How Sheryl Sandberg is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic at home, in her community, and as the leader of Facebook

sheryl sandberg facebook

    • Sheryl Sandberg, her fiance Tom Bernthal and their five children (“the Bernbergs”) are quarantining at home.
    • She and Facebook are rolling up their sleeves to help communities fight the pandemic. Sandberg has raised $8 million for her local foodbank and Facebook has offered hundreds of millions to media organizations and small businesses impacted by coronavirus.
    • Sandberg says Facebook learned a number of lessons from its botched handling of misinformation during the 2016 elections. The platform is using those learnings to help it fight pandemic misinformation now — including misinformation spread by President Trump.
    • Sandberg joined Facebook just ahead of the last recession, in March 2008, when Facebook was still a venture-backed startup. Her advice to startups and the venture community now: Get back to the basics of your business and double down on your core offering.
    • Her advice for dual working parents who are also serving as full-time caretakers right now: Men need to step up: “Lean in at home, gentlemen!”
    • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“Sorry, let me shut the door. There’s a very loud noise.”

Sheryl Sandberg is working from home, just like millions of people around the world. Facebook’s chief operating officer stood up midway through our interview on Monday afternoon, pushed out the chair in her all-white home office, and vanished from the BlueJeans chat screen. Moments later, the roar of a nearby vacuum did too.

Facebook’s nearly 45,000 employees have been working remotely since March 17, when Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg decided to close their offices globally because of the coronavirus outbreak.

According to Zuckerberg, the company is “just trying to keep the lights on” as usage of the social platform and its messaging apps explode.

On the business side, the company, while flush with cash, is exposed. Sandberg says she isn’t sure yet to what extent, but 140 million small businesses use Facebook, and its newsfeed is populated by media organizations hit with layoffs and shutdowns amid decreased advertising rates.

Sandberg joined Facebook in March 2008, just months before the last economic downturn. Then, Facebook was a venture-backed startup.

“We were worried,” Sandberg said. “That was a period where we took a very hard look at our ad products and redid them.

“I think for a lot of companies now this is very much a back-to-business moment of, what is your core business, and what is the core service you’re providing?”

Facebook weathered 2008 and came out on top. Now Sandberg is making it her personal mission and the company’s mission to help others survive too.

For Facebook, doing good is also good for its business. Trust in Facebook was destroyed after the 2016 election, when bad actors pushed piles of misinformation to its 2.9 billion global users.

Today Facebook is using its piles of cash and lessons learned to right some of those wrongs. It’s giving $100 million in cash and Facebook credits to 30,000 small businesses. It has pledged $100 million more to help media organizations during this downturn. And Sandberg is personally organizing multimillion-dollar donations to local food banks.

“Some of the things we got wrong and some of the mistakes we made are really part of what’s helping us be set up and able to respond now,” Sandberg says.

“We want to be the place that people distribute information. Everyone in this crisis has a responsibility to do what they can do. We are really actively trying to get the right information to the right people.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Sandberg talked about:

  • What Facebook learned from 2016 that it is applying to misinformation management during the pandemic.
  • What Facebook will do about President Trump as the source of some of that pandemic misinformation.
  • How Sandberg’s household, (the “Bernbergs”) are quarantining, and how she talked to her children about coronavirus.
  • How Facebook’s leadership team is making decisions during the crisis.
  • Her advice for getting through adversity, and for dual-working parents who are also caretakers (“Lean in at home, gentlemen!”).

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How Sandberg explained the coronavirus to her children, and how they’re quarantining

sheryl sandberg tom bernthal 1Alyson Shontell: How is the Sandberg household doing? How are you, your fiancé, and five kids doing? What’s it like there?

Sheryl Sandberg: We call ourselves the Bernbergs, so Bernthal [fiancé Tom’s last name], Goldberg [the kids’ last names], and Sandberg. So, the Bernbergs.

Look, we’re lucky. No one’s sick, and that is huge, and I’m grateful for that every single day.

There is someone in Tom’s family who’s very ill and we’re quite worried about, and I have a lot of really close friends and their parents who are coming down with this. We’re both obviously very concerned about that, but also I really feel lucky that in our immediate group that’s quarantining here we’re not sick.

We sheltered at home early and fast, right when our schools closed. All five kids, me and Tom, we were inside. The kids’ friends were still having play dates and doing things, and we stopped pretty early. We told our kids that we thought everyone was going to catch up pretty fast, and they did. I would say in that early period, it was really hard for our kids to understand why their friends were all at sleepovers and they weren’t allowed.

