MS. LONG: Good morning. I'm Heather Long, an economics correspondent at The Washington Post, and today we're talking about small business.

America has over 30 million small businesses, and 2020 has been a brutal year as the coronavirus pandemic has kept a lot of customers from shopping in downtown areas. And then the global recession has caused a pretty steep pain for a lot of our small businesses.

So, to discuss the current state of things and what more needs to be done for American small business, we welcome this morning, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking member and top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Welcome, Senator.

SEN. CARDIN: Heather, it's really good to be with you, and thank you for doing this broadcast in regards to small businesses. It truly is needed to have a spotlight on their needs.

MS. LONG: I know you care deeply about small business. Let's get right to it.

A lot of disappointment that Democrats and Republicans couldn't reach a deal here on a stimulus package before the election. What are the chances of getting something by the end of the year?

SEN. CARDIN: Well, of course, a "lame duck" session of Congress is always unpredictable. So, it's going to be very difficult to predict what will happen once Congress reconvenes after the elections.

Obviously, there's liable to be a new administration in Washington. There's going to be new players in Congress. So, it's tough to make a prediction as to what can happen in "lame duck."

But let me say this. Small businesses really can't wait until January for relief. They're desperate, and if we wait until January, there is going to be literally thousands of small businesses that will not be around to get the help that Congress will ultimately provide.

So, it's pretty desperate out there. You all talk about small businesses being the growth engine of our economy. That's true. That's where job growth occurs. That's where innovation occurs, but resiliency is not very strong among small businesses, particularly during national emergencies such as COVID-19. So, Congress really needs to step up sooner rather than later to help those small businesses that are in desperate need of help.

MS. LONG: And what kind of help do they need? Is it another round of the Paycheck Protection Program, or is it something a little different this time?

SEN. CARDIN: Well, we acted in March under the CARES Act, brought in some new tools to help small businesses, the largest, of course, being the Paycheck Protection Program, and that was an effort to get money out quickly to as many small businesses are possible that were impacted by COVID-19. At that time, we expected that the pandemic would be gone by now and that our economy would be back on track. Well, obviously, that was not the case.

So now we do need a second round of help for small businesses, including a second round of PPP, and also help under the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, the EIDL program, which also includes grants as a result of the action of the CARES Act.

But when we do the next round, we really need to target it to those small businesses that had been really adversely impacted by COVID-19, that have had a significant reduction in revenues. We also need to recognize that the smaller of the small businesses have been hit the hardest. So, we really need to bargain and make sure that the smaller businesses are able to get the help quickly, which was not the case with the first round.

Then lastly, we recognize that the underserved, underbanked community did not have the same type of banking connections that the larger small businesses had, and we really need to make sure that we reached particularly minority small businesses, underbanked small businesses, and those small businesses in challenged communities.

MS. LONG: Yeah. I'm glad you said that. I've heard that a lot as well as I've called around to small business owners, just a frustration at how unfair the process was and having to apply oftentimes through banks.

Is there a way to ensure that banks must serve all small businesses so that banks would have to process a PPP loan, for instance, even if it's not from their normal customer?

SEN. CARDIN: Well, in March, when we passed the PPP program, it was a new program. We used the 7(a) loan program as the vehicle, which were commercial financial institutions, and the complaints were legitimate that those small businesses that didn't have an established relationship with the bank had a really difficult time getting a 7(a) loan. That was a forgivable loan.

So, yes, there are ways that we can make sure that the underserved communities are properly represented in the loans that are given out. We can do that by rolling off a certain amount of the funds for smaller small businesses or for small businesses located in economically disadvantaged communities, or we can directly allocate money to mission lenders that are more likely to reach those small businesses in the challenged economic communities. So, there are ways that we can make it easier.

It's going to be very difficult to try to mandate a bank to do business in certain communities or with certain individual small businesses. I think the easier way is to strengthen the tools that we have available in the underserved communities to make sure that they get a fair allocation of the resources.

MS. LONG: One of the questions that I hear a lot from Washington Post readers is people look back at that CARES Act and they say not all the money has been spent from the CARES Act. So, in particular, a lot of people focus on the, roughly, $190 billion that Congress in a bipartisan way allotted to help business, and it was part of the money that was given to Treasury and the Federal Reserve. And that $190 billion never got spent. It never got used on any programs, and so people say, why can't Congress just take that money that's sitting there, unused at Treasury, and turn around and reallocate it to small business help, which is clearly needed?

Would you support something like that? Do you think that's something that could be done faster than January?

SEN. CARDIN: Well, I absolutely would support that. Whether it can be done before January is challenging as Congress would have to pass a bill, and that has to pass the United States Senate. Senator McConnell has shown no indication whatsoever of wanting to bring up that type of legislation.

But let me go over the numbers. Over $500 billion was actually put out under the PPP program. My most recent figures show we have somewhere around 135- to $140 billion still remaining in that account, and those funds are available. But there's no legislative authority now to incur any additional PPP Loans, and certainly, there's no authority for a second round of PPP loans. So, Congress needs to act to either open up the PPP program or provide a second round of PPP help or provide additional tools available for small businesses such as forgivable loans under--or grants under the EIDL program. But they certainly have that money that's available, and it should be allocated to small businesses. And it should be done now. It shouldn't wait to 2021.

