather than pulling back.
Dove, a New York City-based psychotherapist, first heard Sandberg speak in a 2010 TED talk and was immediately attracted to Sandberg’s ideas about women in the workforce. After reading about Sandberg’s book in early 2013, Dove decided to start a New York City Lean In Circle even before the book’s publication. “I placed an open invitation on LinkedIn two days before the book’s publication and by the end of that week, 40 women had accepted my invitation,” she noted enthusiastically. So many women ultimately expressed interest that Dove contacted Sandberg’s organization to see whether such a large group event would be compatible with the Lean In goals (it was). She also reached out to the Wix Lounge, a free co-working and event space in Manhattan, which agreed to host the first meeting.
So, how does it work? Sandberg’s model was for women to meet in small groups of 10-12 individuals, talking through issues ranging from how to negotiate to why it’s important not to pull back from job-related challenges. While Sandberg has provided Lean In Circles with a structured plan called a Circle Kit, each group is free to develop its own process and agenda. As Dove explains it, the New York City Lean In Circle is somewhat unusual because it is a larger umbrella group that provides educational information and opportunities to meet a variety of different women.
At the initial meeting, attended by over 115 women, she and Franne McNeal, a co-facilitator, broke the large gathering into smaller geographically based groups, each of which arranged its own meetings to discuss more specific problems or concerns of individual group members. “My hope is that in the small groups, women will support each other’s attempts to lean in, both professionally and personally, and that large group meetings will provide an opportunity to hear success stories and engage in educational efforts,” Dove explains.
Although it is still early in the process, many of the participants in Dove’s small Lean In circles already feel the groups have had a positive impact. Jane Brill, a filmmaker and co-owner of the Van Der Plas Gallery in NYC, is currently transitioning into a role involving greater production and social media responsibilities. She believes that meeting women from disparate ages and backgrounds in her Lower East Side group has given her a number of valuable insights into how to approach her new tasks. “I was struck by women’s desire to share and connect and the fact that we all face some common concerns no matter what our ages. Plus, I got some very useful ideas about building a social media presence that I hope to incorporate into my business,” she adds.
For Dove herself, the experience of setting up a group and becoming a leader has proven inspiring. “I’ve seen women make real changes in their lives, taking risks, using Sheryl’s advice in areas ranging from job interviews to business plans,” she explains. This summer, Dove has been focusing on community building exercises, including putting out an online newsletter under the supervision of editor Khyati Dutt, an early NYC Lean In member, and she has already scheduled four NYC Lean In Circle meetings in the fall. She has also ratcheted up the group’s footprint on social media, encouraging members to interact via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Cristina DiGiacomo, the group’s Engagement Manager and one of the first women to sign up for the NYC Lean In Circle, has used Mightybell as the group’s main community engagement platform (in fact, Lean In Circles are among the first beta testers for this platform).
DiGiacomo feels that each of the online tools allows members to share stories with each other, whether through pictures, calls to action or educational videos. “The bottom line is we all have stories to tell, Sheryl Sandberg just lit the fuse and social media meets our need to connect with these shared experiences,” she says.
Mary Dove is hoping that the example of the NYC Lean In Circle will be followed by others throughout the country and, possibly, the world. Individuals in Miami, Philadelphia and the Albany Capital region have already contacted her about her large group model, and stories about the group have appeared internationally. “I truly believe that Lean In Circles contain the seeds for women to learn how to advocate for themselves and create better and more meaningful lives.”