Reimagining Philanthropy through Technology

CZI co-founder Priscilla Chan’s speech at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

The Grace Hopper Celebration is the world’s largest gathering of women in tech. At the 2018 conference, CZI joined over 20,000 women helping to create a more inclusive future in the tech industry. This year’s celebration featured speeches from leading women in tech, including our fearless leader and founder Priscilla Chan.

Watch: CZI co-founder Priscilla Chan’s speech at the 2018 Grace Hopper Conference of Women in Computing.

“Thank you all for coming! I’m so excited to be here. I’ve known for a long time that this conference is incredibly important for women in the tech industry. But I didn’t know it would be this much fun. Ladies: has it ever been this thrilling to wait in that line in the bathroom?

I know many of your other sessions are led by some of the brightest lights in technology — engineers, data scientists, and product leaders. But that’s not me. At my heart, I’m a doctor and an educator.

But I was a robotics nerd in high school, and I’ve known Mark since my first year in college. So I’ve learned to speak the language, and I’ve had a front row seat to watch how technology can transform the world.

Priscilla Chan speaks at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

I know and feel that there’s plenty for us to be pessimistic about right now. But when you step back a bit — it’s hard not to marvel at the rapid acceleration of progress — which is enabled in part by technology and scientific breakthroughs, and has dramatically changed how the world operates from even just a generation ago. Around the world, health is improving. Poverty is shrinking. And knowledge is growing.

Based on what we’ve seen over the past century, we believe that within our daughters’ lifetimes, we can actually prevent, cure, or manage all disease. We can make sure every kid has their basic needs met, so they can learn in a way that sets them up to thrive in our rapidly changing world. We can make sure that no one’s potential is squandered — especially before they‘ve been given a chance to get started.

It may sound ambitious and a little bit wild, but I believe that if we continue to invest in progress, it is within our reach.

For instance, we all know that technology has great potential and can deliver magical experiences.Think about it — isn’t it awesome that if you wanted Tom Ka soup right now, you could get it? Or that the internet knows when you’re out of diapers? Technology has allowed us to do so many cool things. But, there are many areas where technology can continue to improve people’s lives and experiences.

Why can’t we use technology and data to help build a more equitable and just criminal justice system? How can we use technology to help teachers meet every student’s needs, when she has to stand in front of 30 students with different learning needs and learning styles?

When Mark and I were about to welcome our first daughter Max, we had this teeny tiny, on the way. And we thought, “Why can’t we point the promise of technology toward the challenges that will shape the future for our kids? Isn’t there a way that we can gather some of the best thinkers of our time — the brightest engineers and technologists — and get them working on the big problems that we face as a society too?

Now, I don’t want to oversell here. Technology alone is not the solution. But, right now it’s missing from far too many conversations about how we can create that aspirational future that we all want.

So, just before Max was born, we decided to write a letter about that enormous possibility, about how we were planning on starting a new type of philanthropy — the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — to help bootstrap it.

And when I say we launched CZI at the same time Max was born, I am not kidding! I was in the hospital, in active labor, and Mark has a copy of the letter he wanted me to look at. “Does this make sense? Should I move this paragraph up?” And I said — “Honey, we’re done. The baby is here. The letter is complete.”

CZI was born, right alongside Max! And two and a half years later, Max is growing and taking off in every single direction. And CZI is, too.

I get to spend my days working with engineers, scientists, teachers, thought leaders, advocates. We’re doing everything we can to advance science, improve education and ensure that everyone has access to justice and opportunity. And we’re especially excited that half of our 250-person organization works in technology.

CZI staff attend the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Working with such a diverse group of people who approach problems in so many different ways, it’s just really hard. Anyone here play Pandemic? Raise your hand. OK! You’re my people. So you know, that is the ultimate cooperative game. You have to deploy different characters and skills for one ultimate goal — to save the world.

That’s CZI. People from all different backgrounds: engineers, grant makers, scientists, investors, advocates, all come together with their superpowers to build a better future.

We have teams of engineers and computational biologists building a reference map of all the cells in the human body. Learning scientists, teachers, researchers, and academics are all working together to build better, personalized resources for students. Policy experts are exploring ways that data and technology can help leaders reform the criminal justice system.