Shontell: That’s a struggle a lot of parents have. How do you explain this to your children? You’ve got kids at all different ages. How do you explain “I’m sorry, you can’t go to your friend’s house right now — there’s this pandemic happening” without scaring them?

Sandberg: I think you explain it a couple of ways. One, you explain it that we’re protecting us from being sick. When they say, “But we’re kids, we can’t get sick,” you explain that the more people are home and shelter at home, the more you’re protecting health workers.

We have a lot of doctors in our family. Both of my siblings are doctors, and my brother’s wife is, too. One of Tom’s two brothers is a doctor. We are able to say, “Look, we’re protecting Aunt Michelle and Uncle David and Uncle Nick and Aunt Amy, because the more other people stay home, the more we protect the people who need to go out there.”

We don’t want to scare our kids. We tell them, “You’re not going to get sick, and we’re young. If we get it, we’re going to be OK, but a lot of other people aren’t, and we have a responsibility to stop the spread of this disease. That means you eliminate any contact you can eliminate.”

How Facebook leadership decided to act on the coronavirus

Mark Zuckerberg Sheryl SandbergShontell: Facebook has been moving faster than other organizations, and certainly faster than the government. When did you first realize the coronavirus was a big deal, that this was something Facebook leadership needed to act on swiftly and be decisive about?

Sandberg: I do think we’ve moved very decisively, quickly, and early. We went to very actively recommending people go home very, very quickly, early. Then we went to really shutting down global offices very aggressively. We want to protect our employees. We really do. We always try to be ahead for our employees. We really wanted to protect them.

I also think Mark, because of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, is just very plugged in.

We’re a very global company, so something that happens in China affects us immediately, right? We don’t have as many users in China because we’re blocked, but we are used by 2.9 billion people around the world.

Some of the things we got wrong and some of the mistakes we made are really part of what’s helping us be set up and able to respond now.

Years ago, we didn’t have a policy and a process for taking down harmful misinformation. Now we do. When COVID-19 happened, very early on we were working with the World Health Organization. They were really worried about the spread of harmful misinformation on COVID-19. Right away, we were able to say, “OK, we’re going to take it down, and we have the partnership with you to do it.”

Some of the processes we’ve set up after some of the things that went wrong in the last few years are really helping us now, I think.

Lessons learned from the botched handling of the 2016 election, and how to fight misinformation from President Trump

sheryl sandberg senate intelligence committee 2016 electionShontell: There was a lot of criticism after the 2016 elections for misinformation. You’ve said that there are lessons learned. So what are some of the lessons from that period that you’re applying to the rigorous monitoring of misinformation during COVID-19, and how might you apply that more broadly moving forward?

Sandberg: Our policy on misinformation is, we mark it as false. We dramatically reduce its distribution. We provide the other side of the story in related articles. In the case where it’s going to lead to imminent harm, we take it down. That was something we didn’t do years ago, but one thing we learned is it’s very hard to define “imminent harm.” If you look at something like Myanmar, we didn’t have voices on the ground. We didn’t know what imminent harm was, and a post that would look pretty benign outside, if you understood the situation on the ground, absolutely was much more harmful.

We learned that for this. Right away, we knew we can’t be making these decisions. Right away we went to the WHO and said to them, “You tell us. Whatever you think is imminent harm comes down.” We’re relying on third-party experts.

The other thing we realized is that our responsibility is to keep people safe through this, so that’s two things. That’s getting down harmful misinfo, but it’s also proactively getting the right messages to the right people. WHO, CDC — we’re putting a lot of messages at the top of the newsfeed.

When the UK government wanted everyone to start sheltering at home, they came to us and we put a message at the top of the newsfeed. The WHO wants people to wash their hands. I did a video. We started lots of videos.

We went out to a lot of the big people with big followings on Instagram, on Facebook, and we said, “Will you be a Facebook ambassador for the WHO and start posting their messages?” Everyone said yes. Steph Curry’s doing it. Everyone’s doing it. Ariana Grande, I think, is doing it.

We want to be the place that people distribute information. Everyone in this crisis has a responsibility to do what they can do. We are really actively trying to get the right information to the right people.

Shontell: What are you going to do with Trump? He’s said a lot of things that aren’t scientifically grounded, such as calling coronavirus a hoax. What do you do when some of the misinformation is coming from the leader of our country?

Sandberg: One of the things we learned the hard way is we shouldn’t make judgments on truth. We are not global health experts. The WHO is, so we are relying on the WHO to tell us what information they believe will lead to imminent harm and that information comes down, and it comes down if anyone in the world says it.