MS. LONG: Yeah. That's a good point. There's both unspent PPP money from that first round as well as unspent money for larger businesses over at Treasury and the Federal Reserve. So, there's multiple pools of money that could be pulled here.

You're talking about urgency. I can hear it in your voice and what you're saying. Senate Republicans have expressed some openness to doing a smaller, more targeted bill that would focus on small business and the unemployed and maybe some testing. Would you support a smaller bill if it came to that if that was the only option in December?

SEN. CARDIN: So, let me make two points about this, Heather.

First of all, small businesses need our economy returning to some degree of normalcy and confidence among consumers to go out and participate in our economy. So if we don't provide help to state and local government, if we don't provide help to control the spread of this virus, if we don't provide help to our school system so that they can open as fully as they possibly can, safely, small businesses are not going to be at the point where they can continue to do their business. So, they need a comprehensive response, not just one just, you know--or direct federal help to small businesses.

One of the most effective ways that we've helped small businesses is providing resources to state and local governments that then use those funds for grant programs to small businesses in their community. That's been very effective in Maryland, and I know it's been effective throughout the country.

So, as you point out, there are different pools of dollars that become extremely important to help small businesses. So, we really need a more comprehensive approach.

Second point. I really do not believe Leader McConnell will bring up a bill that would be acceptable for small businesses. We saw them play really a procedural game near the end of, I guess, about a week ago in an effort to say we have a cover vote. I think they're more interested in political cover than really providing additional help or COVID relief, whether it's small businesses or larger businesses or our state and local government.

So, yes, we'll work with our Republicans on a bipartisan bill, but we think it should be comprehensive. But we want to make sure that whatever package is available for small businesses, it really deals with those small businesses that really need the help.

MS. LONG: The other issue I wanted to push you on is liability shield. The Senate Republicans and many in the business community would like some sort of protection, legal protection, if they follow the rules. So, if they're trying to do, generally, the right thing to protect workers and protect customers, then in these uncertain times, they say, "Look, I don't want to face a lot of lawsuits when I'm trying to do the right thing here."

How do you weigh those concerns? I know you listen deeply to the small business community, but you also are concerned about workers. Would you support any version of a liability shield? Does that make sense?

SEN. CARDIN: You know, it's very interesting, Heather. I'm out in Maryland quite a bit, mostly virtually, but talking to a lot of different stakeholders. This issue rarely comes up. It has not been a problem. We haven't seen a lot of lawsuits that have been filed against businesses in regards to COVID-19, and it's clear that we have CDC guidelines. We should be following those guidelines, and I think businesses feel comfortable if they provide the protection that CDC suggests, that they'll protect their customers, they'll protect their employees, and there really is not a real risk factor that has been talked about by the Republicans.

Secondly, this is an issue that is generally handled at state level. Liability issues are generally handled locally, and again, legislatures will be meeting. They can take these issues up. They can deal with them as they're needed in their community.

I really think it will delay dramatically the COVID relief package if we get into the broad shield of liability, particularly as we are trying to protect workers and customers. We want to make sure that certain guidelines are followed.

So, it's not as easy as it sounds. We're always open to suggestions, but I really do believe this has been put out there as a way to make it more difficult for us to get the relief out that's needed.

MS. LONG: Let me ask you another one that I get a lot. Do you think the Federal Reserve's Main Street Lending Program, what they created over the summer to try to help small and midsized Blue Star Strategies--do you think it's working well?

SEN. CARDIN: That's a great question, and I'm smiling a little bit because we have been approached by Treasury to take on more of the responsibilities for businesses that generally do not fall under the small business jurisdiction but under our small business programs. So, it looks like the small business programs have been working more effectively than the Main Street programs under Treasury.

The challenge you have under the structure that has been set up, there's specific programs for particular industries, such as the airline industry, and then you have your Main Street programs. And you have your programs for small businesses, and then you have different rules as to size in regards to small businesses. I really do think we need more uniformity as we deal with particularly smaller companies.

So, I would welcome an opportunity to allow the Treasury Department to learn from what we've learned in small business to make these programs more tailored for those businesses that really need the help, and they're the businesses that depend upon large gatherings, that have been really hampered as a result of COVID-19. So, I think we can identify those companies, through no fault of their own business plans, that have been challenged because their revenues cannot be anywhere near what it was pre-COVID.

MS. LONG: Yeah, yeah. You spoke about speaking around your state to many small businesses. What are you hearing? If they're not talking about liability shield, kind of, what are those top two or three issues that you hear over and over again?

SEN. CARDIN: I think number one is can we get our economy back operating, and they recognize that the failure to control COVID-19--we're still in the first wave. We've never controlled the first wave, that they recognize that consumer confidence is going to be key to their business getting back on track. So, they really are anxious for us to do everything reasonable to contain this virus. That means they're very much open to social distancing and wearing masks and making sure that everyone washes their hands frequently and doing those types of things.