I’ll talk a little bit more about the work happening at CZI, but I first want to tell you why I care about this work in the first place.

I’m the daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees. My grandparents were business people in Vietnam who worked at canning pineapple, making paper, and running a restaurant. But when the war began, Vietnam became a very dangerous place — especially if you were an entrepreneur. Later on in the war, there’d be massacres of business people in Saigon.

The only way for my grandparents to get their children — my parents — out was to find a boat, put their children on it, set them off to sea, and hope for the best. So, in the dead of night, they stood on a dock, and watched their children float off into the great unknown, in search of a better future.

At that time, many Americans were opening up their doors to refugees. My family was one of the first Asian families in Quincy, Massachusetts. They came over with almost no English, money, or knowledge of this new culture. My dad worked as a waiter. My mom, at an insurance company. Eventually, our family opened a restaurant and I worked the front desk.

Always, always, I knew that I was an outsider. Kids bullied me. I worried constantly that my family would not have enough money to get by. Sorry guys, I promised my team I wouldn’t cry.

But in so many ways, I knew I was the luckiest. The public schools in our community were good, I had a few incredible teachers. Mr. Swanson and Mr. Long made sure I worked hard in class, and with the robotics team, and on the tennis court.

I applied to Harvard. I got in! It was one of the best moments of my life. If you wanted to believe in the American Dream, I knew that I was it. It was alive. But then, something funny happened: I showed up at Harvard… and I hated it.

Right away, those same feelings from childhood crept in. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know the secret handshake that everyone else was using. I didn’t get the memo about what to wear at just the right time, and what to say. I felt so out of place, I wanted to leave. Really, I had the transfer paperwork in my hands, and I was ready to walk away from my dream.

But then I thought, while I’m still here I might as well spend time with people like me. And I found them — at the service house at Harvard. I started tutoring kids at Franklin Hill, a low-income housing project in Dorchester, right next to where I grew up.

My classmates and I would climb into this rickety old van. It somehow had enough insurance for me to drive it half an hour to work with 10 students, in a classroom that flooded every time it rained.

Priscilla Chan speaks at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

I saw myself in those kids. They didn’t have a lot. And you could tell that they felt apart. They were outsiders just like me. But, unlike me, they didn’t have people telling them to take the SATs or that they were college-bound, like my teachers did for me.

That’s when I realized: I can’t leave. I needed to stay right here at Harvard — because I needed to help unlock opportunities for others.

I’ll never forget the time I was trying to track down a girl I tutoring who had missed school. I asked her to explain why she had been missing. And as she spoke, I noticed that her front two teeth were knocked out.

I was flooded with questions and emotions. What had happened? Was she safe? Was anyone else looking out for her? Or was it just me, a clueless college student, trying to get on her case for missing school?

My family had been dealt a pretty tricky hand in life, and I needed some pretty incredible luck to succeed. But for some of these kids trapped in these situations from an early age, the future seems…unwinnable.

It also seemed deeply un-American.

This country is not perfect, but the idea that we’re all here because we believe everyone should have a chance to build a better life… that was the idea that was the beacon for my family — and for so many like ours.

But for these kids, and so, so many others, systemic barriers put those opportunities out of reach. So I decided to dedicate my life to making sure that everyone — especially the kids who faced obstacles like mine — had opportunities like I had, too.

I’ll be honest: I am not sure I unlocked opportunities for those kids. I was a 20-year-old college student helping 10-year-old kids navigate gangs, illness, hunger, unsafe housing.

And I thought: the reason I can’t help them is because I don’t have the right training. I thought I needed to get better. So I decided to become a primary care pediatrician and spend my days making sure that, if nothing else, kids would get the right treatment, and that would help unlock the right opportunities.

On one hand, it’s deeply satisfying how straightforward a doctor’s job can be. You can fix things!

A kid comes in in pain. You figure out what the problem is, choose a corresponding solution, and you can be done. A broken arm requires a cast, an ear infection requires an antibiotic, and an asthma attack requires an inhaler. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a kid breathe, and putting him back into his parents’ arms.

