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Education, housing are 'broken,' says Priscilla Chan of Chan Zuckerberg

The co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative says she wants to make the opportunities she had available to others.

Priscilla Chan speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco on Thursday.
Priscilla Chan speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco on Thursday. 
Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

Priscilla Chan says she got lucky. She had the resources to get to Harvard and later become a doctor. 

"I went through K-12 in public school, where my only direction from my family was 'work hard, you'll do well,' and there wasn't much more detail," Chan said while speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco on Thursday. "But I got lucky. I had teachers who took me under their wing and made sure I knew what the SATs were and that I knew how to apply to college."

But Chan says she knows she's an exception, and that many other young people don't have the opportunities she did.

"The infrastructure around the way we care for our fellow citizens is broken," she said, referencing the education system, health care system and lack of affordable housing, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with husband and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "We can't build an aspirational future and just assume that people will get there or they'll get lucky."

Chan addressed tackling these issues through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which she and her husband founded in 2015. The charity focuses on education and biomedical research, as well as promoting criminal justice reform and access to affordable housing. It's investing more than $3 billion over the next decade to cure all diseases before the end of the century.   

Chan previously worked as an after school teacher and an elementary school teacher before becoming a pediatrician at San Francisco General Hospital. She's also a Harvard graduate. With each gig, Chan said, she pushed herself to do more for children to provide them with the same opportunities she had. 

"After 30 years, I came to the conclusion that you can only try to break the rules so many times before you realize the whole system is broken," Chan said. "That's the reason children don't have the opportunities they deserve."

Chan touched on the scope of issues the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative seeks to tackle, saying the initiative chooses problems she and Zuckerberg are best suited for without trying to fix everything in the ecosystem, "because we know we can't." Looking for solutions involves leveraging the expertise of engineers, designers and product managers to assist with a range of things, like housing, education and health care. 

She also emphasized that the initiative is nonpartisan, and won't be supporting any political candidates. 

Chan said the initiative wouldn't be able to accomplish its goals without money, but what's critical is applying skills to help others -- something she says everyone in Silicon Valley has the potential to do. 

"Everyone in our industry has the opportunity to give in a way that many people don't have access to," she said.

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