The point is, though, it costs some additional money, and that's why they said that the first round of the CARES Act was a lifesaver. But they're still drowning, and they need another round. They have to deal with COVID, direct COVID-related expenses. They still have revenue declines that are pretty dramatic.

So, what they're saying is get the virus under control, put the resources there, but give us additional help until we can get our economy back on track. We all hope that will be sometime soon when a vaccine is out and the therapeutic drugs are available. So, we just need a little bit more time, and that's where Congress needs to act to provide that lifeline.

And by the way, it will help our economy. The CARES Act not only helped businesses, not only helped American families. It helped our economy stay afloat, and that's what we need to do again. And that's what I hear, that they recognize they're part of a bigger picture, but they want to make sure they can survive COVID-19.

MS. LONG: Yeah. Another issue that comes up a lot--and I'm sure you hear it too--is rent. People say, "Look, I can maybe pay my employees. I can just get by, but it's really hard for me. I don't have a lot of extra money to pay my rent," and of course, if small businesses aren't paying their rent, then those landlords are suffering, some of whom are also small businesses.

How worried are you about sort of a big collapse in commercial property, particularly in different cities, this issue of businesses not being able to pay their rent?

SEN. CARDIN: Heather, that's a real concern. So that's why we need to do more than just PPP. The PPP program provided limited help basically for an eight-week period where we covered payroll and some other expenses, including rent, but it was not broad enough to cover the continuation of rent payments and other expenses that small businesses have.

That's why the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program was so important, and the first act we did was to make businesses eligible for EIDL loans. That was important because those funds can cover the rent cost beyond what was in the PPP program.

But we recognize that many small businesses, particularly smaller small businesses, they really can't take on additional loan obligations because they're not going to be able to repay those loans, even though they're long-term low-interest loans. So, we've developed a grant program under EIDL, up to $10,000, and that really helped, but unfortunately, the SBA ran out of funds and never really fully used that program.

So now we're suggesting let's take a look at a larger program under EIDL that would be a grant program that would provide a lifeline for those small businesses located in underserved communities that have had significant revenue losses so that, yes, they can pay their rents. They can keep the--it not only helps them survive in paying these additional expenses, it also provides stability in the commercial real estate market, which is important, particularly in communities that are desperate not to become deserts for commercial property.

So, yes, there's more that we can do and more that we need to do. Take a look at these programs that passed the House and the HEROES Act because it does provide additional help to small businesses that will help stabilize the commercial real estate market in underserved communities.

MS. LONG: Yes. And another issue that comes up a lot when I talk to small business owners is a bit of confusion over whether they're going to have to repay these loans. If they used it mostly for payroll, mostly to keep people working, they're supposed to have the loan forgiven. It's supposed to turn into a grant under the Paycheck Protection Program.

Treasury has obviously come out and made a very streamlined process if the loan was $50,000 or less, so the smaller loans. Do you think that threshold should go higher? Do you think if somebody had a loan for $150,000 or less that it should just be a really easy forgiveness process?

SEN. CARDIN: Well, yes. I think that we should have a streamlined process. The purpose here was to have self-certification to make it a simple process and to have forgivable loans. It's been scored as forgivable loans. So, the funds are there, but we want to make sure there is no either intentional or mistakes made in using the funds where they were not eligible to be used. A certain amount must be used for payroll. So, there's certain requirements in regards to how the monies need to be spent. Businesses need to be able to verify that.

However, for loans under $50,000, I strongly support what the administration just recently came up with, a very simplified form, relying on self-certification. Let's get those loans forgiven, but let's recognize that there is always a possibility of audit.

We have suggested a similar process for loans also between 50- and $150,000, a simplified process. Both Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that we need to simplify this process. The message we gave to small businesses, that these were going to be forgivable loans, just use the money for the intended purpose, and the overwhelming majority of small businesses have done that. And yet they are having a hard time getting the loan off their books.

So, let's make it a little bit easier, but let's also remember you need to have the verifications. And there will be audits, particularly for those loans over $150,000.

MS. LONG: Okay. So, I've got a few minutes left here. Obviously, all eyes are on the election, less than a week to go. One of the issues if Joe Biden wins the presidency from your party, he has said very clearly, he wants to raise that minimum wage to $15 an hour. Do you think that's really feasible for small business owners across the nation to pay $15 an hour minimum wage?

SEN. CARDIN: The challenge we have is that we have not increased minimum wage for a period of time, and therefore, we have created a need to make a significant--more significant increase because we have fallen behind.

We have found historically raising the minimum wage does not hurt small businesses. It does not hurt our economy. It actually helps our economy. I find that small businesses, their workforce is critically important to their business, and one of the reasons we passed the Paycheck Protection Program is so that they can maintain their workforce during this pandemic.

But increasing the minimum wage establishes a floor, and small businesses recognize that. Over a longer period of time, it's going to have a positive impact, not a negative impact, on our economy.