But I kept seeing how some problems were actually just symptoms of a much larger problem: the system does not work for these kids.

I met parents coming in to the emergency room for minor health issues at 1 or 2 am — that doesn’t make any sense until you realize that’s the first time the parents could get out of work.

I met a young woman whose HIV was out of control — because she kept getting placed in abusive foster families. And every time she ran away, she lost access to medicine and medical care.

I met a little boy who had been diagnosed with a severe seizure disorder, and had missed 180 days of school because of it. But the school and the social workers and the doctors — including me — hadn’t come together to realize the real problem — he was having behavioral issues because he was witnessing severe domestic violence at home.

I realized, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my training. It wasn’t the programs, either.

You could have a quality hospital where I worked at, a great after school program like I’d volunteered at — but no intervention existed that could attempt to tackle these great challenges at scale. To put it in tech terms: The applications may not be perfect, but the most critical bugs existed in the operating system itself.

So, there’s a moment — which I’m sure you’ll all experience in school, or in work, or in your daily life — when you realize, there’s just a big problem staring you in the face. And you think, “well, there’s a big problem; who’s going to come fix this? Who is responsible?”

And the terrifying moment will come when you realize: you are!

The Powers That Be aren’t going show up to fix this. No instructions are going to show up in your inbox. It’s up to you.

Priscilla Chan meeting with women technologists at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration.

And that’s a hard thing to confront — especially, I think, for women, who tend to doubt their authority, their power, their experience. And for people like doctors or engineers, who are used to being able to solve concrete problems, and have the right tools available, right in front of them.

But choosing to bring your heart, your voice and your experiences fully to the table can be nerve-wracking. And choosing to tackle that messy, ambiguous stuff — the problems that are hard to define, much less solve — that’s a really scary thing.

When I was a doctor, there was a clear path ahead of me. I knew where the gold stars were.

Practice for a number of years.

Become a professor.

Teach.

But I realized that if I really wanted to fix those bugs in the system, I needed to walk away from the clear path. And for someone who truly loves gold stars, that was terrifying.

But you have to ask yourself: if you’re not going to do it, who is?

I knew that barriers that were keeping kids from succeeding were broad, and big — from their health, to their mental outlook, to the mentorship and teaching practices that they had access to. So I decided to start a school in East Palo Alto aimed at addressing the deeper problems that were keeping underserved children from being able to learn. It’s called The Primary School.

At The Primary School, teachers, parents, and pediatricians all work together to give the kids the support they need to thrive. We also work to provide families with the services that they need to find work, housing, and to put food on the table.

It’s an approach that’s aimed at redesigning the operating system — not just fixing the errors as they come, or a one-off solution.

Today at CZI, we look for people and ideas who are interested in changing the system. We fund and encourage them — and we pair them with world-class engineers.

Our goal at CZI is to help create an infrastructure for people with different skills and perspectives to solve those systemic challenges that technology could help address — but hasn’t yet.

And we know that we can’t get there, unless we’re tapping on the promise of all people. We can’t find new ways to tackle old problems if we’re only working with people with similar backgrounds and who already have the same lived experiences. We believe in the power of people who can help us see solutions differently — engineers and technologists who can otherwise bring a builder mindset to solving these hard problems and have never been tapped on to try.

And that’s why I am here! Philanthropists don’t usually get invited to Grace Hopper. At CZI, we actively recruit individuals from historically marginalized or underrepresented minorities. We believe that those people are the closest to the problems, and help us have a chance at solving them. We have a long way to go, but we believe it is an essential part of our work. Because diversity of experience and knowledge-sharing is absolutely critical to what we’re doing at CZI.

Priscilla Chan speaks to attendees at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Like our science work. Today, powerful institutions often dictate the flow of scientific information. That keeps scientists from working together to solve some of the biggest and most difficult problems out there. So we’re building technology tools to help enable “open science” and allow that to happen.

Right now, we’re funding teams of biologists, engineers, doctors, and technologists from around the world to map the trillions of cells in the human body — how they work and interact with each other, and what happens when they’re afflicted with disease.

