Priscilla Chan on husband Mark Zuckerberg's "totally different mentality"

Chan & Zuckerberg's goal to cure all diseases

Priscilla Chan doesn't do a lot of interviews. As she put it, she'd rather be doing the work. 

The pediatrician, billionaire philanthropist, mother and wife of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on an ambitious mission to level the playing field for everyone as part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, one of the most well-funded philanthropic organizations in the world. Their ambitious goals include tackling global health and trying to cure and end all diseases by the end of the century.

"Well, if you think about it, penicillin didn't exist 80 years ago … it's not linear … the microscope changed the world. Our ability to sequence DNA changed the world … We are not the ones doing it. We are empowering scientists to actually be in the forefront and making those discoveries," Chan told "CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell.  

"At the heart of it … I'm a practitioner. I've worked in the classroom, I've worked in the clinic. And that's where I get the inspiration and the nurturing from my soul that I need, as well as being able to see and stay connected to what we need to keep our eye on in order to build a better future," Chan said. 

But long before she was a Harvard graduate and doctor heading up one of the largest philanthropic efforts in the world, she was the child of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States in the 1970s in search of a better future.

"My grandparents did something I think is completely courageous … they put their kids on a boat and watched that boat drift off to sea," she said. "We know very first-hand that hardship is real and opportunities are available but not available to everyone."
 
But those opportunities led Chan to Harvard University on a full scholarship. At first, it felt like an alien world. She nearly left.

"I think I immediately knew when I showed up on campus that something out of this world had happened … but I wanted to give up. But I also found a home running an after-school program … and when I saw what those kids faced in challenges, far beyond what I faced, and I saw what needed to be done I knew I had to stay," she said.  

She met the man who would become her husband and one of the most powerful tech executives in the world, just four weeks into college. Asked if it was love at first sight, Chan said, "He just had a totally different mentality in terms of being able to do things and take risks than I did. And I thought he was fascinating. But he was 18. I didn't think I was gonna marry him."

They eventually did marry in 2012 and now have two daughters and a Hungarian sheepdog named Beast.
 
"Even before I had met Mark I knew I had received more than I could have ever imagined and it was going to be my life's work to make sure that was true for others," Chan said, getting a little teary-eyed. "It means a lot to me."

But 2018 proved to be the most challenging year yet for Facebook, her husband's company. The social media giant is facing a multibillion-dollar fine for a series of privacy scandals, including a massive data breach.
 
"You know, we've done a lot of work in thinking about how we should be operating and Mark and his team has done a great job at Facebook. But for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we also want to make sure that we are making good choices and being good stewards of the opportunity so it's an accelerator for us to really think through some of the harder problems," Chan said.

When O'Donnell asked if the initiative was a way to whitewash some of what the problems Facebook has faced, especially in 2018, she said, "We've always known that we were gonna give back. And we launched, formally, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2015 … this is not a 2018 project. We are going to be doing this for decades … and frankly, there are a lot easier ways to build up PR than trying to tackle education reform or criminal justice reform."

But whether their initiative or Facebook will have a greater impact on society, Chan said it's "too soon to say."

"I hope the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is able to achieve its goals. But we have ambitious goals and so if we can cure, prevent and manage all disease, I think that will be astounding in itself," she said.

Chan flatly rejected the idea that her or her husband have political ambitions.
 
"I don't even want to sit here to talk to you," Chan joked.

"We believe in advocacy, but we don't believe that we're the right people and our experience and voice should not be the most powerful in the room," she said.  
 
As for what her family thinks of the work she's doing, Chan said, "You know what's funny? My mom is still like, 'Are you a real doctor yet? And do you still work as a doctor?' … But they are incredibly proud and excited about the work that we're doing … my mom's mainly just really proud."

O'Donnell sat down with Chan before Monday's report from the British Parliament branding Facebook as "digital gangsters." It accuses the social media giant of deliberately misleading an investigation into disinformation and "the extent of Russian interference in foreign elections."

A Facebook spokesperson told CBS News the company shares "the committee's concerns about false news and election integrity," adding it is "open to meaningful regulation" and it has "already made substantial changes."

Tune in to "CBS This Morning" on Wednesday, Feb. 20, for more from Norah O'Donnell's interview with Priscilla Chan and to learn about an innovative program at an Oklahoma prison trying to break the cycle of mass incarceration.