So, a minimum wage should reflect a minimum wage, and unfortunately, we have fallen behind. There's a need for an adjustment. I've always preferred doing it in smaller increments in order so that we don't have any dramatic impact on business.

MS. LONG: But would you support going to $15 next year if it came up on the floor?

SEN. CARDIN: I think $15 is a reasonable minimum wage. Now, how soon we get there is something we can talk.

MS. LONG: And I think similarly, there's been some concern, the business community, if Biden wins the presidency, he's obviously said he would like to raise the corporate tax. That does influence what some small businesses have to pay, raising it from 21 percent to 28 percent. There seems to be some anxiety if that happens in 2021, just as the economy is trying to recover. Do you think it would be too soon to try to raise the corporate tax in 2021?

SEN. CARDIN: I do believe our committee, the Small Business Committee, should weigh in, in regards to any income tax changes, but the 2017 tax law did not help small businesses. We've done lots of studies on this, and small businesses did not benefit from these corporate tax reductions.

Most small businesses pay under the individual rate, either have passthrough income or they pay their taxes through their personal tax returns. So, we have found that for many small businesses, for most small businesses, they didn't benefit, 2017 tax change.

So what Vice President Biden is talking about would have minimal impact on small businesses in this country. We need to take a look at it as the impact.

There are other provisions that are critically important, and we're looking at expanding them, such as the retention credit. We want to make sure that's--a bill that I've worked on with Senator Wyden, that provides real help to small businesses in bringing back their worker. So, there are provisions in the Tax Code that we think need to be changed that will help small businesses, but let's make it fair.

And what happened in 2017, the overwhelming benefits went to those that were, as Vice President Biden has drawn the line, over $400,000 of income as well as the large businesses.

So, from the point of small businesses, the 2017 tax bill actually was negative. I think what Vice President Biden is talking about will end up helping small businesses in parity in our Tax Code.

MS. LONG: Senator Cardin, we're going to have to leave it there, but thank you so much for your time. I'm struck by your comment that small businesses are desperate right now. That's certainly what I'm hearing too, and let's hope there's aid for them soon. Thank you so much.

Please stay with us. We'll be back in a minute with two CEOs of small businesses to tell us exactly what's going on in their world.

[Video plays]

MS. LABOTT: Hi. I'm Elise Labott of American University, and in addition to talking about how to help secure small business, we're also talking about strategies small business owners are putting in place to better support their workforce.

Here to talk to me about this is Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. Insurance Solutions for Principal Financial Group, which helps to protect some 100,000 small business owners.

Amy, good to have you.

MS. FRIEDRICH: Thanks for having me. This is a great topic today.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. Well, look, small businesses, as we know are critical to the U.S. economy. They're among the country's biggest employees, and since the start of COVID, we know they've been faced with a multitude of challenges and are struggling. How do you think policymakers can do a better job to responding to some of the needs of these small business owners?

MS. FRIEDRICH: Well, what I can say is starting out, the conversation that I just listened in on with Senator Cardin was terrific. I think going out to small business owners and actually--I don't know--asking them what's going on with them, what are you worried about, I think there's a lot of play going on right now related to how scared small businesses are, and I think that's appropriate.

What I would also really balance that out with, though, is small business owners are the most creative bunch I've ever met. They are also a resilient bunch, and so the indications we're getting, at least from the research we're doing, is that they are willing to pivot. They're willing to do something differently, but sometimes they need just a little extra support and understanding to do that.

So, what I would say is let's balance out that messaging from scared and desperate to these are creative. This is where our patent activity comes from in the U.S. economy. Let's go after that piece of what small businesses can do, and let's get a little bit more creative about how everybody helps them.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. That's a really good point about just the innovation in the small business community.

Well, look, a lot of these businesses had little cash on hand before the pandemic, and also, small business owners, as you know, who didn't have any kind of pre-established lending relationships are struggling to secure funding. And even those who are getting loans are still waiting on the funds. So, given that innovation that we're talking about and creativity, what moves can small businesses take to stay afloat as they await another round of funding?

MS. FRIEDRICH: I think one of the things small businesses can do is make sure they have scanned both their state and their local as well as federal programs to state funding, and what I would also say it that community lending institutions are a critical part of kind of that small business backbone. And so, going and making sure they have talked to, if they have a lender, if they have banking relationships, saying, "How can you help me understand how I can even manage my cash flow?" Sometimes banks and other lending institutions have the ability to do more complicated analysis, and they have an inherent interest to help you do it. Small business owners, because they kind of go it alone, they don't often reach out to the people who are in the best position to help them. And they will do it often for free because those lenders and community institutions know that their community is stronger if the small businesses in their community are viable.

MS. LABOTT: Yeah. That's a really good point about the relationship between small businesses and the community because small business, you know, "community" is kind of their middle name.

Well, let's talk a little bit about kind of some of these workforce issues. Balancing work and child care has been a serious challenge for everyone during COVID-19 pandemic and has an economic impact, and I think especially for people working in small businesses, schools are operating remotely. Parents are often forced to take unpaid leave, leave their jobs to care for their families, and they can't afford it.

