John Hennessy presenting a T-shirt to Mark Zuckerberg

Stanford President John Hennessy presents a Nerd Nation T-shirt to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg after a conversation in Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Zuckerberg and Hennessy discuss how social media can solve global challenges

During a free-flowing exchange in Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Stanford President John Hennessy talked about how technology could be used to help solve the world's most challenging problems and provided a few pointers for young entrepreneurs.

Video by Kurt Hickman

President John Hennessy speaking with Mark Zuckerberg.

Shortly after launching Facebook as a student at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg and his partners would wrap up their late night programming sessions by eating pizza and talking about the future of their social media network.

Wouldn't it be fantastic, they thought, if their network could one day connect everyone in the world, providing a safe and inviting forum to share ideas in meaningful ways that could help solve some of the biggest challenges facing the world?

Surely a big tech company would see what they were doing in their dorm room and build its own global social network.

"I kind of just assumed that one of [the big companies] would build this, and one of the surprises 10 years later is that it actually was us," Zuckerberg said. "There's no real reason why that should have been able to happen. I think we just cared more about seeing it happen."

Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, shared this experience, a few career pointers and his philanthropic aspirations during a conversation with Stanford President John L. Hennessy in a packed Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday afternoon.

Before Facebook, Zuckerberg said, if people wanted to communicate ideas or messages over the Internet, they could do so only in very small private groups, such as by email, or in a very public forum, such as a message board or blog. Ideas and innovations weren't reaching their potential in these forums, he said, because not enough people were seeing the concepts, or the originator wasn't comfortable sharing more broadly.

"I think the fundamental idea that Facebook brought was creating this private space that didn't exist before, and by unlocking and opening that space, there's a huge potential to allow people to communicate their ideas," Zuckerberg said.

One thing that often gets lost in Silicon Valley, though, is that not everyone in the world has the opportunity to communicate such ideas: Only one third of the global population has access to the Internet, Zuckerberg said, and in many cases it's only through a spotty connection.

L.A. CiceroJohn Hennessy and Mark Zuckerberg

Among the topics John Hennessy and Mark Zuckerberg discussed were the future of technology, philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

"We are robbed of an opportunity to benefit from the innovation that all those folks who are not connected can bring," Zuckerberg said. "I want Facebook, and other social apps, to do more than share the moments of day-to-day, but to really have utility and solve big challenges."

One of Zuckerberg's major ambitions, therefore, is to find ways to provide everyone in the world access to the Internet. As the global economy shifts from one focused on industry to a knowledge-based system, it's imperative that everyone has equal access to financial and health-care tools, and other Web-based services that will help the next generation. He hopes to accomplish this through Facebook's initiative.

Through his philanthropic work, he also hopes to foster a better appreciation for fundamental work in the life sciences through his funding commitment for the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. The money award recognizes scientists who have made significant, fundamental and transformative contributions to their field. With the prize, Zuckerberg and others seek to restore the "rock star" status that scientists such as Albert Einstein enjoyed earlier in the 20th century.

"Science is a market failure in that way," he said. "The people making fundamental things in science often won't make enough money with the things that they do, and in many cases won't be able to support the work that they do."

Supporting the life sciences and math and encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations, he said, plays a key role in identifying areas where the next big breakthrough will occur.

"One thing you learn in college is that picking the problem to go solve is sometimes more of a challenge than solving the problem," he said. "A lot of time it's knowing where the interesting intersections are."

Of course, Zuckerberg is able to make these contributions largely because of Facebook's incredible success. Speaking in front of an audience teeming with future scientists and engineers, he offered a few bits of career advice.

If you want to start a company, he said, make sure you know what you want to do. Focus on something that you care about personally, and you'll have a better sense of the steps necessary to make it successful and a better chance of seeing it through.

"You want to look at real problems that people have, and those are often the ones that you have yourself, which you have the most real empathy for," he said. "Pick problems that are real, and apply technology to that."

He encouraged students to be unflappable in the face of adversity and doubters. The people who achieve great success are often the ones who care about something irrationally, before the world recognizes it.

Develop a thick skin and prepare for failures, he said. There's no such thing as solving a hard problem without making some mistakes, but those mistakes are how you learn and get better.

"Entrepreneurs see the value in things that other people don't see. The people who create it, believe it, while others might not see the opportunity," Hennessy said. "Great entrepreneurs see the glass half full as opposed to half empty, and they set their minds to figuring out how to fix that."

During a Q&A session, one student asked Zuckerberg if he regretted leaving college to start a company.

Zuckerberg didn't hesitate long before saying "nope," at which point Hennessy informed the CEO that Stanford allows Harvard students to transfer their credits, should he wish to enroll. He later gave Zuckerberg a gray Stanford hoodie and an official Nerd Nation T-shirt.