Exclusive: Mark and Priscilla say the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is about investing in what the world needs—not what’s popular

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks with his wife, Priscilla Chan, as they prepare for a presentation in San Francisco in 2016.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks with his wife, Priscilla Chan, as they prepare for a presentation in San Francisco in 2016.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan aren’t just spouses. They’re also co-CEOs of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, arguably the most well-funded startup in history, with some $45 billion in the family’s wealth pledged at its inception three years ago. Since then CZI has expanded rapidly, hiring hundreds of employees—many of them engineers—and committing to projects across education, scientific research, and a range of social-action areas. Here, Zuckerberg and Chan talk with journalist Robert Safian about why Chan is the day-to-day CEO, how they balance work-life challenges, and what makes their philanthropic effort distinctive.

Quartz: How did you both decide that Priscilla would be CZI’s day-to-day CEO? Was there some moment where one of you turned to the other and said, hey, why don’t we do it this way?

Mark: I think what happened was we originally thought that CZI would be independent initiatives, that the leader in education would run an independent education initiative, that science would be independent, advocacy would be independent. We viewed CZI as a way to bring in more experienced senior leaders. Over time we might need a broader leadership role but in the formative stage, that just didn’t make a lot of sense.

As we figured out the theory behind CZI—that we’re going to use technology as a big lever to create change across all these different areas—if we wanted them to operate in a coordinated way, that required a higher touch.

I think you naturally gravitated towards doing more of the work knitting these things together. It’s not like the roles are super formal or you have very clear lanes. It’s not even like your role today is super clear. It keeps evolving.

Priscilla: If [CZI] was going to be just a grant-making organization, it would be easy to set things up and just check in once a quarter. But once you’re building engineering and advocacy and all these together, it really does need to be one organization.

That made it more interesting to me, to look under the hood and really understand how it runs. I’m not going to commit that the two of us run this for the rest of our lives. We may have someone else come in one day. But it’s part of my DNA and training to want to know how the pieces all fit together.

We did play around with the idea of hiring a COO. We had a search going, met a lot of awesome people. But there was no one perfect. And then once I had August [their second daughter, in August 2017], I came back and was like, “You know what? We’re closing the search. I have an opinion on how this is going to go.”

One of your colleagues said to me, “Mark was surprised at how good Priscilla is at running an organization.”

M: I’m not surprised at anything she does.

Spoken with the wisdom of a husband!

M: It’s through the experience of Facebook. When I started it, we had a lot of people who were relatively young and inexperienced running things, and who over the last 10 years have really grown and are now world class managers running important things.  I can say without any doubt that of all the people I’ve worked with, Priscilla learns as fast as anyone. That has been a source of pride both as a partner here and as a husband.

I think it’s great for the organization. I think we complement each other in terms of the different interests that we have. And I think it’s been really good to have one of the founders involved every day. I spend a lot of time on CZI but clearly with running Facebook as well, I can’t be here every day.

Priscilla, what did or does Mark teach you and help you with, as a co-CEO?

P: I’ve come to this role on nontraditional paths. It’s not like I trained managing smaller groups and have seen organizational patterns before. The first time I see a problem, to use a medical analogy, I’m never clear if it’s fatal or what the natural course of illness is. I’m like, ‘Is this the most terrible thing that’s happened?’ And Mark is like, ‘No, it’s going to be fine.’ It’s so helpful for me to be able to pattern-match from Mark’s experience.

Mark, what have learned from her? This is a quote from another colleague: “ I don’t believe Facebook would be Facebook or Mark would be Mark without Priscilla. She’s been a huge influence on his thinking and his growth.”

M:  Are you asking about Facebook?

I’m asking what Priscilla’s impact is on you, what you’ve learned from her.

M: Strategically and operationally, it’s a little bit different. Strategically, we come at the work from different perspectives. I obviously built a technology company and a product and run this big organization, and you have this experience as a doctor, being involved in science and education, both as a teacher and having built a school, so really a practitioner. I’ve done some work like that, volunteering at an afterschool program and mentoring students, and it gives you a different base of experience that I think is a really important complement in shaping the work that we do.

Then on a perspective of operating the organization, and helping to build teams, I think we just bring different skills. I mean, you’re much more on top of things, right? Making sure that all the teams are cohesive and running well, looking after the people. I probably look at things a little bit more from a systems perspective, how is this going to scale, what are the structures that we want to set up. But the reality is you need both. Everything that I’ve ever done, it’s been a partnership. If you’ve talked to Sheryl [Sandberg, Facebook’s COO] and Chris Cox [Facebook’s chief product officer] and all these folks at Facebook, these are all partnerships.

The partnership that we have is different from those, but it’s similarly complementary in terms of filling in the gaps of what needs to get done.

Your backgrounds are very different. I’ve talked with Priscilla about how difficult her childhood was. I’m curious whether that has had an influence on you, Mark, seeing the world through her eyes.

M:  To make this fairly concrete, early on when you were a teacher, we’d started investing in education, and you observed that I was basically repeating a lot of stories that you told me about your experience as a teacher. You were like, ‘Look, this isn’t going to work if you want to be involved in education. You need to go get your own experience.’ That was the forcing function for me to get involved with this afterschool program in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park.

