Opinion: Tech helps small businesses stay alive through COVID-19

Sheryl Sandberg and Brian Calley

When Melissa Butler moved back to Detroit, her hometown, she was taking a big risk.

She had given up a Wall Street job to pursue her dream of starting her own lipstick business and spent her first three years making lipsticks by hand in her kitchen. She then opened her flagship Lip Bar store downtown and the business grew into a success story, with products now available in hundreds of Targets nationwide. 

Melissa Butler

But then came COVID-19. Like millions of businesses at home and abroad, the Lip Bar has taken a big hit, seeing revenue drop with her store closed and Target sales slowing. Butler has used all her creativity to keep the business going — using social media to engage with customers in Facebook Groups and hosting live tutorials on everything from how to stay safe to how to sanitize your makeup bag. But for a business designed around products people use when they go out, a nation staying indoors is a big problem.

Whitney Harmon (center), make up artist, The Lip Bar, speaks to members of the Detroit Experience Factory tour which stopped at the business in Detroit on Saturday March 31, 2018. 
(Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

The pandemic isn’t just a public health emergency; it’s also an economic crisis that is hitting small businesses especially hard. In the seven years since Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the city’s downtown and Midtown neighbors sprang back to life thanks to the entrepreneurialism of homegrown talent like Butler — people who wanted to serve this community they love. Before the pandemic hit, financial investment was finally coming to where it was needed most — Detroit’s sprawling neighborhoods outside the city core. Now, many companies in Detroit and across Michigan need help urgently to keep the lights on and pay their employees. 

Everyone’s top priority is the health of their loved ones, but no one wants the small businesses at the heart of their communities to become collateral damage. That’s why Facebook and the Small Business Association of Michigan have been working closely to try to support businesses in Detroit and across the state that need it most. Last month, Facebook announced that it would make $100 million available in grants to small businesses around the world, with $40 million reserved for those in the United States. These grants are available to local businesses from the U.P. to Lower Woodward Avenue. Grant applications are open now, and the window to apply will last for two weeks.

The virus doesn’t care who you are. It has hit every county in Michigan, with elderly, people of color and rural residents the worst affected. And while all working families are feeling the economic pain, vulnerable communities are getting hit the hardest. The most vulnerable are so often women and women of color — and the families who depend on them. Research by LeanIn.org has found that more than a third of women say they’ve been laid off, furloughed or received pay cuts because of the coronavirus. The disparity is even greater among women of color, with black women twice as likely to report these financial issues as white men. That’s why half of the grants available in the U.S. will be reserved exclusively for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. 

In addition to supporting them with grants, Facebook is creating new ways for customers to support the local businesses they love with gift cards and fundraising tools, and making it easier for companies to find help, training and support. Facebook’s Business Resource Hub [Facebook.com/resource] contains advice and information — including from healthcare experts — to help businesses during the crisis, and there are also virtual trainings and materials available too.

Facebook has also contributed to wider efforts to support healthcare workers and others in Detroit, donating 50,000 much-needed surgical masks and 400 thermometers, as well as giving $100,000 to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan to support the efforts of local nonprofits during the COVID-19 crisis.

Helping small businesses helps everyone, especially in these unprecedented times. They are the backbone of our economy and the heartbeat of Facebook’s community too — millions use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger every day to reach customers and do business. But you don’t need to advertise or even be on Facebook to be eligible for grants or support. Any small business can apply, and you can visit facebook.com/grantsforbusiness to find out more. And to keep up to date with the latest support and information available locally, you can also tune into the Small Business Association of Michigan’s daily 3 p.m. briefing on Facebook Live at facebook.com/SmallBusinessAssociationofMichigan.

Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook. Brian Calley is a former lieutenant governor of Michigan who now serves as president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.