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Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg praises Tampa small businesses in Chamber chat

The ‘Lean In’ author and tech executive touted local COVID-19 success stories in a virtual roundtable.
In this screengrab from YouTube, Tampa Bay Chamber chairwoman Yvette Segura, left, chats with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on June 9, 2021.
In this screengrab from YouTube, Tampa Bay Chamber chairwoman Yvette Segura, left, chats with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on June 9, 2021. [ Tampa Bay Chamber via YouTube ]
Published Jun. 11
Updated Jun. 11

A handful of Tampa Bay small business owners got some face time and feedback this week from one of the most powerful executives in technology: Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Sandberg held a roundtable discussion with local entrepreneurs in a virtual meeting set up through the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. The Miami native highlighted several local Facebook-fueled success stories as she touted the company’s small business assistance programs during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I know Florida. I’m from Miami,” Sandberg said. “And I know that Miami and Tampa are very different. But I spent many a high school weekend with my girlfriends in Tampa, because it was far enough for us to drive and get away from our parents, but not too far; we could get there on a tank of gas.”

When Facebook first reached out to the Tampa Bay Chamber to set up the event, president and CEO Bob Rohrlack couldn’t believe it was real. It’s evidence, he said, that the chamber’s small business initiatives have elevated its profile.

“You think they’re this mammoth, powerful company, and they really listened to small businesses and what they’re needing to succeed and how they can be helpful,” Rorhlack said of Facebook. “It was legitimate, specific, consultative help to their business and how they can succeed. That’s the chamber that’s the convener, bringing people together.”

While the local business roundtable was invite-only, about 300 people signed up for Sandberg’s Zoom chat with chamber chairperson Yvette Segura. A recording of that is available on YouTube.

As she shared stories of Tampa Bay entrepreneurs who pivoted online or changed their marketing strategies, Sandberg detailed Facebook’s initiatives to smaller women- and minority-owned businesses in 2020. Among them: $40 million in grants to Black-owned businesses, including 66 grants in Tampa Bay.

Related: As PPP loan program ends, Tampa Bay small businesses' haul nears $10 billion

Several times during her discussion with Segura, Sandberg stressed Facebook’s commitment to user privacy.

“People need to understand that privacy and personalized ads are not mutually exclusive,” she said, citing the example of a metaphysical crystal store in Tampa. “We show the ads to people interested in meditation in Tampa, and we don’t get any personal information back, but those people then walk in the store.”

Related: After turbulent 2020, Tampa Bay Chamber leaders see opportunity in 2021

Hearing directly from the woman whose corporate mantra Lean In became a bestselling book was a “life-changing” opportunity, said Jennifer Hill, owner of the Peterbrooke Chocolatier franchise in downtown Tampa.

Hill, a former teacher, began planning her chocolate business early in the pandemic, eventually opening in October. When the Chamber told Sandberg’s team about her story, Sandberg wanted to her to be part of the roundtable, which she attended while serving customers at her shop. That gave Hill a huge boost of confidence.

“Her writing about us and speaking about us could be just the thing we needed,” Hill said. “Her philosophy on business, and her willingness to reach out to us in this small community — there was no reason for her to do it. And it was wonderful. Her brilliance shone through.”

Even as small businesses see upticks in revenue as COVID-19 vaccines become more prevalent, Sandberg said Facebook will keep reaching out to those clients.

“It’s the majority of our customers,” she said. “We grow their business, it grows ours.”