So how are some of these employers supporting their employees who no longer have the access to child care due to recent closures?

MS. FRIEDRICH: Well, we just did some research last month that was actually stunning to me. Ninety-two percent of small businesses indicated that they are accommodating working parents in some way. Some of them even extended that out to accommodating elder care and other issues. So small businesses are dealing with it, and they are accommodating. And those accommodations aren't, well, we're cutting pay or we're doing something like that. The accommodations are "I'm letting them work from home." The accommodations are "I'm actually adjusting their hours. I'm letting them kind of put in and say I can work these hours, I can work these hours. This different employee can work these hours." So, what I'm seeing is small business owners are being incredibly flexible, and they have a ton of impact on working parents. And so, they have the ability to make this work or not make this work, and what I'm seeing is small business owners right now, they're making it work. They're allowing them to be as flexible as they can.

MS. LABOTT: Because I think a lot of times, people don't make the connection between working families and small business, and a lot of these kind of working families who are working paycheck to paycheck are working for a small business.

MS. FRIEDRICH: Well, that's exactly right.

And so, I'm looking at things like when they end up wanting to be able to work from home, small business owners are saying, "I'm willing to let you do that." Like, 40 or 50 percent of them are indicating, "I'm willing to let you do that."

But that raises another issue for them like cybersecurity, "Well, I'm not sure I know I have all the firewalls in place that I need to have, all the things. I've never had to worry about that before."

So I think when I think of what lending, what programs can help small business owners, I think we should get creative like maybe some sort of a loan to give them--or a grant that gives them some ability to put more cyber infrastructure in place is going to help them more of these child care and elder care and other issues going on in the workplace. So, I think we've just got to get more creative.

MS. LABOTT: So, the work environment in this era really hasn't been kind of easy on anybody, as we said, working remotely, teaching children at home. People are scared about their safety and their finance, and I think there is this new recognition among business owners that employees are stressed and overwhelmed and then lonely.

So, in just the remaining minute or so that we have, what are some [audio distortion] small business owners can help employees manage their mental health? I think there's a lot of attention to this now.

MS. FRIEDRICH: Yeah. So, really quickly, one of the best things they can do is just open up a conversation with their employees, to give them a forum to kind of talk about it.

Now, I'm not saying show up at work and say, "I can't do my work," but show up at work and know that there's a culture there that you can talk about it. Most business owners know that their own employees are struggling, and they're sympathetic to that.

The other thing I would say is if you have things like things that have historically been kind of taken for granted, like insurance or something, sometimes those relationships are entry points into things like employees distance programs, and there's a certain amount of calls and other things that come free with those services.

So, go to the people you've done business with in the past for things like insurance and protection and ask them if they can help you more than they're helping you because my guess is we can help more than small business owners even know.

MS. LABOTT: Well, look, as we've been saying, small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy and represent really the innovation and hard work of Americans, and it's so important to the fabric of society. So, we all need to remember to support and protect them.

Amy Friedrich, president of U.S. Insurance Solutions for Principal Financial Group, great to talk with you.

MS. FRIEDRICH: Thanks so much. Really enjoyed the conversation.

MS. LABOTT: Back to Heather.

[Video plays]

MS. LONG: I'm Heather Long, an economics correspondent at The Washington Post, and right now we're talking about the state of small business during this global pandemic.

My next guests are two CEOs of small businesses. They've faced daunting challenges here in 2020 and found creative ways to get through them.

I'm happy to welcome Tiffany Dufu, founder and CEO of The Cru, which helps female-owned small businesses and executives, and Ilir Sela, the founder and CEO of Slice, the company that helps over 13,000 pizzerias in the United States. Welcome to you both.

MS. DUFU: Thanks for having us.

MR. SELA: Thank you so much. Excited to be here.

MS. LONG: Thank you.

Let's just start. Maybe each of you can briefly describe a little bit about your small business and when you founded it. Tiffany, let's start with you.

MS. DUFU: Sure. I just want to express gratitude to Washington Post and the Principal. I actually am having a bit of an emotional reaction to the intro to the last section.

Business owners, we're not sitting on our couch like eating potato chips, watching the 24-hour news cycle. We're hustling, and so just to listen in on people talking about how much they care, it can be an isolating feeling. And so, thank you so much for doing this and for helping us to know that we're not alone in this.

I founded my company two years ago. We match circles of women who collaborate to meet their life goals together.

One of the things about the company that I'm really proud of is that we really rally together in the wake of COVID to support our members who are across the country.

I do have a bit of a benefit in that it is a tech-enabled platform. So, we were able to pivot very quickly to use technology in order to keep our business going and to still operate and to still provide value to our customers, but it was very challenging to keep the doors open.

And I had to raise another round of capital in order to do it. I was battling COVID myself. So, it was challenging, and I think that the more that we can do to support small business owners, the better.

