Quick Question

Before Working At Meta, This Exec Knew In College That Facebook Would Be Successful

Naomi Gleit’s senior thesis was all about the social media platform.

Naomi Gleit looking to the right in a black and whit photo in front of microphones
Quick Question

For Naomi Gleit’s senior thesis, she made the case for why Facebook was going to be ultra-successful against its then-competitor Club Nexus. Eventually, it led the Stanford University graduate to her employment at the social media platform a month after her graduation in 2005 — just a year after the company launched.

“As a user, I was using it, and as an academic, [majoring in science, technology, and society], I was studying it,” Gleit recalls. Compared with Facebook, Gleit felt Club Nexus would fail because it was a “Craigslist kind of site where people were not using their real identities … and it was text-based.” In contrast, Facebook had what appeared to be verifiable people because the site allowed for photos. Also, the interface — with cool features like poking a friend — made the site more socially entertaining, she says, “ripe for stalking who in your class is cute.”

Today, after Zuckerberg, Gleit is Meta’s longest-serving executive as the head of product, where she leads a cross-functional team of more than 3,000 people responsible for site developments and enhancing its user experience. For example, her team is responsible for expanding user registration from .edu email addresses only to any, translating the site into different languages, creating the news feed, and launching the mobile app. The Brooklyn native says her position is like being the conductor of an “orchestra helping everyone play beautiful music together.”

In an industry where only 33% of the overall workforce are women, and even less — 25% — are in tech roles, with women of color making up just 12%, Gleit says she’s “been really lucky” to have such a positive experience navigating the male-dominated space with strong allies from top to bottom, including Zuckerberg.

The 39-year-old also says in recent years, women in tech are gaining ground, though there’s more to be done to bridge gaps. “I had actually never met a woman that was in that position of leadership before I met [Sheryl Sandberg],” she says. “She has been an incredible champion for women, [and] one thing I’m really, really focused on is helping to get more women leaders in product.”

Below, Gleit discusses leading with empathy, being a woman of color in tech, and what’s next for her team.

What has been a major challenge for you working in tech as a woman of color?

Self-confidence. I don’t subscribe to “fake it till you make it,” but sometimes it’s easier to pretend I have confidence than to feel it. Mark has been helpful to me with this. He once asked me to co-teach a class on how to build a business with him to high school students in East Palo Alto. At the end of the course, Mark left the students with four key lessons: 1) love yourself; 2) once you can do No. 1 successfully, only then can you truly serve others; 3) focus on the things you can control; 4) never give up. That stuck with me, especially the loving yourself part. In my personal life, that’s been hard because I haven’t always felt a sense of belonging. But now, I feel more confident in who I am and I want to help other women feel that same way in the room.

Why do you think tech remains predominantly male?

When I was at Stanford, it never occurred to me that I could work in tech. So, I ended up studying more anthropology and sociology. Other women may have felt similarly, thinking tech wasn’t an option they could seriously consider, or the industry felt intimidating because all they saw were men occupying the field. So, naturally, it deters women from pursuing it. But, over the years, that’s begun to shift with increasing representation, especially with options like product management, where you don’t have to be a technical person to get involved in the tech industry. Today, many of the best product managers I work with are women, and I’m trying to elevate them.

In this landscape where corporate culture remains largely toxic — even post George Floyd and the surge in DEI officers — especially for nonwhite men, what are some ways you’ve pivoted how you’ve led your team and promoted inclusivity?

In pivoting and finding my voice on issues of race and identity, part of the equation was leading with empathy. And it became a stronger calling for me to take measurable action when the rise in Asian hate and violence followed that year of reckoning. I remember thinking, how can I not speak up? So many of the victims I saw looked like me and my mom — this led me to write a blog post about individuality, culture, and what it means to embody two distinct ethnicities. I initially felt like because I was half Asian and half Caucasian, I didn’t have a permission framework to say something. And so, when it came to leading my teams, I got more involved in affinity groups at Meta as an ally and community member, like with the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) group, and as the executive sponsor of our Product Equity work — a product area across Meta led by our Social Impact Equity team that’s behind those self-designation badges for small businesses on Facebook and Instagram and the addition of pronouns on Instagram profiles — supported the huge wave of employees getting socially engaged. But also, that period made me have more appreciation for Facebook and our mission when I realized the video of George Floyd that sparked this movement was shot by a 17-year-old who had Facebook as an outlet to share that disturbing act of injustice that has since changed so much culturally.

What are some projects you and your team are working on now?

We’re working to combine business and product. So, for example, the people that build our monetization products (like ads on Meta platforms) are now working with and in the same org flow as those selling and marketing those products. That also means I spend a lot of time ensuring our overall infrastructure gels well.

We have also continued improving existing features that benefit our family of apps — Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram — and allow for more ease of use, always with an eye on safety and security. For example, if we identify a spammer on Facebook, we work to find that same spammer on Instagram and make sure we take them down across platforms. Or if a content creator uploads a photo on Messenger, we make sure they can easily access it and share it on Facebook and Instagram.

I’m sure you’ve led your fair share of large and small meetings and town halls; how do you prepare beforehand?

As the conductor of our orchestra, I’m really good at running meetings. Before Zoom, I was the one standing by the whiteboard in front of the room. I always have an agenda, a visual aid, and a framework to run all meetings. Afterward, notes are shared with the team, so there’s extreme clarity on what we decided and the key takeaways from the meeting. With the switch to remote, I’ve adjusted my meeting framework so it works on hybrid or online-only meetings.

One of the things I enjoy about being a product manager is getting everyone to brainstorm and work together, and a lot of that happens in meetings.

What would you tell someone just starting in your industry (who may not have written a raving thesis about their future employer)?

Sheryl [Sandberg] often says, “If you’re getting on a rocket ship, don’t ask ‘What seat?’ Just get on.” And looking back, that’s what I did. I really believed in Mark and Facebook, and I wanted to get in the door so I could start adding value, learn on the job, and prove myself. I didn’t care about what “seat” I had, which was true for many of us back then. And, 15 years later, those same people are now running divisions.

I would encourage people to choose a career path based on mission and impact, with an intention to want to add value and grow with the company.

What advice would you give your younger self?

What messes you up most in life is the story in your head of how it’s supposed to be.

When I was younger, I didn’t know what a product manager was — there was no Facebook, so I couldn’t have imagined where I would be today because it didn’t exist. I would tell my younger self to keep an open mind and explain that you don’t need to know exactly where you will end up. And that’s OK. That applies to both career and personal life.

There was a vision in my mind of what my life would look like at this point in my life: married with children. I’m not married, and I don’t have kids yet. And many of my friends married their college sweethearts and are having their third kid, which is wonderful. My life is different, but not worse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.