Our process is very clear. No matter who says something, if the WHO thinks it’s going to cause imminent harm, we’re going to take it down. If they don’t, if they think it’s part of the conversation, it stays up, and we let the dialog happen, and we make sure.

Why it’s the responsibility of business leaders and billionaires to help people through the pandemic, and dealing with the inequality of it all

sheryl sandberg tom bernthalShontell: I want to dig into some of what Facebook and what you are doing personally around this. The Edelman Trust Barometer came out in January, and it found that trust in media is really low, trust in the government’s really low, but trust in business leaders is highest. People feel like business leaders can solve some of society’s biggest problems, more so than the other two entities.

I wonder what you feel like your personal responsibility is, as a leader of a major corporation and as someone who’s financially privileged. Should that responsibility even fall on people like you, or is it a government failing? How do you think about that pressure?

Sandberg: I think everyone has responsibility. Individuals, business leaders, leaders at any organization, individual people, businesses, and the government, and we all have to do our part. I feel tremendous responsibility. I’ve been one of the main fundraisers for the local food bank here for a very long time. I’m also one of the largest donors to the California food banks, and so food is something I really care about.

Food security is already a problem in this country. One in eight children in America don’t know where their next meal will come from. One in three children in the Bay Area — before this. I really want to emphasize that: before this. It looks like unemployment is potentially going to be as high as I’ve heard 30%, which is Great Depression-era levels.

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday night, I talked to the head of Second Harvest [a Bay Area food bank]. They said, “We need an emergency fund.” We launched it the next day. [Sandberg and her fiancé put in the first $1 million.] I reached out to our other big donors, and we’ve raised almost $8 million. I think anyone who has the ability to help, the means to help, needs to jump in, and we need to do more than we’ve ever done before. I am doing more than I’ve ever done before. Every morning I have to ask myself, how much more can I do? Am I doing enough?

Shontell: How do you get $8 million raised in three days?

Sandberg: You do two things. You go to the largest donor, so I went personally to all the large donors. We all have been a group. We’ve done this. Our CTO, Reid Hoffman [a LinkedIn founder], John Donahoe [Nike CEO], Scott Cook [Intuit co-founder], we’ve been doing this together. I went to all of them and said, “Here’s what I’m going to do. Will you do it also?” They all said yes, so that was the biggest chunk of the money. Then we went to the public. I did a Facebook fundraiser. It’s by far the largest I’ve ever done. It closed at close to $300,000, and I matched that.

If you want to raise money, you’ve got to go to the people who can really make big donations very quickly, but you also want to get everyone involved so you have a sustained base.

Also, the other thing I think that happened with my Facebook fundraiser is I was pretty explicit: “Either donate to mine, or donate to your local food bank, or donate to feeding America.” I talked to Steph Curry. He’s a big donor. He’s a big donor to the Oakland Food Bank, and then he did a Facebook fundraiser for Feeding America.

It’s starting the wheels turning. It’s one of the reasons you do it publicly is so people remember. I think we’re all obviously so focused on health, but basic needs are critically important now. Twenty-two million children rely on free lunch. Schools are closed.

Shontell: If you think about it, social distancing is a privilege. You have to have a house to live in, and you have to have the space to be able to do it. There’s a lot of inequality that’s coming in through all of this. Is this something that we’re just going to have to deal with? Is this what America is now, that if you have means, you can get a test and you can do things like social distancing, and if you don’t … or can we level the playing field somehow?

Sandberg: Inequality is very real, and it’s been very real for a really long time. There are huge differences in access to healthcare. There are huge differences in access to education. There are huge differences in access to food. Any time systems get put under pressure, there’s a crisis. Those differences get massively exacerbated.

I’m watching my kids try to learn at home. What if you don’t have internet access?

We have a program through my foundation called Goldie Scholars. One of the first thing my foundation did is we gave our kids extra money. They needed money to get home. They needed money for food. The schools were shutting on them. We went on and said, “We’re going to pay for enhanced data plans so you can get data on your phone,” because a lot of our kids, our scholars, were going home where they didn’t have internet access at home.

Obviously these inequalities are massively exacerbated, and so, look. We had to work on them before, and we have to work on them even more. That’s why every large donor to Second Harvest, when I talked to them, I literally ask for people to more than double what they do annually. Literally every call I made, every single person said yes immediately. It wasn’t even, like, “I’ll get back to you.” It was, like, “Yes, we’re in.”

