Racial Discrimination at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Ray Holgado
9 min readNov 9, 2020


On November, 9th 2020, I filed a racial discrimination claim against the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, on behalf of myself and Black employees at the foundation.

The following was submitted as supporting documentation for the claim and describes my experience of racial bias and systemic discrimination at CZI.


Respondent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a foundation established and owned by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. CZI describes itself as a philanthropy designed “to leverage technology, community-driven solutions and collaboration to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges [and] to build a more inclusive, just, and healthy future for everyone.” It is estimated to be “one of the most well-funded philanthropies in human history.” https://www.vox.com/2017/7/10/15771676/priscilla-chan-facebook-philanthropy-mark-zuckerberg-initiative-cure-diseases.

It is also one of the least transparent philanthropies in the United States. CZI is not a charitable foundation but rather a limited liability company owned by Zuckerberg and Chan. Under this legal structure, Zuckerberg “control[s] the Facebook shares owned by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/kerryadolan/2015/12/04/mark-zuckerberg-explains-why-the-chan-zuckerberg-initiative-isnt-a-charitable-foundation/#7a2f0aa370c5.

Despite its social justice rhetoric, CZI is not a welcoming environment for Black employees. Black employees are underpaid, undervalued, denied growth opportunities, and marginalized. Black employees who want to advance within the organization are shut down and labeled as too assertive or aggressive, while non-Black employees are favored and encouraged. When Black employees have communicated these concerns to CZI leadership, CZI has responded defensively and failed to address the underlying issues. CZI has utterly failed to “build a more inclusive, just, and healthy future” for its Black employees.

I. Race Bias Against Holgado

Claimant Raymond Holgado (“Holgado”) was hired by CZI in September of 2018 as a Grants Manager. When Holgado (who is Black) received the job offer from a recruiter, Holgado asked if there was room for negotiation regarding the starting salary. Holgado was told he would not be able to negotiate the salary because a “level” system was in place that ensured pay equity across the organization and across comparable roles. Holgado was leveled as an IC5. However, after joining CZI, Holgado discovered that non-Black employees had successfully negotiated a higher salary and starting level. It quickly became apparent that Holgado was being underpaid compared to non-Black colleagues doing comparable work.

In January of 2019, Holgado’s direct supervisor, the Director of Grants Management, announced they would be leaving the organization. They cited a lack of confidence in the Legal department’s leadership, a toxic culture and being overworked while feeling persistently under-resourced, as reasons for their departure.

Holgado also found the team culture toxic and decided to apply for an internal role that was advertised and presented to him as a higher paying Program Officer position within the Criminal Justice Reform team in the Justice and Opportunity (JOI) department. During the application process, Holgado learned that the Program Officer position he was applying for was classified as IC6 despite the fact that it was substantially similar to his Grant Manager job. The Legal department resisted Holgado’s effort to move to the IC6 position on the ground he had not been with the organization long enough, despite the fact that there was no official policy at the time prohibiting such a move. The Legal department only relented after multiple meetings where Holgado advocated for his right to apply for the role. The position was eventually offered to him only on the condition that: (1) he agreed to perform a mixture of duties for the previous and new role; and (2) he would not receive the originally published level and salary increase.

Holgado signed the offer letter for the new role on March 1st 2019, with his official start date stated as May 20th 2019 — the agreed upon date that he would transition fully into the new role and cease his prior duties. Unfortunately, CZI did not honor this agreement, and Holgado continued to straddle multiple roles until late July 2019.

Holgado communicated a concern to senior managers on both teams about having to continue juggling multiple roles and told them that he felt he was being paid and titled inappropriately for the work he was performing. On July 11th 2019, Hillary Bounds, VP, Legal and Grants offered Holgado higher pay (IC7), an elevated title and a direct report if he returned to the Legal department.

On July 15th Holgado told Eric Hysen, Director of Operations for JOI, that he was considering the Legal team’s offer. On July 23rd, Hillary Bounds told Holgado that the Legal department’s offer was rescinded. Bounds explained that Hysen had spoken to Erika Rottenberg, General Counsel and head of the Legal department about the situation, and that following their conversation, Rottenberg no longer wanted Holgado on the Legal team because he was an “opportunist” for being concerned with seeking promotion/re-leveling.

When Holgado spoke with Hysen about the rescinded offer, Hysen denied any involvement but assured Holgado that he would be promoted in the coming months and that it would be equivalent to the rescinded IC7 opportunity. Troncoso also approached Holgado to discuss the situation. Troncoso assured Holgado that he had no hard feelings about Holgado seeking an opportunity outside of JOI, but warned Holgado that if he tried to leave the department again, Troncoso would not be as forgiving.

Despite this threat to his job security, Holgado continued to advocate for appropriate pay, title and workload. Noting Holgado’s continued efforts, Troncoso later referred to Holgado as “quietly aggressive.”

In November 2019, as part of a department reorganization, Hysen and Troncoso offered Holgado the role of Grantmaking and Business Operations Manager in JOI. The new role was presented as an IC6 level position and entailed all of his former duties in addition to processing contracts for all of JOI and hiring/supervising an associate who would support this work. Holgado objected to the IC6 level classification, reminding Hysen and Troncoso that he had been offered an IC7 position previously. He further noted that the role he had performed for the past nine months was designed as an IC6, which meant that he was being underpaid as an IC5, despite multiple strong performance reviews over this period. Holgado explained that promoting him to an IC6 role also did not address the existing under-leveling and asked whether he would have been offered a higher-level position had he been appropriately leveled previously.

