Facebook parent Meta’s COO Sheryl Sandberg is leaving the company this fall. She has been the second-in-command at the social media firm, the company’s second-most visible executive after founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself and the brain behind the ad-based business model of Facebook which helped it grow its revenue from a couple of hundred million dollars as a startup into a mature business making more than a hundred billion dollars in revenue.
Her 14-year tenure has also been marked by the company’s privacy violations, the Cambridge Analytica data breach in 2018 and the most recent whistleblower allegations that the company put profit over curbing hate speech and misinformation on its platforms.
Sandberg’s exit comes as the company, which recently rebranded itself to Meta, is struggling with slowing user growth and is taking a costly bet on the metaverse. As one of the leading woman executives in the American technology industry, she has also written a book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" and set up a non-profit organisation ‘Option B’.
She spoke to Business Today about the India story, the country’s place in the Meta scheme of things, its partnership with Jio and gender diversity. For more details, read this exclusive interview from January.
Q: What was the rationale behind rebranding Facebook Inc. to Meta? Why has the organisation undertaken it now?
A: Facebook was started as a company named Facebook that ran one app named Facebook. And then we started Messenger, we bought WhatsApp, we bought Instagram, we’ve started other things. And so, we’ve thought for a long time, it doesn’t really make sense to have the company name be the same as the first product when you have multiple products. We needed to think about our name and have a name that was more representative of everything we were doing. So, what we really did was we were thinking about what we’re doing and how we’re thinking about the future.
And we are making a major investment in what we think will be the next platform, which is the metaverse and bringing virtual reality. So those two things kind of came together and it made sense for us to rethink our name in a way that would be more appropriate to everything we’re doing and more looking to the future. The app Facebook is still proudly called Facebook. You know the other apps have their names, but Meta we believe is more where we’re going than where we’ve been. And that’s pretty exciting.
Q: How do you think it will impact users and change the experience for them?
A: We’re still investing in the apps we’ve always had. But look, I think what is the metaverse, what is the future will change a lot of things. I remember the first time I did a phone call on a mobile phone, and there was no cord. It was like, “Oh my God! There’s no cord.” I think things will happen in the future that we honestly can’t even imagine right now. This will change, I don’t know, a lot of things… everything.
Q: Do you think it’s another milestone in not just what Facebook stands for but also the whole promise of the internet… taking it to the next level through the metaverse?
A: We think it’s going to be as transformational. We’ve had a period of time where we’ve been able to connect in ways that we never could have before on camera. But what happens right now is, I am sitting in Menlo Park and you are halfway around the world. But what if we were having this meeting and it felt like we were in the same room? We think that is the next leapfrog the same way the last one was and we’re super excited about it.
Q: Where does India now feature in the Meta scheme of things?
A: India is one of the largest communities on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. We’ve got nearly half a billion people in India using Facebook every month. India is also going through a tremendous digital transformation. There are 700 million people on the internet and that’s going to grow to a billion in the next few years. And one in two people own a smartphone. So, it is an unusual combination of one of the largest countries in the world going through a very strong tech transformation.
[India also has] very devoted users of our products which we’re very, very grateful for. So, in many ways India is our largest and most important community. And we believe that will continue. When we think about India’s flourishing ecosystem, one of the largest app developer bases, you’ve got unbelievably talented creators gaining popularity. Just the same way the population of India, [which] is so active in our current products, are going to be even more active, we think, in the metaverse. We are also a partnership company. We’ve had a great partnership with Jio, Meesho and Unacademy. We are deep in with local companies because we know it takes local expertise to build the products that people are going to most use.
Q: What are the special learnings, if any, from a market like India which is so diverse in every way?
A: The learnings are people using the products differently. For example, India is one of the places where we wound up doing a lighter version of Facebook many, many years ago because there were people who were connected to the internet but didn’t have the same internet connectivity. India also has a very unique creator ecosystem. Your creators flourish, your app developers flourish. There’s a lot we’ve learnt in India which we will be able to translate globally.
Q: How is Meta integrating its platforms and products worldwide? Are there any new revenue streams that you’re looking at?
A: When we think about integration, our platforms and product rely on the same infrastructure. So, our teams are the same. When we recruit engineers, there’s a lot of integration that happens kind of on the back end. But on the front end they’re very specific products—you use Facebook, you use Instagram, you use WhatsApp, you use Messenger, you use some of our AR and VR products.
In terms of monetisation… our monetisation has really been through advertising. I really believe in our advertising model because it allows us to offer our products for free. Our business model needs to be better understood so that it’s protected. We offer personalised advertising, which means that the ad you see is different than the ad I’m going to see. We do that completely protecting people’s privacy… so we’re going to continue to invest in that, and that is primarily how we monetise. For future monetisation, video is a very, very important part of our story and [Instagram] Reels is a huge opportunity and very, very big in India. It really is easy to monetise Reels because of ads. We already have video ads, people want video ads and they are very immersive.
Q: What is your expectation from the partnership with Jio? Globally, how many of these partnerships are you doing?