We’re using artificial intelligence to discover, rank, and deliver biomedical research in personalized feeds. A reference tool like that could fundamentally change how researchers shape and accelerate their own discoveries.

Or in our education work. I told you about how incredible teachers changed my life. I’ll bet a lot of you have had similar stories. But even the best teachers don’t have enough time to connect with every student every day, or keep up with the latest research on education or curriculum. That’s why I’m so excited about our partnership with Summit Public Schools.

We’re designing tools in deep partnership with teachers to address their challenges, save them time, and help them create and manage a personalized experience for everyone in their classroom. Our goal is to create usable, useful software tools that allows every kid to learn and discover in a style and at a pace that works for them.

We’re still early in our criminal justice work. But recently, we’ve partnered with the new Philadelphia DA, Larry Krasner, to learn how better datasets and technology could help his team find solutions to build a better, and more humane, justice system. And hopefully, share that with prosecutors across the country.

Getting more perspectives at the table is also critical for our work in criminal justice. Those who work within the system, or go through it themselves, often have the most brilliant ideas on how to reform the system. They know that people are often incarcerated not because of the danger they pose to society — but because of antiquated, often racist, laws and policies. Those people are key to helping fix the system.

I’ll always remember the first time I met Aly Tamboura. Mark and I were visiting a coding class, and Aly was asked to demonstrate a data visualization he’d built. The only thing was, this class was taking place at San Quentin Prison. Aly had been incarcerated for over a decade. In that time he’d become a powerful advocate for criminal justice reform — and a pretty awesome coder. And you know, when the next time I saw Aly was? Right in our office. He had been hired as a technical program manager to help our work at CZI. And there he continues to push us to stay close to the real problems while we work on designing tech solutions at CZI.

Most of our work at CZI is fascinating with a potential for big impact, hopefully bigger than any of us can imagine.

But I have to tell you, it is seriously the hardest work I’ve ever done.

But I hope, for those of you who are not scared of that type of thing, I hope you will consider joining us.

Priscilla Chan and CZI staff at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

In a job like this, you won’t just be executing the blueprints that someone else has already designed. Those blueprints don’t exist yet. You’ll be the ones creating them together — and building the tools that help them become a reality.

If that sounds exciting to you, swing by our booth — we’d love to talk to you.

Now that I’m a mom myself, I often find myself thinking about my grandparents, standing out on that dock in the middle of the night, watching their children float off in the dark. They had a sense that there could be a better future for their children and grandchildren. They didn’t know what it looked like. But they believed it was out there.

How surreal is it, that that looks like this? Me standing here, in front of hundreds of young women, like you, who are literally building the future and dreaming of how to use your powers for the greatest good.

Now, thank goodness, I’ve never been forced to make a decision as hard as my grandparents. I hope I never have to.

But as we’ve launched CZI, I keep coming back to that image of sailing off into the great unknown, and thinking of all that must possible for our children’s generation.

We can’t imagine it alone because no one person can. We can only imagine it together. All of us.

So as you learn your in-demand skills in the sectors that will define our future, you’re going to get a lot of opportunities to — well, stay on land. To build something we all know and love and that your mom can brag to her friends. That is worth something.

And then you’ll get other opportunities to do the complicated, uncertain, and sometimes frustrating work. To make the system work better for people. To get on the boat, go off into the unknown, and chart a course toward a better future.

CZI at the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

And I’d urge you to take that chance. It doesn’t have to be the first step in your career. Or the only step. But at some point — with us, with others, or on your own: Bring your experiences, your heart, and your work to the table — every day.

My hope — is that you will be part of building a better future for everyone.

Thank you so much for being here today.”

Priscilla Chan, Co-founder

Priscilla Chan co-founded the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, in December 2015. As a pediatrician and former teacher, her work with patients and students in communities across the Bay Area has informed her desire to make learning more personalized and find a path to cure disease. She is also the founder and CEO of The Primary School, which integrates health and education and serves children and families in East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven neighborhood in Menlo Park, California. Priscilla earned her BA in Biology at Harvard University and her MD at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She completed her pediatrics training in the UCSF/PLUS Pediatrics Residency.