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Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Uncool’ things in high school ‘are good for your life’

Sheryl Sandberg COO Facebook Hannan Ouyo18 Mayor Rahm Emanuel IIT watching Ouyoon's teams robot navigate course. Thursday March 28 2013

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Hannan Ouyoon 18 and Mayor Rahm Emanuel at IIT watching Ouyoon's teams robot navigate a course. Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 1, 2013 2:37PM

Cherokee Sperry is the first to admit his tastes are a bit odd for an eighth grader.

The Bridgeport boy likes politics, “traditional Hawaiian cooking” and science day camps.

On Thursday, Sperry, 14, got a big confidence boost from a former “serious geek” teenager — Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook and best-selling author.

“All the things that make you uncool in high school, are the things that are good for your life,” Sandberg told Sperry and about a dozen other kids at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Sandberg stopped by — along with Mayor Rahm Emanuel — for a chat with the students who are taking part in the week-long Project Exploration robotics camp. The program is tailored to Chicago-area high schoolers and middle schoolers who might not otherwise have access to that kind of learning.

The students are spending their spring break working in teams, building and programming robots to do such things as navigate a maze and race each other.

Emanuel, who worked with Sandberg during the Bill Clinton White House years, was on hand to push the importance of Chicago-area kids getting a strong foundation in “STEM” — science, math, engineering and technology.

Sandberg and Emanuel shared their own geeky pasts — Sandberg competing in weekend math contests, Emanuel training to be a ballet dancer.

“Let me tell you, when I was growing up, being a boy and being a ballet dancer would not be in the top list of cool,” the mayor said. “You learn a lot about yourself when you go through a period of time when people think you’re not cool. And if you stick with something, you learn more about yourself and your sense of who you are, your own confidence.”

Home-schooled student Hannan Ouyoun, 18, told Sandberg she’s torn between a career in fashion and something with an engineering emphasis. Sandberg suggested both.

“Even if you want to do something creative in fashion, you will give yourself a really serious competitive advantage if you can understand how things are made,” said Sandberg, author of the best-selling book, “Lean In,” which questions the lack of women in leadership positions in America.

“When she said that, it was an eye opener,” Ouyoun said later of Sandberg’s suggestion. “I never thought of it that way.”

Sperry was impressed too, although he said his interest in politics and science doesn’t mean he’d like to be either Chicago’s mayor some day or a top Facebook executive.

Sperry wants to open up a restaurant that melds his interest in engineering and cooking.

“I would like to be a chef so I can combine those two to create something different, unusual and maybe revolutionary,” Sperry said.

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