the social network Mark Zuckerberg founded when he and Chan were students at Harvard together, has been headline news, and not in a good way.
I keep expecting Chan to cancel, but she doesn’t. Instead, her office asks me to avoid asking questions about Facebook, because she cannot answer on behalf of her husband’s business.
That’s not going to be easy when a media and political firestorm is raging and Facebook is drawing comparisons with Big Tobacco over allegations that it put profits before the health and safety of its customers and deploys algorithms that amplify divisive and potentially harmful content.
I’m meeting Chan in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, not far from the couple’s home in Palo Alto, in the shiny new Redwood City headquarters of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Through CZI, Chan and her husband plan to give away 99 per cent of their wealth. Given they are the largest shareholders in a trillion-dollar company, that is a lot of money.
They have big ambitions – “to help cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century” and create a more equitable society in which all children have equal opportunities. So far, they have given away more than US$3 billion.
Decorated with brightly coloured murals, paintings by local artists and screens flashing up stories of inspiring women, the offices are reminiscent of a well-funded primary school.
It has a free cafeteria offering healthy food and themed meeting rooms with names such as Pizza and Falafel.
I find Chan up in the roof garden, posing for the photographer. She is relaxed and smiley, one of those people you can’t help but warm to, a contrast to her husband, who often comes across as cold and robotic.
She jokes about this being the first time she has worn heels since the pandemic began. “Please write that I walked up two flights of stairs in these stilettos,” she says, before swapping her Manolo Blahniks for a pair of white trainers.
e pulls out a T-shirt and shorts from her capacious handbag to show me what else she normally wears. Despite being one of the richest women in the world (her husband’s estimated net worth at the time of writing was US$115.9 billion), there’s nothing bling about Chan, 36, a former teacher who retrained as a doctor. She’s not wearing any jewellery apart from a plain gold wedding ring, and her make-up is barely visible.
Chan and Zuckerberg were married in 2012, just one day after Facebook was floated on the stock market and the same week that Chan graduated from medical school. Four years later, she gave up her job as a paediatrician to become the full-time co-CEO of CZI, managing its multibillion-dollar budget.
That must have been quite a jump? “It was full panic at the beginning,” she says, “but you know what’s both sweet and infuriating about Mark? He has always believed in me more than I have been able to believe in myself. He always says, ‘You’ve got this.’”
The couple have two daughters, Maxima (Max), five, and August, four, and Zuckerberg announced that they were setting up the foundation in the form of an open letter to Max on the day she was born. Zuckerberg was still trying to consult Chan on the wording while she was in labour. She eventually told him to “finish the letter himself, I have something else going on right now”.
Critics of Facebook, of which there are many, might speculate about to what extent the foundation functions as a reputation laundry for Zuckerberg, but for his wife the motivation to help people seems genuine and heartfelt. I ask whose idea it was to set it up, hers or his.
“You know, Mark and I have known each other 18 years, that’s half my life. He’s always known that giving back is my life’s mission. And very early on, as early as 2005, when it was clear that we, he, was going to make some money out of Facebook, we decided we’ve got to give back.”
I note that Chan comes before Zuckerberg in the foundation’s name. Was that a feminist gesture? “No,” she replies. “We both have a deep sense of order and alphabetical is one way you impose order.”
Chan and Zuckerberg’s relationship began during her first term at Harvard, the university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was a scholarship student who was finding it difficult to fit in. The daughter of refugees from the Vietnam war, she grew up in Quincy, a working-class Irish suburb of Boston. Her parents barely spoke English, worked multiple jobs and struggled to make ends meet.
Her father, Dennis, eventually made enough money to open a Chinese restaurant in Boston, where he and Chan’s mother, Yvonne, worked 18-hour days. Consequently, Chan was raised mostly by her grandmother.
Chan went to Quincy High School, a vocational college that prepared its pupils to be plumbers and electricians, where she says she felt like an outsider, and was horribly bullied. She used to eat her lunch hiding in the girls’ toilets. Sciences, however, were taught well, including robotics, and Chan excelled.
One of her teachers, Mr Swanson, helped her apply to study biology at Harvard. He also encouraged her to take up tennis, which he coached, because he knew the university would prefer a well-rounded CV. Did her parents encourage her? She laughs and says that, for them, Harvard was just a stop on the Boston subway line.
Getting into such a prestigious university was one of the best moments of Chan’s life, but she hated Harvard. Once again, she felt she didn’t fit in. “Everyone spoke the same,” she says. “They dressed alike, they knew how to study.”