MR. SELA: Yeah. With Slice, founded the company in 2010. Our mission is to keep local thriving. We bring technology, data, marketing, and e-commerce solutions to the independent small business pizza industry. Today we work with nearly 14,000 locations nationwide, and we say, we help small business owners be in business for themselves, not by themselves. And it's, again, our mission to keep local thriving by forming this fragmented--or really converting this fragmented industry into a community where everyone is working together for a common cause.

MS. LONG: Yeah. You both have touched a little bit on it already, but obviously, 2020 has been a crazy year, a pandemic, a recession, many more issues. Could you both just say two or three ways that your business has been deeply impacted?

Ilir, why don't we start with you.

MR. SELA: Absolutely. Look, our business was directly impacted because our partners, our small business owners, independent pizzerias, really fragmented around the entire country. So that there's a small business pizza restaurant in every neighborhood across America, and pizza is part of the fabric of America.

And the initial sort of adjustment to the pandemic was just stay-at-home orders, and there was a lot of uncertainty from small business owners around their business and whether they would be able to continue to remain open.

And what we saw directly was the grit and the tenacity that exists across all of these small businesses as they found a way to overcome all these challenges and remain open as really a necessary business within these neighborhoods to continue to support their communities and provide much needed food, takeout and delivery, to families across America.

And so, for us as a company, first challenge was how to make sure that we continue to support these small businesses while we ourselves faced a big challenge in migrating our team of 700 people globally to work remotely, and I'm incredibly proud of our team for overcoming that big challenge. But really, we were inspired by the small business owners who have remained open throughout this pandemic and continue to provide amazing delicious food to families across America.

MS. LONG: Ilir, let me just follow up. Are your 700 employees still mostly working remotely today, or is it a mix of people back in office and in a remote--

MR. SELA: Yeah, we remain fully remote, and our teams continue to step up every single day. And as I mentioned, just taking a lot of inspiration from small business owners across the country who have risked their lives, to be honest, in order to make sure that they continue to provide for their own families but also be there for their communities who have supported them throughout the years.

MS. LONG: Tiffany, what about you? I was just struck when you said you yourself were battling coronavirus at one point. This seems like quite a year for you.

MS. DUFU: Yes, absolutely. And thank you for the work that you're doing. Our family has definitely benefitted from the local pizzeria. So, thank you for that.

Yes. Probably, the biggest hit to The Cru has to do with our model. Our women who apply to The Cru and that we match in circles met in person across the country, and what happened immediately was that, obviously, they would not be able to do that. And yet they are women who are business owners themselves, who are executives, who have families, who in the wake of this crisis needed more support.

So, we immediately had to figure out how do we move to a tech model in which our Crus are meeting over Zoom, how do we shift our inquiry-based coaching practice in such a way that it can work virtually. And so, it was really an operational lift for us to figure out how to make this work.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a catalyst. So, you know, sometimes there are silver linings in the wake of a crisis. We learned that our model actually works better virtually for really busy women. There's no commute. They can nurse their babies during a Cru gathering. They can do their daughter's hair during the gathering, and so it allowed us actually to open up the platform and to start matching women by time zone instead of city, since they didn't need to commute to see one another in person. So, in some ways, you can learn a lot as a business owner when there's a crisis and you really have to evolve. So that was one of the impacts.

But, again, everyone is hustling. I did have to battle and manage my own health. You know, as business owners, we're not just business owners. We're parents. You've got to manage your kids who are doing homeschooling and trying to do all of this virtually. I was battling my own health.

I think it's important to note that particularly for Black business owners, there is also the weight of the breaking of Black bodies all of a sudden becoming breaking news and the Black Lives Matter movement. Nearly half of small businesses that are run by Black people that are Black-owned have already been wiped out, and some of them are the backbones of our communities.

So, I think not having access to the capital is a real challenge. Not banking with a bank that had a process that was streamlined is definitely a challenge, and I think the more that we can support these businesses with having operational efficiency and using technology in a way to support them in moving forward, I think it's going to be really challenging.

I was noticing that the business that did the best in the wake of COVID in my neighborhood--there are restaurants on every corner on my block, and the one that did the best was the Mexican restaurant that already had online ordering in place. They already had a digital business in place. That was the one that did the best, and we've just been spending our dollars on all the rest of them.

MS. LONG: Tiffany, I want to follow up. You had mentioned that you had to do, I think, some additional fundraising during this period to help you out, and I believe you had told The Post that you didn't have to lay anybody off. But you were trying to look for ways to manage payroll during--and particularly during the height of the crisis. Talk me through kind of having to deal with those financial challenges and wanting to keep your staff fully there.

MS. DUFU: Of course. I mean, as a business owner, you feel responsibility to the people whose livelihoods that are in your hands. It's an enormous responsibility. You don't want to lay anyone off. You don't want to cut anyone's salary at a time when their families need it, now more than ever.