Vinod Khosla [a venture capitalist] just joined. Everyone was in immediately. That’s what the stakes are.

Shontell: Talk about Facebook’s initiatives too. You’re giving $100 million to media companies and $100 million to small business, on top of what you’ve already previously pledged.

Sandberg: We’re donating and focusing on the organizational touchpoints we have. 140 million small businesses use Facebook around the world. We are in constant touch with them and we knew what was happening, and they were like, “Oh, my God, I can’t pay my bills,” and so we realized what they need is cash. Then a lot of them were asking for ad credits too, as they transition their business online or let customers know they’re still working, so that’s what we did. They want cash and ad credits. We went out with $100 million in majority cash and some ad credits.

With news organizations, we’re very closely tied to them and affiliated with them, so we know that’s what they need.

Shontell: How exposed is Facebook’s own business here, being tied to media and small businesses, which need help? As we head into a recession, this is already taking a hit on Facebook’s business. What are you anticipating?

Sandberg: This is going to have a real impact. We’ve been very clear on that, and we’re in the advertising industry. On the other hand, we can pay our employees, and we’re paying everyone. We are paying every employee, every contractor, whether they can work from home and whether they can’t. I think you saw some of the things we did for our employees [like pay out their full performance-based bonuses with more on top].

While of course this is going to impact our business, we are just focused on how lucky we are and then what we can do to give back, which is what we’re doing.

How Facebook survived the last recession as a startup, and Sandberg’s advice to startups now

ZuckerbergShontell: Facebook was a venture-backed startup during the last recession. You joined in March 2008, months before the financial industry imploded.

Startups are facing a really hard time right now. The venture community is facing a really hard time. Sequoia called the coronavirus a “black-swan event.” As someone who came out the other end of the last recession with a much stronger company, and an even stronger career, what’s your advice to the startup community now? What lessons did you learn from the last time that could help other smaller businesses?

Sandberg: You want to build a sustainable business. 2008 did happen. I joined in March, so it was right in the fall. We had a very small business, but we were worried.

That was the period where we took a very hard look at our ad products and redid them. We really changed the pricing. We changed the ad products. For a lot of companies, this is very much back to business of, what is your core business and what is the core service you’re providing? If you are in that startup phase, that’s what we did in 2008.

We’re in a different phase now. Now we are a large established business. We have the ability to help, and now we are both really focused on keeping our services up and running, but also doing as much good as we can do. Partnering with WHO, partnering with CDC, working with governments around the world, giving out funds.

For every small business out there, hopefully the next recession is 12 years away [after this] and hopefully, if you do this well, you’re going to be in a position to give back.

Shontell: It sounds like you reexamined your business and made some major changes that would then catapult you out of the recession eventually.

Sandberg: Yes.

What dual working parents should do when they’re being asked to work two full-time jobs at once, and how to get through high-anxiety times

s sandbergShontell: My final question: A lot of caregivers are getting crushed right now with schools and daycares being closed. If they manage to keep their day jobs, they are expected to then do two demanding full-time jobs at once. They are taking care of their parents or kids, and they’re trying to do their job for Facebook, their job for Business Insider, their job for wherever.

What advice do you have for people, especially a lot of women, who are having to take the bulk of this extra work on as the traditional homemakers? A lot of this extra caretaking work falls on them.

Sandberg: The first piece of advice I have is, if you are in a couple with a man and a woman, really this is a chance for men to lean in at home. Childcare and housework is very uneven among the sexes to this day, even for couples where both people work full-time, and those numbers are probably getting exacerbated right now.

The only way to get through this is to share the load of caretaking, and that is super important. Women do the great majority of childcare. Women do the great majority of taking care of elderly parents, including their in-laws. Women do the majority of taking care of their husbands’ parents. If you are in a couple, this is a hard time, but this is a good time for really reaching for a little equality.

Lean in at home, gentlemen.

I think we also have to keep hope. These are complicated and anxiety-provoking days, but we can and will get through this. We can and will get through this, if we all do everything we can to help.

Shontell: As someone who’s gone through their share of ups and downs, there are a lot of people struggling to take care of themselves right now. Do you have any words of advice for that?

Sandberg: One step in front of each other. We don’t know what’s going to happen here. Get through today. Do the very best you can to help someone. My kids wanted to know what they could do. I said, “Every single day, why don’t you FaceTime two people we know that are home alone?” They’ve been calling their grandparents very regularly. They’ve been calling other adults in their life. Give everyone something they can do to help someone else.

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