Obviously I think Priscilla’s family story is amazing, and keeping that in mind in terms of what is possible when people have opportunity and when you level the playing field. I think it’s an inspiring thing for all of us.

But I also think Priscilla has pushed me to go have those experiences and get closer to the work myself, things that I wouldn’t naturally do. When she first raised the idea, you need to go teach a class, my reaction was, are you crazy? I’m running this company, right? We just went public and it wasn’t going that well at first. Is this really the thing that I’m going to do? I don’t think I would have done that without her.

Some people say CZI is at least in part an effort to burnish Mark’s reputation, to counteract criticisms that may come because of Facebook.

M: We’ve chosen fairly controversial areas to invest in at CZI. Education and political advocacy are not things that you go into if you want people to be happy with you. Science is increasingly politicized, unfortunately. If we wanted something that would be near term, more popular, we’d probably pick different things.

We believe in what we’re doing, that it will be good for people over the long term. Some of that benefit might come back, in the sense of a business, if you’re thinking about it from Facebook[’s point of view]. I think if we do good work here, the reputation of CZI will be great over time. But the core focus is that we want to help over a 50-year period, to have a big, big impact.

P: I feel strongly that if it was about reputation, there are easier ways to do this. Every day I read about things in the newspaper that we could do, if that was the case.

As you work together, co-CEOs, are there separations about who does what, and how do you resolve your differences?

M: The reality is that any organization needs a lot of things to be looked after and guided well, and I don’t think that there’s ever one person who can do it all.

We kind of naturally focus on parts that are complementary. We’ll meet with the same teams, but have questions on different things. We’re not driving the teams in different directions, but I might be focused on tools that we’re building, and you might be more focused on how our organization works together [with partners]. There are definitely things that we disagree on, and we just talk a lot.

P: It’s not a hierarchy. We have to walk the balance of our decisions. Do we talk about [a disagreement] in front of the team or do we talk about it at home or in our one-on-one sessions and come in as a united front? Because sometimes it is instructive for the team to see where we disagree, but sometimes if it’s controversial, we need to resolve this between the two of us, like there’s no light between the two of us. It’s a balance.

There aren’t many examples of co-leaders working together successfully, but we know each other really well. Yes, I’m here day-to-day, but I know what Mark cares about and how to surface that. We are very open to feedback. This morning, Mark was like, ‘Here are things I think we’re missing,’ and I was like, ‘Let’s do it, I agree.’ It was a total blind spot to me. We are intellectual partners.

When we started out, there was a degree of, we’re husband and wife and ‘I don’t like the way you said that thing.’ But at this point, we have a different relationship, we have the ability to engage on these topics.

Do you have a signal when you’re moving from talking business to talking personally? There are these two planes that you’re interacting on.

M:  I probably pushed on the work-life balance. We used to go out to dinner to talk about CZI one night a week, but that felt weird over time, because we also go out on dates. I just think psychologically, you want to have different places. So now we carve off time, like our one-on-ones.  And then when we’re at the kitchen table with our kids, it’s not like we’re not talking about what’s going on in our lives— that’s weird too, you’re not going to turn off things that are important and emotional—but we try not to go through logistics and details and stuff like that.

P: And we operationalize against this. If someone [at CZI] has a topic they want the two of us to discuss, they need to have the pre-reading material in by Wednesday afternoon, because Thursday is the time we’ve set aside.

M: When you’re doing a partnership like this, it’s important to set aside time for your personal partnership. But this also works because fundamentally, these are fun and inspiring problems for us to work on. We naturally gravitate towards working on them together.

CZI has grown from zero three years ago to several hundred people, lots of projects. What will CZI look like three years from now?

M: We’re in this phase of figuring out which efforts we’re going to operationalize and go very deep on. Education, we’re probably the furthest along. The Summit learning program we have invested in for years now. It’s quite good. A lot of schools are using it. That’s a really promising effort. With science, justice and opportunity, advocacy, those are earlier efforts. In a few years there will be a few things that we have really decided are areas where we can have a disproportionately positive impact and scale.

Like Priscilla said earlier, we’re not a granting organization. Primarily we’re an operational organization. We have to run things and build them out and scale them. One of the big holes in philanthropy is there are a lot of people who give grants to small scale efforts. There are a lot of great teachers who started a school. The things that are really hard are getting from one school to a hundred or a thousand schools. Or in science, making it so a tool can go from being used in one lab, a bespoke tool, to being able to increase the pace of science broadly across the world. I think we’ll figure out in a few years where the most impactful areas are and have built out pretty meaningful operations around those. We’ll be in quite a different place.

P: As an organization, we’re still coalescing. There are still open questions. How do we operate? I think in a few years, we’ll have gone through a full life cycle of maturing one of these programs. We’ll understand, this is how CZI works, this is our sweet spot. These are the types of problems where we can really make a difference. Then we will have the ability to point towards new problems, really having a cohesive vision and strategy. It’s not nebulous anymore. It’s not a grant-making organization with impact. This is the definition of who we are and the type of problem we can choose.

M: We might be doing fewer things and just going deeper on them. I do think eventually we’ll consider adding initiatives, taking on additional things. But the next phase is really figuring out where the biggest impacts are, and doubling down on those things.