The Cru is a tech-enabled company. So, we have a model that has the potential to be scalable. We're already scaling it, and so I had access to a stream of funding that a lot of small business owners don't have, which is venture capital. Of course, the challenge of going out in the midst of a viral pandemic at an economic recession and everyone operating over some tech platform is very difficult for the venture capital world. So I really had to rely on my network investors to try to get to people and convince them that you can make an investment over Zoom, that we don't have to have met in person, and that this is a company that can actually execute on the innovation that you talked about and the creativity that you talked about to get through this crisis and to really thrive. And so, making that argument, figuring out how to get to the right people and make that case was just another job that I had on top of the job of running the company.

MS. LONG: Ilir, I want to turn to you. Obviously, as Tiffany was just saying and I'm the same, a lot of people have been ordering quite a few pizzas lately and even more so than normal, and I believe you've shared with The Post that your business sales have almost doubled during this period. How did you manage that? Did you need to bring on more people or get more funding in the middle of this period?

MR. SELA: Yeah. Look, as Tiffany mentioned as well, technology really is at the forefront of how small businesses can adjust and obviously take advantage of the changing consumer habits, but really, they need to embrace technology in order to continue to thrive.

And so, the result of our business performance has been really small businesses for the first time being completely open and embracing the change that is necessary, and that digital transformation that is required in order for them to succeed in today's digital-first world.

So part of the reason behind our success has been, one, the existing partners on our network that had already set themselves up for success by adopting an online ordering solution and marketing solution for digital channels, but then we've seen an acceleration of small businesses coming inbound and looking to partner with Slice in a way that allows them to also participate in this digital economy.

In order to fund those efforts and continue to accelerate our product roadmap and all of the channels that we've enabled for small business--and I'll give you an example. By joining Slice, a small business pizzeria gets access to our world-class app, Google food ordering, ordering through Instagram and Facebook, ordering through Nextdoor, and many channels like those just really with the flip of a switch.

And again, in order to fund those efforts, we did raise a round of funding about five months ago. It was a $43 million round that we're really excited about, and we introduced a new partner of Slice in KKR.

MS. LONG: And can I just ask? There's always a lot of debate. Everyone wants to help their local small businesses, particularly restaurants that are beloved in the community. From a customer point of view, are there ways that people should be ordering? Obviously, your own platform, but sometimes people debate should you be using these intermediary delivery services versus ordering directly from your local restaurant, either calling or through their own website. Is there any advice you would give customers who really want to help pizzerias and other local restaurants?

MR. SELA: Absolutely. Look, the goal is to make sure that consumers are ordering from the channel that is best for them but also the most efficient channel for the small business.

I'm incredibly proud about really our business model and how fairly priced we are as a first-party solution for small businesses, and so the reality is that the consumer habits have to really evolve and change into digital channels. And small business owners need to adopt those channels in order to have a chance at succeeding long term.

The reality is that if we call, it costs more for the pizzeria to answer that phone because they need to have somebody there at all times. A lot of times, these locations are owner-operated, and you have the owner really doing all these jobs directly themselves.

And so, without a doubt, digital channels are the most valuable channels for a small business. However, there also can't be a massive tax on their bottom line, and so when you look at third-party solutions that are really designed more for new customer acquisition, those have value, but they cannot replace your most important channels. They cannot be your first-party solution, and what Slice does is it comes in and we really become that first-party partner, not only in empowering the digital channels, but we also find ways to lower the cost of operations through shared services and economies of scale.

So, I'll give you an example. We lower the cost of buying pizza boxes or the printed menus that you see inside some of these locations, cups, napkins. We also empower the small business with data that allows them to be more valuable in the online world, data around their delivery fees, order minimums, and really the price of their pizza. So, we take a very different approach.

But to answer the question directly, by far digital channels are the most important and valuable channels for the small business. It just can't be a third party.

MS. LONG: So, you two are in a really unique position. You both run small businesses yourselves, and through The Cru network and the Slice network, you're in touch with a lot of business owners, other small business owners.

And I'm curious. We just had Senator Ben Cardin from Maryland on the program, and he was really saying that he still hears a lot of small businesses are very desperate right now. Do you think more government aid is needed? What's needed from Congress and the White House in these next few months?

MS. DUFU: Yes. More is needed, absolutely. Yeah, more is needed.

First of all, congratulations on the $43 million. That's still looping in my head right now. Just congratulations.

MR. SELA: Thank you.

MS. DUFU: Most mom-and-pop shops--okay, the toy store that's on my corner in Harlem does not have access to $43 million or the $2 million that I raised this summer. They absolutely need support, and they need support that's much simpler and easier to access. These are people who actually don't have the bandwidth to read a ton, you know, to go into the wormhole of government contracts and websites. So, I think it's the access to the capital. I think it's making it easy for them to be able to apply for this and to be able to get it as soon as possible. I think it's urgent. I think it's needed.

And I'm particularly concerned as we go into the winter. I live in the Northeast where the weather is starting to turn already this past weekend. There were far fewer people that were sitting outside at the local restaurants. I think it's uber important that we get this capital to small businesses quickly.

MR. SELA: Tiffany, thank you so much for that vote of confidence.

