Sheryl Sandberg, left, with Nisha Blackwell of Knotzland, Pittsburgh.

When we tell the story of Pittsburgh’s rebirth, big tech companies are often at the heart of the conversation. Google is here. Facebook is here. Apple and Uber and Argo AI are here, and the list goes on. But if you’ve experienced this renaissance on the ground — if you’ve walked through the city’s neighborhoods and explored the thriving communities like Sharpsburg and Millvale that sit along its edges — you’ve seen the patchwork of small businesses, and new ones that have been opening all the time. They have earned Pittsburgh its reputation as a vital, comeback city.

But now we’re dealing with COVID-19 and its economy-halting quarantine.

Small businesses, especially those that operate with the thinnest of margins, are hardest hit by the economic impact. Even as they try to pivot by offering curbside pickup or reaching customers online, they face an immediate shortfall of income and a wildly uncertain future.

And the pain isn’t distributed equally. Research conducted by after quarantine began has found that Black women are twice as likely as white men to say that they’ve either been laid off, furloughed or had their hours and/or pay reduced. More than half (54%) of Black women reported this versus a little more than a quarter (27%) of white men.

Facebook, where many of these small businesses find their customers, is reaching out to help.

“We know we’re really fortunate. We are able to keep our business running and we’re able to pay our own bills,” says Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, in an exclusive interview with NEXTpittsburgh. “And that means that we have an obligation and an opportunity to help others.”

The company is offering $100 million in grants to small businesses globally, with $40 million reserved for the U.S., and $175,000 specifically for Pittsburgh. Half of that grant funding will go to women-owned, minority-owned and veteran-owned businesses.

“We’re very close to small businesses,” Sandberg says, “and we listen to them. They told us what they want, which is that they really need cash and they need that to get into their hands really, really soon. And so we launched the program, and tried to move as quickly as possible to make it happen.”

Recipients will receive $2,500 cash and an additional $1,500 in Facebook ad credits. The window for applying in Pittsburgh is open through Friday, May 8.

One key: Businesses don’t have to have a Facebook page or have advertised on Facebook to receive the grant funding. They only have to be in business more than a year and have between two and 50 employees. Beyond that, anyone can apply.

“We want to go local,” Sandberg says, “and we want to take care of the people who need it the most.”

But Facebook is letting businesses know that a free page on their platform may be useful right now. Currently, 140 million small businesses are on Facebook and Instagram, and many are making increased use of these platforms since the virus emerged. “But in the U.S. alone, although it’s a pretty advanced market, a third of small businesses don’t have a website or a mobile app at all,” Sandberg says. “That’s because they’re expensive.”

As social distancing makes normal retail shopping difficult or impossible, free social media pages may be a key to helping small businesses survive. So “we’ve launched a Business Resource Hub which has lots of free online training — everything from how to get customers to how to grow,” Sandberg says. “These tools are being used even more in this crisis.”

Among the tools businesses may be new at using: offering digital gift cards and hosting online fundraisers. “Fundraisers were something we thought of for nonprofits or for people, not for businesses,” Sandberg tells NEXTpittsburgh. But since the quarantine began, they’ve been a way to let community members support their favorite businesses.

The reality, of course, is that even $100 million dollars isn’t enough to solve this problem for the entire country. So Facebook is focusing this funding in the cities that its employees call home.

Facebook has been in Pittsburgh since 2015. They now have more than 100 employees here, many doing cutting-edge augmented reality and virtual reality research at Facebook Reality Labs in the Strip District at District 15.  This work, which involves augmenting the 2D experience of things like video calls and multiplayer gaming, may become even more needed if social distancing and limits on travel continue in some form through the coming year or longer.

“I’m so glad we’re able to do this in Pittsburgh,” Sandberg tells us. “In the beautiful cities we call home, we really want to try and make a difference. So we really need people to apply for the grants.”

Pittsburgh’s small businesses can click here to learn more and apply for grants between now and May 8, and they can access free business tools here

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The...