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Exclusive: Sheryl Sandberg On Leading Through Crisis And Facebook’s Efforts To Save American Businesses

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Sheryl Sandberg has the weight of the world on her shoulders. The chief operating officer of Facebook isn’t just responsible for helping to lead one of the world’s most polarizing companies through a global pandemic, but for the 2.26 billion people who visit its platforms every day. With about one third of the global population at her fingertips, the World Health Organization is counting on the social media giant to help in the fight against COVID-19.

“This crisis is unprecedented,” says Sandberg. “I take my responsibility really seriously.” Just last week, Facebook launched its coronavirus information center, a module at the top of users’ news feeds with real-time updates from the WHO, and on April 9, the organizations partnered on WhatsApp health alerts that will answer frequently asked questions about coronavirus.  

Facebook’s recent failures to protect users from data breaches and misinformation are not lost on the tech executive. These missteps, she says, have prepared the company for this very situation. “We have been working towards not just regaining trust but doing the right thing all the way through,” Sandberg says. “We now know what misinformation is and how to find it. We know how to take it down—and we also know we need to rely on other people [like the WHO and CDC], because we can’t get this right ourselves.”

Sandberg also believes that the strength she’s gained through her personal hardships, namely, the death of her husband Dave Goldberg five years ago, have better equipped her to lead through this crisis. “The biggest challenge I ever faced, which dwarfs anything else I ever went through, was losing my husband and losing him very suddenly,” she says. “And that is a totally different thing than what is going on with coronavirus. But there are some similarities in anything that happens suddenly and is a negative event. The work I did for my book, Option B, was all about figuring out what we do in these negative events and how we grow from them,” she explains. 

Sandberg says that she, like many Americans, has been inspired by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who in a recent daily briefing, mentioned finding joy in the face of hardship. “Everyone has heard about post traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “But more people actually experience post traumatic growth than PTSD, even though no one has heard of it,” Sandberg adds. The thinking is that traumatic events help us learn and grow. “The surprising conclusion in this is that we can actually improve our lives through the things that are hardest,” says Sandberg. “I learned so much from Dave dying. But my life is very different, and in many ways, there’s really big things I learned, like to find the good and find the community and that through real hardship, you develop strength. If I could give all that learning back to have Dave back, I would—very much, but I can’t.” She adds that even in the darkest of times there are lessons to be learned. “Even in the face of losing my husband, can you find moments of joy? Absolutely. You can and you should. And that is the way we recover and learn from these types of events.”

So far, those lessons seem to have served her well. Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first of the major tech companies to provide aid. “We talk to small businesses all the time and what they told us they needed [most] was just financial help,” Sandberg says. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses. As of Saturday April 11, the company had already received over half a million emails of interest in the program. Of the $100 million, $40 million will be allocated to 10,000 small businesses in the U.S. across 34 cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world.

“Everyone is concerned about the effects of coronavirus, but women and women of color are much more disproportionately affected,” Sandberg says, citing new research by her Lean In initiative, which finds employed women are nearly twice as likely as their male counterparts to not be able to pay for necessities for more than a month if they lost their personal income. “It’s like everything else, women are the backbone of our families and communities and women get hit hardest.”

The company is also working with the U.S. Small Business Administration to send notifications encouraging an estimated 30 million small business owners around the nation to apply for relief loans. While one third of U.S. small businesses don’t have a website, most have Facebook pages, putting the platform in a unique position to get the word out. 

“Small business is our business,” Sandberg says. “We have 140 million small businesses around the world that use our products every single day and our goal is to help them get through this.” To that end, the tech behemoth has rolled out various tools to support small businesses during this unique time, including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Sheryl Sandberg meets with small business owners in London earlier this year.
Sheryl Sandberg meets with small business owners in London earlier this year. FACEBOOK

According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 96% of small business owners report having been impacted by COVID-19, while more than half say they will not be able to operate their business beyond three months. Sandberg believes social media can help. “We’re seeing amazing things happen because businesses can’t do business the way they normally do,” Sandberg says. “So on the one hand, some businesses need to shut but on the other hand, some businesses can pivot.” 

Magic Arts Studio, for example, a Morrisville, Pennsylvania, arts and crafts business, has embraced online learning, with its teachers offering free classes via Facebook Live. Sandberg’s favorite example is Bristol, England-based This Mum Runs, an e-commerce business that started as a Facebook group for running enthusiasts that has recruited more than 250 volunteers to make grocery and pharmacy deliveries for those in need. “This Mum Runs is an organization that has community and purpose baked into its DNA,” says Mel Bound, founder and CEO of This Mum Runs. “These are the things that have enabled us to respond quickly and in a meaningful way to the crisis affecting us all—to support those most in need whilst keeping our community safe and active.” As small businesses around the world face an uncertain path forward, businesses like these may serve as inspiration for others to find innovative ways to operate in this new normal. “This is people rejuvenating their own businesses, shifting their businesses online and reaching people in a different way,” Sandberg says. “And so I do think there’s very much a new Main Street happening right now.”

Small businesses are not the only ones Facebook is trying to actively support. Last month, Facebook launched its Business Resource Hub, featuring resources and recommendations to help all businesses stay connected and on track, as well as direct access to credible information about COVID-19 to help them stay informed. This past week, the company launched a series of “vertical playbooks”, or resiliency guides for businesses like restaurants and cafesretailsalons and spasfitness and recreation centerspartners and agencies and even media and publishers

Whether or not Facebook’s efforts will make a difference for small businesses, only time will tell. The same can be said for the company’s attempts to earn back people’s trust. “I’m not saying people have always understood this but we’ve actually been trying to do the right thing all along,” explains Sandberg. “When the mistakes happened, we certainly didn’t do them on purpose and we looked to fix them as quickly as possible. And I think we did act responsibly, all the way through. Now it may be that people are able to see things differently because the world has shifted so dramatically. But our approach is to always do the right thing and to make sure we address the problems and look to prevent the next one,” Sandberg says. “And that’s the same approach we’ve had all along.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff.

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