Troncoso told Holgado that he understood his points and assured him that he would see what he could do to remedy the concerns. On December 3rd, Holgado met with Hysen and Troncoso again. They informed him that they could not offer him anything higher than an IC6 position but said that they would secure a retention bonus for him, to be paid out over the next two years. Despite Holgado’s concerns, the new position was not presented as a choice and he was placed into the role effective December 1, 2019.

As part of the reorganization, Holgado reported to Meagan Gardner, who had been promoted to interim head of JOI operations as Eric Hysen announced he would be leaving the organization. Prior to joining the JOI operations team, Gardner had handled the bulk of contract processing for JOI — a task that was ultimately given to Holgado following the reorganization. Before Hysen passed his responsibilities to Gardner in early February 2020, Hysen told Holgado that he would need to provide Gardner with continued support and assist in her onboarding because she was not familiar with many of the core functions of the role. Gardner’s management style consisted of extracting ideas and solutions from Holgado and presenting them off as her own. Essentially, Holgado had been given Gardner’s previous duties so that she could assume a leadership role suitable for Holgado and for which Gardner was ill-equipped.

Having been consistently denied promotion and growth opportunities at CZI, paid less than similarly situated non-Black employees, and otherwise treated differently because of his race, Holgado made the decision to leave CZI effective August 2020.

II. Systemic Discrimination at CZI

Holgado’s experience was indicative of a larger issue affecting Black employees and CZI’s engagement with Black communities. Holgado met with Black employees across the organization, advocated for more junior staff, and argued for more racially inclusive grantmaking strategies. Holgado made multiple attempts to highlight these issues for members of the leadership team. On August 20th, 2019, Holgado met with Chan, and told her that he had heard firsthand from multiple Black employees who had experienced discrimination at CZI. Holgado said that he was troubled by the dynamics of race, class and gender in the workplace. Holgado told Chan that CZI had a quota-based approach to diversity — meaning that it had retained Black talent but failed to empower Black employees or integrate their perspectives into the work. Holgado stated that he did not want to betray any privacy expectation in his co-workers’ communications but appealed to Chan to investigate the issues further and commit to taking concrete actions to address the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) measures at CZI.

Chan responded that the claims were concerning but defended CZI on the grounds that “DEI may look different for each of us.” Chan rejected the idea of hiring a seasoned DEI professional, indicating that she preferred to select a more junior individual for the role. She said that she wanted to “give them the opportunity to develop in the role and in their understanding of these issues, in the same way we’ve been able to develop you on the Criminal Justice team.” This comment further highlighted the patronizing approach that CZI took with its Black employees, treating him not as a valued and productive member of the organization but rather as an underprivileged and perpetual junior-level staff member who should be grateful for the opportunity to develop his talents at CZI.

CZI’s treatment of its Black employees mirrored its perception of the Black experience. CZI was simultaneously hostile to efforts to question the racial status quo and defensive about criticism that its grant-making was not sufficiently progressive. For example, in early 2019 Holgado proposed bringing in Edgar Villanueva, philanthropy executive and author of Decolonizing Wealth. Holgado had known Villanueva for multiple years and believed his book and framing of the dynamics of philanthropy would be enriching for CZI grant-makers and general staff. While initial support for this idea was strong from staff members, the Legal team shut down the proposal. Holgado was told that grant-makers already felt that their work was not progressive and responsive to community needs. They believed that Villanueva would only highlight more issues of contention for staff and felt that CZI had to be careful not to “stoke the flames.” Later in 2019, Holgado again proposed bringing Villaneuva in to discuss his work, pitching the idea to Troncoso, then head of Criminal Justice Reform. Troncoso quickly shot the idea down, explaining that “we don’t need anyone coming in here and telling us we’re serving white supremacy culture.”

On another occasion, shortly after joining the Criminal Justice Reform department Holgado was warned by a senior member of the team that he should refrain from advocating for grantmaking strategies that expressly addressed the racial disparities present in the criminal justice system. Despite the wealth of research illustrating structural racism in the American legal system and the disproportionate incarceration of the Black population, Holgado was told that Zuckerberg and Chan did not view race as relevant to the issue of mass incarceration and that previous attempts to push the pair on this issue had contributed to a former employee being terminated.

Holgado has not been alone in raising issues of racial discrimination at CZI. He served on the steering committee of CZI’s Black employee resource group, Building Leadership and Knowledge (BLK). Following the murder of George Floyd and the public outcry earlier this year, CZI made a public push to portray itself as a racial justice funder for whom “Black Lives Matter.” Recognizing the hypocrisy and performative nature of the comments coming from leadership given the racial discrimination many Black employees had experienced at CZI, BLK took action to ensure that the organization was held accountable to these professed values. BLK collectively drafted a letter to Chan expressing the need to address these issues of racial inequity, both internally and throughout CZI’s grantmaking, along with a list of requests that they believed would be good faith first steps for the organization. This resulted in a series of weekly meetings between Chan, Chief Operating Officer Josué Estrada and BLK membership.

Early on in their meetings, Chan made it clear that she was not willing to meet BLK’s requests — most notably, she would not share the pay equity data that BLK had requested. Chan stated that she did not wish to release that data until she had a more thorough understanding of it, along with a plan on how the organization could improve the data moving forward. Notably, during a July 17th, 2020 meeting, Chan stated that the attrition rate of Black employees was higher than other employee groups adding that the difference was “in fact statistically significant. So, I want to acknowledge that.” Many Black employees present at this meeting walked away feeling Chan was ill-equipped to discuss these issues, let alone address them.