I completely agree. I think there needs to be really two things that have to happen. One, obviously, more resources need to be made available to small businesses. We deal with micro businesses. These are, again, independently owned and operated small business restaurants. And the second thing that needs to happen is the process with which these businesses access these resources has to absolutely be simplified.

So, part one is are there resources available, but part two is can these resources be accessed in a seamless way, because these small business owners don't have the time, the resources, the knowhow--and really, the time is the most important one--to be able to go and figure it out.

For Slice, we've done two things in order to continue to empower small businesses with resources, and we're really taking the funding that we've received in order to then deploy that in the form of valuable solutions for a small business.

One, we actually announced today that we've eliminated our fees for all orders below $10. What this will do is it will allow our small business partners to also embrace technology for the order values that are below $10, and really these are the lunch crowds and consumers who are typically ordering for themselves, for one person, so incredibly proud about that.

The other one is Slice Accelerate, which is us stepping up and deploying $15,000 of technology, marketing, branding solutions, shared services to 100 locations, 100 small businesses, as our first cohort in order to accelerate their digital transformation, so really proud about these two programs.

And at the end of the day, government solutions are important, but for Slice, we focus on what we can impact and what we can control, and that's where our focus is.

MS. LONG: Big news on the orders under $10 not having a fee from you all.

MS. DUFU: Yeah.

MS. LONG: So, obviously, a lot of people are thinking about the election, and I don't want to get too political here. But one of the big issues that I hear a lot of business owners debating is Vice President Joe Biden has been very clear that he would like to see the minimum wage go up to $15 across the country.

I'm wondering, you two, what your take is. Is it time to do that in the United States, or do you have concerns that that could impact your business or those that you work with?

Ilir, maybe I'll start with you since restaurants, it would be a very direct hit on.

MR. SELA: Yeah, of course. Look, a couple of things on this front that I also want to make sure I cover. One, really proud of our Democracy is Delicious initiative in partnership with Pizza to the Polls. We're deploying thousands, in fact, it will be hundreds of thousands of pizzas nationwide to feed those waiting in long voting lines. This is something we did four years ago. We've partnered again with Pizza to the Polls this year, and it's really important for us as a company to really promote democracy.

We've also made sure that at Slice, Election Day is a holiday in order to make sure that all of our team members have an opportunity to go and exercise their right to vote.

In terms of some of the datapoints around small business, opportunities, and minimum wage, I think the most important part is, how do we make sure that small businesses are successful? How do we make sure that we remove some of the tax that exists in their ability to participate in the digital economy? So, we mentioned the third-party delivery high fees that sometimes are 30 percent, and so my position is that as long as small businesses continue to thrive and become successful, then we can absolutely make sure that wages for employees at the small business continue to rise beyond the minimum wage. But really, it starts with, is the small business healthy financially? How do we make sure that we lower the cost of operations? How do we make sure that we improve revenue? And I think the result of that will be improved wages across the board.

MS. LONG: Let me just jump in. We have maybe time for one more question, and I want to ask you both. You've talked a lot about technological change this year. You're both at the forefront of that, but I wanted to hear briefly, have you made changes in your company around mental health or child care? All these other issues have come to the forefront with employees this year, and I'm curious how you've thought about that.

Tiffany, why don't we go to you quickly.

MS. DUFU: Yes, absolutely. So, The Cru is here to ultimately help women to realize their life goals, their intentions, and there's no doubt that this crisis has presented situations in which their mental health has come into jeopardy. They're experiencing an enormous amount of overwhelm.

We actually launched a coaching--a certified coaching program where members could get access to one-on-one support, and I think that that's been really helpful and valuable.

We have a small team that we take care of really well. We have a health insurance program that allows them to have benefits when it comes to their own mental health and seeking out the support that they need. I think it's critical and vital right now more than ever, so absolutely.

MS. LONG: And, Ilir, what about you? You've got 700 employees, a lot of different needs right now. How have you had to think differently?

MR. SELA: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the similar initiatives that Tiffany just shared. Obviously, mental health, incredibly important, and really finding ways to connect our team members socially so that everything isn't just simply about the work that we do. How do we replace some of the moments that we had when we were in the office where we socialized and shared stories about maybe a movie that we watched or a favorite show? So, one, we've implemented multiple mental health days.

We also have an unlimited PTO policy, so really urging folks to make sure that they take some time off when needed.

But really what I'm most proud of is a lot of the events that we've created that have been more social events in order to--through remote platforms, in order to continue to promote those social interactions, happy hours, game days, and things like that.

MS. LONG: Well, that sounds pretty fun to me.

Thank you so much to you both, Tiffany Dufu from The Cru and Ilir Sela from Slice. Great insights today.

And to our viewers, join us again at 1:00 p.m. today when my colleague Robert Costa will speak with acting director of White House Domestic Policy, Brooke Leslie Rollins, as well as another Democratic representative.

We thank you so much for joining us today, and stay tuned for all of our upcoming events on WashingtonPostLive.com. Thank you.

[End of recorded session.]