A year into the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a look at the growing team

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. Screengrab from Facebook.

On the one year anniversary of the launch of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan took to the platform that set them on the journey of directing tens of billions of dollars toward big global challenges: Facebook.

In a Facebook Live conversation on Thursday, Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, and Chan, a pediatrician and educator, expanded on their progress over the past year and their goals for the future. A major focus of the conversation was the kind of team they are putting together to pursue their stated mission of “advancing human potential and promoting equal opportunity.”

CZI had one staff member at this time last year, but the team has been growing quickly around the priority areas of science and education, as well as on the tech side to support that work.

Chan and Zuckerberg kicked off the conversation naming their three most high-profile hires: Jim Shelton, who leads their education initiatives; Cori Bargmann, who heads up their work in science; and Brian Pinkerton, who recently joined CZI as CTO.

“We’re never going to stop learning and listening to other folks and so I’m hoping to continue that work and we’re bringing more and more people in and getting smarter about what we do, but pretty quickly we’re going to go from just listening and learning to actually putting resources behind people doing great work,” Shelton, who was formerly deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and program director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Thursday.

While most of CZI’s educational investments are domestic, Zuckerberg outlined two international investments in the Facebook Live conversation: Andela, a Nigeria-based company on a mission to train top tier tech talent, and Byju’s, an India-based company bringing personalized learning to mobile phones.

“We’re starting our programs here in the Bay Area but we plan to partner with and collaborate with scientists all around the country and all around the world,” Bargmann added when she took a seat beside Chan and Zuckerberg in their living room. “These problems are too big and too complicated to be solved by any one person or any one school or any one town.”

Bargmann, who joins CZI from Rockefeller University, will lead Chan Zuckerberg Science, which will invest $3 billion over the next 10 years to help scientists all over the world make faster progress with the audacious goal to end all disease by the end of the century. The effort includes the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a collaboration between the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of California at San Francisco.

There are a few immediate differences between the experience in Silicon Valley and the way things will work at the initiative, said Pinkerton, formerly an executive at Amazon.

“In this case, I can definitively say that the engineers are not the experts,” he said. “The domains here are super deep in science and education and there’s so much for the engineers and product people to learn.”

Click on the careers page on the CZI website, and you’ll see open positions across education, science and technology, in addition to communications and operations roles. The job descriptions provide hints at other members of the team who did not make it on the Chan Zuckerberg couch Thursday but are definitely part of the vision for the future. For example, the principal of education ventures would report to Vivian Wu, an education investor who previously worked with Zuckerberg Education Ventures and whose investments — including Bridge International Academies, which is now facing a legal tug of war in Uganda — carried over into the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Building a world class engineering team is part of what will set CZI apart in the field of philanthropy and in the impact it is able to have, Zuckerberg said.

Of course, like Bill and Melinda Gates — who Chan and Zuckerberg have identified as role models in their philanthropy — part of what will set CZI apart is the husband and wife at the helm.

Chan met Zuckerberg at Harvard, before going to medical school, becoming a pediatrician, and viewing health and education through the same lens from the clinic and the classroom. Zuckerberg famously started Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard, continues to lead the company as CEO, and is now applying his skill for scale to other ambitious goals such as spreading global connectivity with Internet.org. Together, Chan and Zuckerberg, along with their high-profile hires, are trying to learn as much as they can in order to optimize their chances of success.

"What I admire enormously about Mark and Priscilla is that before they chose what to do they consulted a very large number of people,” Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, told Devex.  

One of the best ways to avoid mistakes — particularly when making big bets with billions of dollars — is to gather a group of disinterested expert advisors not getting the funds themselves, he continued, and Chan and Zuckerberg have done just that by looking to the Science Philanthropy Alliance and others as advisors.

Chan and Zuckerberg also drive each other, challenging one another to think more deeply about the questions they are faced with, Chan said in a conversation at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit.

At the event, Leigh Morgan, chief operating officer at the Gates Foundation, asked what Chan liked most and least about the philanthropic sector; her response indicated that data will be a focus at CZI.

“I am completely moved by people’s dedication and inspiration for their work. Everyone is working towards the similar awe inspiring goal of how do we make the world and people's lives better," Chan said. "One point of frustration I think we can all really grow from is how can we be more evidence and data driven, how can we find ways to hold ourselves accountable for the work that we’re doing?"

CZI is a newcomer to a growing number of organizations looking to tap into the combination of technology, innovation and philanthropy to address seemingly intractable problems. Each of these organizations must strike the right balance of people who think outside the box and people who understand the constraints of low resource settings.

"Those who choose, those who use, and those who pay are all different most of the time, and you have to be able to make sense of all that and get all those forces aligned and then be able to make a transaction between the demand and the supply side, and it is very hard to find someone who understands all of that," Craig Nakagawa, director of partner development at Global Good, told Devex during a recent visit to the Seattle-based innovation lab funded by Gates.

Chan and Zuckerberg have said starting at a young age, with an opportunity to think on a long time horizon, is part of their competitive advantage.

“It’s hard to make quick wins in the world in any complex system,” Zuckerberg said Thursday.  

But one of the challenges they face is staying in this learning phase when they are so in the spotlight with so many questions about their future strategy.

Zuckerberg hinted that one of those areas might be energy before the Facebook Live froze for a moment. But he promised there would be more to come in the lead up to the two year anniversary of CZI.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.