In Leadership Picks, Clues About the Education Plans of Top Tech Philanthropists



The new year brings new leadership to the education giving of the tech moguls behind Amazon and Facebook. Both Bezos and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative went with leaders who had spent time working at the tech titans’ businesses.

On New Year’s day, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon alum Mike George would run the Day One Academies Fund, which is the new vehicle for the education philanthropy of Bezos and his wife MacKenzie. George had a nearly 20-year career at Amazon, retiring in 2017. Last month, CZI named Sandra Liu Huang as its new head of education, a position previously held by former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Jim Shelton.

It’s still early days for both of these organizations—CZI may seem old hat now, but it’s only been around since 2015. Both are also both backed by some of the deepest pockets in tech, an industry transforming the face of philanthropy. Leadership changes like these can be bellwethers for what’s to come for newer funders still developing their approach.

The Day One Academies Fund

When Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos announced last fall that they would be getting into philanthropy in a big way, they committed to giving $2 billion in support to homeless families and high-quality preschools in low-income neighborhoods.

To deliver on the promise of preschools, the Bezoses created the Day One Academies Fund, which will launch and operate a network of tuition-free, Montessori-inspired preschools. One of the more interesting revelations from the announcement was that the Bezoses intended to build the network from scratch, rather than partnering with an existing organization or school district.

That may make sense, since the focus on preschools means fewer potential partners to choose from than in the K-12 space. In some ways, this is an advantage. The Bezoses doesn’t have to navigate a complex existing system, or compete with it for funding and students the way charter networks do. Still, creating a network of schools from whole cloth is a heavy lift.

With the reveal of George as the leader of the new fund, it’s clear that building the organization is top of mind for Bezos. In his tweet announcing George’s selection, Bezos praised his former colleague, as “a true builder who knows how to start from scratch.”

George worked at Amazon for nearly 20 years. While there, he held leadership positions in several areas, from Human Resources to hardware. At the time of his retirement in 2017, George was the vice president in charge of Amazon’s Echo and Alexa smart speakers, along with its app store.

What George lacks on his resume is experience working in education—which is not as unusual as you might think. Bezos isn’t the first corporate titan to tap an executive from his company to pilot their philanthropy. When Bill and Melinda Gates created their foundation, they named a former Microsoft vice president, Patty Stonesifer, as its first CEO. Patricia Harris, the leader of Bloomberg Philanthropies, is a former executive at Bloomberg L.P. and also earlier served as a former top aide to Michael Bloomberg at City Hall in New York City. Janet Mountain, the longtime executive director of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, is a former executive at Dell Inc. And so on.

While philanthropists from business are often criticized for parachuting into issue areas they know nothing about, it seems that quite a few believe that they’ll have more success with executives they trust than outside leaders with relevant expertise. Whether that preference makes sense is a topic for another day. But such a choice by Bezos is not surprising, since it tracks with comments he made in his initial announcement of the Day One Academies Fund. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” he said last year. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

It’s way too early to predict how successful Jeff and MacKenzie may be as they become America’s largest private funders of early childhood education. While critics have already raised doubts about their plans, the Bezoses do have some advantages in starting their own organization in a field that’s uncrowded, with few of the institutional complexities of K-12 education that have so famously frustrated ambitious donors. Still, given the well-known challenges around creating high-impact early education programs, Mike George would be wise to tap the best expertise he can find in his role leading the Day One Academies Fund.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

The outfit backed by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg also made changes to its education leadership recently. Sandra Liu Huang takes over for Jim Shelton, who announced his resignation last summer.

In an interview with The 74, Liu Huang said she was excited for her chance to combine her passion—education, technology and bridging cultures—in her new role.

Liu Huang is an inside hire for CZI. She joined the funder in 2017 to serve as head of product and technology. Her experience working within CZI makes her a slightly more traditional choice than, say, Bezos’ pick. However, she also originally hails from the tech world. Before joining CZI, she did stints at at Google, Quora and, yes, Facebook. While at Facebook, Liu Huang reportedly worked closely with Zuckerberg.

Liu Huang will oversee a robust operation. As a limited liability company, CZI’s giving isn’t made public, but the funder revealed last year that it had devoted $308 million to education since 2016. The big idea behind CZI’s education work is a focus on educating the “whole child,” which means nurturing a child’s emotional, cognitive, identity, physical and mental needs, in addition to her academic performance.

Under Jim Shelton, CZI emerged as a leading champion of personalized learning within the philanthropic world. Liu Huang shares his enthusiasm. As head of product and technology, she oversaw CZI’s partnership with Summit Learning. The partnership yielded the Summit Learning Platform, a free online learning platform to make personalized learning more accessible for teachers and schools.

It’s worth noting that the platform has received pushback from parents, who are wary of its use of student data. Facebook’s scandals over its own use of user data have done little to quell parents’ fears.

CZI has always been open about its belief that technology can change the world for the better. With Liu Huang’s background as its head of product and technology, the funder seems to be leaning even more heavily into that belief in its education work.