She recalls how wealthier girls would carry Paris-made Longchamp bags. “I’d never seen them before and couldn’t understand why something made from plastic with a little bit of leather cost so much money.”
Chan was on a work-study deal that meant she had to earn her keep. One of her jobs involved serving afternoon tea once a week to fellow students.
“Harvard is modelled after Cambridge and Oxford, it’s kinda like Harry Potter,” she says. “We all lived in houses for three years and one of the traditions of our house was every Thursday all the students in the house are invited to tea. My work-study job was to bake Rice Krispies treats and make the chai for the students.”
Zuckerberg was in the year above her, a maths geek who had been coding since his early teens. He became notorious for creating a site called Facemash, which rated female Harvard undergraduates as “hot or not”. Zuckerberg was facing disciplinary proceedings for breaking the university’s privacy rules, and was fully expecting to be expelled when he met Chan.
This, she says, is one of the reasons he was so quick to ask her out; he didn’t think he had much time left. “Facemash had happened,” she recalls, “and the party was arranged by his friends who were like, ‘You’re definitely going to get kicked out.’ It was to say goodbye.” They met and got chatting in a queue for the toilet. After the party he invited her and other friends to his dorm.
“We had a similar sense of humour,” she says, and he was impressed by the fact she got his coding jokes. “I remember he had these beer glasses that said ‘pound include beer dot H’. It’s a tag for C++. It’s like college humour but with a nerdy, computer-science appeal.”
I’m reliably informed that C++ is coding language, but I confess that at this point I have no idea what she is talking about. What I do get is how two young people who felt socially awkward among the gilded youth of Harvard found each other.
A couple of dates took place in quick succession. She liked him but was horrified by his lack of concern for rules. “I’m not a rule breaker, I had literally clawed my way to Harvard and there was this kid getting thrown out.” He also shocked her on the second date by announcing that he was supposed to be studying for a test the next day but would rather spend time with her.
“For strait-laced Priscilla, he was a bit of a rebel,” she says, laughing at herself. In the end Zuckerberg wasn’t thrown out of Harvard, but later dropped out to set up the social network that became Facebook.
Chan, meanwhile, used her spare time at university doing voluntary work. She tutored children from deprived backgrounds on a housing estate not far from where she grew up. Her first job after Harvard was as a middle-school science teacher.
Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Zuckerberg grew up in a well-educated, middle-class Jewish family in upstate New York. Chan’s parents had fled Vietnam in the 1970s in flimsy boats.
“I’m Chinese by heritage but both sets of my grandparents were living in Saigon and they each had several kids who they wanted to smuggle out,” she says. “But the fear was that if you put all of them into one boat and it sank you would lose all your children. So they split them up.
“Could you imagine doing that math? Sending your kids off in the middle of the night without you, in rickety boats, during a war, into the South China Sea?” She shudders.
Her mother, Yvonne, was 12 years old at the time and was put on the same boat as the daughter of a family friend. The girls were eventually picked up and placed in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Some years later, Yvonne met and married her friend’s brother, Dennis, but it would take a decade for all of the various members of the two families to be reunited in America. Chan was born in Massachusetts in February 1985.
Her eyes fill with tears when she tells me this story; she says she cries easily since having children. I wonder how she felt when in 2019 then US president Donald Trump took out thousands of advertisements on her husband’s platform characterising immigration as “an invasion”. I bring up Trump’s choice of words, and the fact he once said of immigrant gang members “these aren’t people, these are animals”.
She looks uncomfortable for the first time, then says, “It was shocking to hear, to hear a president say words like that.” How did she feel when she went to the White House for dinner with the Trumps, that must have been awkward?
“I believe that if there’s a chance to share work that’s important to you, you should. I’ve met president Trump and I’ve met president [Barack] Obama, because these are important people that get to influence the direction of our country.”
I can’t help feeling that Chan is the yin to Zuckerberg’s yang. When the couple eventually married in 2012, at his Palo Alto home with fewer than 100 guests there, people were surprised to discover that the Facebook founder even had a long-term girlfriend, let alone one who was prepared to tie the knot with him.
In the public consciousness, he was the lead character in the 2010 film The Social Network, a geeky guy who set up a college website rating female students as a form of revenge when he couldn’t get laid.
It is only recently that Chan has stepped into the limelight, and she does so only to promote her foundation. Her PR tells me this interview is the longest, most in-depth she has ever done
After we meet, she is due to see her husband for a weekly scheduled one-on-one that always takes place on a Thursday afternoon. “We are very organised,” she says, laughing in a slightly embarrassed way. “The one-on-one is for technical work decisions that need to happen. I actually keep a running agenda that we go through. Our big topic today is going to be budgets for CZI.”
