Chan Zuckerberg, Silicon Valley's new power couple

  • 2 December 2015
  • From the section Technology
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Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: September 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mark Zuckerberg is no longer the nerdy, dorky techie, but a man who wears a suit

He founded the world's biggest and most powerful social network, a site that has shaped the way more than a billion of us communicate every day - every hour, even.

She is a Harvard educated doctor who, unlike in the film portrayal of Facebook's beginnings, has been by Mark's side for much of the last nine years.

Now, Mark Zuckerberg and Dr Priscilla Chan are Silicon Valley's most influential power couple.

And that's because, over the past year, Mark Zuckerberg has grown up.

He's no longer the nerdy, dorky techie in a hoodie who cut a nervous, awkward figure when speaking in public.

He's now a man that wears - gasp - a suit when welcoming, and being welcomed in by, heads of state.

He's a man who learned Mandarin in what seemed like just a few months, using his new language to impress a room full of Chinese students - oh, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

And he's Dad to a baby girl now too, let's not forget. Max was born during Thanksgiving week, the couple announced on Tuesday.

Zuckerberg to take two months' paternity leave

Facebook hits one billion users in a day

Facebook paid £4,327 UK corporation tax in 2014

Gap year

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Both Ms Chan and Mr Zuckerberg are taking parental leave

Meanwhile, his site's valuation continues to soar. In business matters, he's made several shrewd acquisitions. Instagram, WhatsApp, and virtual reality firm Oculus Rift - all purchases that cemented Facebook's longevity, even if the site itself isn't cool with the kids anymore.

All this while embodying something quite rare in Silicon Valley - a healthy work-life balance.

Following Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook is like watching a friend on a gap year. Barely a day passes without Zuckerberg reflecting on the meaning of life while taking pictures of the Taj Mahal.

And with the birth of his daughter, Max, Zuckerberg will be taking the unusual step (in the US at least) of taking two months paternity leave.

He joins a recent trend of US tech companies taking the family needs of staff seriously. It might just kick-start a change in mood across the entire country - paid paternity and maternity leave is a given in much of the development world, but not in the USA.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Zuckerberg is following in the footsteps of Bill Gates

Lobbying

Yet the big announcement today - for the rest of us, at least - is about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Following in the footsteps of Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation has backed various charitable efforts for more than 15 years, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative says it seeks to back programs that promote "equality, education and advancing human capability".

It will be funded by Zuckerberg's shares. He says he plans to give away 99% of his stock over the course of his lifetime, at a rate of around $1bn-worth each year.

What will it do? That's to be seen, although in making the announcement Facebook was keen to point out that Zuckerberg's previous charitable endeavours included multi-million dollar donations to schools and hospitals, and money towards preventing the spread of Ebola.

But it's not a flawless record, by any means. Many will question Zuckerberg's sincerity when, while donating to schools on one hand, his company is paying miniscule taxes in some of its biggest markets. Take the UK, for example, where in its last financial year the company paid just £4,327 ($6,643) in corporation tax.

Policy debate

And then there's the political influence.

In the information pack about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, it notes that the money will be used for "funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates, in each case with the goal of generating positive impact in areas of great need".

Silicon Valley's definition of "great need" may differ greatly to what the rest of the world thinks needs to be done, while "participating in policy debates" is another way of saying "lobbying", of course.

And we may never be told what those "private investments" are.

Mark Zuckerberg's internet.org project, which is about bringing internet connectivity to the next billion people, has been caught up in controversy. Small businesses in the developing world say internet.org is little more than a thinly-veiled way for Facebook to rapidly grow their user base.

Still, Mark Zuckerberg is 31. Priscilla Chan is 30. Max is merely days old. The Chan Zuckerberg story still has decades in which to shape itself.

Some will take a dim view of a data collection company expanding its influence into new, highly-political territories.

Others will applaud a very rich, young couple for taking some of technology's billions out from the Valley and into needy causes.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

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