A: Jio was one of the most important and deepest partnerships we’ve ever done… because Jio fuelled a really incredible digital transformation in this country [India]. There’s two very different worlds when it comes to commerce in India—there’s very digitally-savvy shoppers of online marketplaces, ride shares and food ordering. And there’s people shopping in really small mom-and-pop shops who don’t have access to sophisticated banking systems.
We think this partnership gives us an opportunity to work together to bridge these two worlds and benefits the entire digital ecosystem of the country. Jio is really integrated into WhatsApp so that people can simply message with Jio on WhatsApp. Our goal is to enable new opportunities for businesses of all sizes, especially the nearly 16 million SMBs [small and midsize businesses] across India and democratise access. This is probably the deepest partnership we’ve ever done and it’s because of Jio’s really special place in what is such an important market for us.
Q: Who are your target groups? Which group is responsible for the biggest chunk of your revenue both globally and in India?
A: If you go back to the original founding of Facebook, when it was one app and it was Facebook, it was only college students, then it went to high school, then it trended young and over the years, more people joined the platform and the median age went up. We’re a platform for everyone, from someone who’s 13 who comes on the platform, all the way up to someone’s great grandmother. We really want our teams to focus also on young adults. They are really important for us as we build our business.
Another really key audience we serve are small businesses, and that’s really worth thinking about. When you think about audiences it’s not just age, it’s who our clients are and who our customers are. We have over 200 million small businesses using our platforms to reach people, and we have 10 million advertisers. In India, we have 15 million WhatsApp for Business app users. Over 300 million people around the world have liked or are following a small business page on Facebook in India.
Q: Other than the metaverse, are there any big trends you’re looking at globally that Facebook can really power in the future?
A: There was already a digital transformation happening before Covid-19. Businesses were getting online… What’s happened during Covid-19 is an acceleration of that trend. Think about businesses that weren’t digital that are your mom-and-pop shops selling locally. Then Covid-19 happened… That digital transformation helped small businesses shift.
[Our survey in India] found that 53 per cent of small businesses and 47 per cent of micro businesses were using digital sales channels. That was 29 per cent before the pandemic. So that’s a major shift. [And] 60 per cent of small business owners said pivoting online helped keep them afloat during Covid-19. And if you look at the state of small business report from September, in India, 52 per cent of operational SMBs using Facebook reported making at least 25 per cent of their sales digitally. So that digital transformation was happening and it’s going to continue to happen and we think it creates a really exciting opportunity.
Q: Your foundation, Lean In, has found that 25 per cent of American women are downshifting or leaving the workforce because of increasing workload and burnout. Facebook also registered a 0.3 percentage point dip in the diversity of its workforce.
So how do you think a company should address this going further and what is Facebook in particular doing about this?
A: Diversity is really important to us at Facebook, and something we invest very heavily in and a lot of our diversity metrics are definitely going in the right direction. It’s two things—you have to be able to hire and attract the right people. But you also have to be encouraged to be able to take advantage of that diversity once it’s in the door. So, what a lot of companies do is they have targets and numbers—‘we want X per cent of our employees to be diverse’—but then once they’re in the company they expect everyone to say and act, the same. We don’t want that.
We want to harness diversity. We want diversity of thought which means if I show up today I need to show up not just as the Meta COO but I need to show up as a woman and a mother and an American. You know if someone shows up from India, they need to show up being able to say, ‘hey it’s different here’. If someone shows up who’s Black, who grew up in a different part of this country, they need to show up from their culture and [say] what they want to say, and so we are working hard at all of that.
Covid-19 is a health crisis, Covid-19 is an economic crisis, Covid-19 is a crisis for small business. And Covid-19 is a gender equality crisis. Women are dropping out of the workforce in larger numbers than they have in decades and that’s because before Covid-19 women worked a double shift.
They worked out of the home and then inside the home they did the majority of childcare and house work. That’s true everywhere in the world. Then Covid-19 happened, and now we have a double-double-shift. We have more women doing more work because you have to take care of children and take care of elders like there’s just so much more to do. We’re thinking about really making sure we invest and it’s not just Facebook but also my foundation.
My foundation helps women start Lean In circles. It’s interesting... our original goal when we started was we wanted 1,000 circles. Well, now we have 60,000 circles and almost 2,000 circles in India and what we saw during Covid-19, what we realised was how important women-to-women support was.
You know in India, almost all of our Lean In circle members have been really devastated by the first and second waves of Covid-19. Losing loved ones, infections. But now they’re really supporting each other. There’s a woman named Sphoorti [Kumar]. She’s the network leader for Lean In in Bangalore. And she talks about how many women in her community have resigned during Covid-19. And so she led an initiative to bring women back to work. By reaching out—this is amazing—not just to the women but to their husbands and family members to help those husbands and family members do more at home, so the women could return to work.
Q: What has to be done to retain more women leaders in the tech industry to ensure diversity trickles down to the workforce?
A: The first thing about the tech industry is, we need more women to get technical degrees—women are getting 18 per cent of the computer science [CS] degrees in the US. India, because of the sheer numbers, is doing a great job educating female tech leaders. But fundamentally we’re not going to have enough leaders in an industry if we’re getting 18 per cent of the CS degrees. So that’s something we really need to fix.
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