They also have a weekly date night where they might go out to a restaurant. A former colleague of Zuckerberg once reported that the Facebook founder is such a stickler for date night that he once left a News Corp corporate retreat, explaining to Rupert Murdoch that he was taking Chan to a film.
I wonder how much Zuckerberg uses his wife as a sounding board, particularly when Facebook is coming under heavy scrutiny. Her answer is vague. “We talk about everything. And, yes, so we talk through things together and I get to see how thoughtful he is. I love getting his opinion.”
I suspect that might be a one-way street. In a breakfast television interview the couple did together at their Palo Alto home, she joked that when it came to learning Mandarin, “Mark was better at talking than listening.” My guess is that may apply to his English as well.
It’s clear that they are both quite family oriented. In the same interview, Chan is baking with her daughters in a big, open-plan kitchen with an island. Their home is a traditional white weatherboard house with a porch and rocking chair, white walls and wooden floors, big grey sofas and a fireplace in the living room with bookshelves on either side.
Zuckerberg paid US$7 million for it in 2011, and later bought the four neighbouring homes and their land for US$44 million, to use as guest houses and recreational facilities.
Zuckerberg took two months’ paternity leave when August was born, in 2017, and, according to Chan, he’s a very hands-on father. They divide childcare between them: she does the mornings and he does bedtimes. Both the children are at nursery school while they are at work. What does Mark’s bedtime routine for the girls involve?
“Sometimes they will read books together. Sometimes they’ll code together.” When I express surprise at this particular nighttime ritual, Chan explains how there are great ways to teach kids how to code these days and that it’s very visual. “Mark has been doing that with August since she turned three.”
They are raising the girls as Jewish, so Zuckerberg does a little bedtime prayer but in Mandarin. As Chan was brought up speaking both Cantonese and Mandarin, I ask if their kids are bilingual. She sighs. “You know, we tried and we haven’t been terribly successful but we do spend time making sure that they’re multicultural.” Every Friday they have friends and family round for a Shabbat dinner but she will serve Chinese along with kosher food.
During the first lockdown they hunkered down in Palo Alto, working and home-schooling the girls. She says that, like everyone else, they had a hard time getting food deliveries, although I struggle to imagine the Zuckerbergs running out of loo paper. She loves cooking and is a huge fan of The Great British Bake Off.
“I love it because they’re so nice to each other. They’re all helping each other. In the episode that just came out here there’s these two women both making rocking horse cookie sculptures, and they’re helping each other. I’m like, ‘That’s what I need. We need more of this in the world!’”
Given that the two other big tech billionaire couples who set up charitable foundations, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott are now divorced, I wonder what the secret is to a successful marriage in their world. The answer, apparently, is lots of family time, doing sport together and a shared love of board games.
“I like Settlers of Catan, Citadels I’m really into, and Monopoly Deal. You know, the Germans make the best board games. So, you just have to play whatever the Germans decide is good this year.”
They don’t play computer games together, but for someone who has devoted her career so far to early years health and education, Chan appears remarkably relaxed about the time her children spend on devices. Max has her own iPad on which she plays games and solves maths problems and the girls have supervised access to computers at their nursery school.
I mention the accusations that Instagram, also owned by her husband, is damaging to teenage girls and that according to Facebook’s own internal research, one in three teenage girls reported feeling bad about their bodies after being on the photo-sharing network. What is her policy on her own daughters joining social media platforms? “Well, not until they’re 13 because that’s the rule.”
I press on, explaining how my own 14-year-old niece felt social pressure to be on Instagram, even though it made her unhappy and feel like she needed to lose weight. She nods sympathetically and says the important thing is to talk to your kids about these issues, encourage them to share their feelings and help them navigate social pressures.
“Social media is an online community but children engage in a lot of communities which they, we, don’t fully control, and there are a lot of variables that go into keeping them happy, healthy, safe.” She delivers this statement not in an evasive way but in a manner that would indicate that she really believes it to be true.
She has a similar response to the issue of the anti-vax movement using Facebook to spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. Doesn’t she find this upsetting, particularly given that CZI has donated money for research, testing and developing new treatments for the disease?
“The main thing is talking to people about information that they encounter and really listening to them. Because there’s probably a kernel of a reason everywhere where people are looking for a certain outcome or certain information. And, if you write them off, it’s hard to get to the core of what makes them concerned.”
Chan’s attitude towards fitting into American society as the daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants was “put your head down and work hard”. She grew up thinking of racism as something experienced by historically deprived black and Hispanic populations, but the attacks on Asians in the wake of Covid-19 (which Trump labelled the “Chinese virus”) changed that notion.
“It was an awakening for me, particularly since some of those women who were attacked looked like my grandmother, who raised me. In a culture where respecting your elders is one of the most important things you can do, it’s just so hurtful.”
I decide to address the elephant in the room: the accusation that Facebook is making money by magnifying hate speech and misinformation; that the funds underwriting all of CZI’s projects, including funding for a number of anti-racism groups, is coming from a platform that thrives on and increases division. What’s her response to that?
“That I would be doing this work regardless,” she replies. “It’s personal and meaningful and I’m grateful I get to do it at this scale. This is where our heart is. And this is where Mark’s heart is.”
But is it? A couple of days earlier, I had listened to a very different account of Zuckerberg’s motivations from Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistle-blower. She told a Senate hearing in Washington how the company has ignored warnings from its own research teams about how its algorithms push people towards harmful content.
Haugen said that Facebook was used to “deepen divides, destabilise democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies”. In an unusual display of unity, both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate committee appeared to rally around her calls for more regulation
In her evidence, Haugen said that Facebook was “optimising for content that gets engagement or reaction”. The company realised, she said, “that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, they’ll make less money”. She also pointed out that as Facebook continued to expand globally, it simply didn’t have the resources to monitor hateful content in thousands of languages and dialects.
In a statement responding to her allegations, Facebook said: “Every day our teams have to balance protecting the right of billions of people to express themselves openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place […] To suggest we encourage bad content and do nothing is just not true.”
It is clear that Chan finds these allegations deeply upsetting, particularly the claim that Facebook amplifies ethnic hatred. “We’ve grown up talking about these issues for a long time,” she says. “There’s no simple cure for racism. This is something complex and we have to grapple with it collectively.
“I know on the Facebook side, for Mark, they’re working on that. And I trust that every day they’re grappling with hard and meaty questions.”
She continues: “You know, we launched CZI when I was, gosh, 30 years old. Not because we thought we had the answers, but because we knew we were going to need the rest of our lives to figure out how to do this well.”
And what would she say to those people who would argue that instead of giving all their money away through charitable foundations, the titans of big tech should just pay their fair share of taxes.
“To be very clear, nobody escapes the Internal Revenue Service. But we do agree that we do need to reform, make sure that everyone’s paying their share and contributing back to society in a way that helps lift everyone up. And that’s the way forward for our country.”
She almost cries for a second time when I ask why her foundation recently made a US$350 million donation to the Just Trust, one it says is the largest single donation ever made to reforming the American justice system, which is highly punitive and locks up more people than any other country in the world.
“In the United States, one in two people are either affected by or have a close, immediate family member affected by the criminal justice system. That’s every other person. The loss of all the potential of the people we imprison, the lack of redemption. It’s heartbreaking.”
She explains why it is so personal to her. Growing up, she knew kids at school who ended up in jail. Soon after qualifying as a paediatrician, she worked in what she describes as San Francisco’s “safety net hospital”, one you go to when you can’t afford health insurance. One of her first patients was a chronically ill little girl whose father was imprisoned.
“I spent a lot of time with mum and the little girl getting ready for his return home, discussing how he might get involved in her care. We were all so excited when the day arrived, and then two appointments later he was back in prison. That hurt.”
We end our interview by discussing Call the Midwife. She expresses an admiration for British television and I suggest that she might enjoy the show because it’s uplifting but moving at the same time and she clearly enjoys a good cry. She asks if she can give me a hug, which I’m quite touched by.
I can’t help thinking that Chan is the moral compass Facebook’s critics accuse Zuckerberg of lacking. But there is a much bigger issue at stake here. It is admirable that a couple should choose to give away 99 per cent of their wealth. But it raises questions about how that wealth was accumulated and at what cost.
The mental health of teenage girls? The spread of misinformation? Maria Ressa, the fearless Filipino journalist who won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, called Facebook a “threat to democracy”.
Does giving away the profits of Facebook to fight disease, reform education and America’s criminal justice system wash away its sins? That’s the moral dilemma facing two American millennials who have become one of the most powerful couples in the world. I put it to Chan that great wealth comes with great responsibility. “Totally,” she replies, “and we feel a huge responsibility to give back and do our part.”
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