Anne Wojcicki is not into “froufrou things.” She rides her bike to work every day to the genetic-testing company she co-founded, 23andMe. She shops at Payless shoes. And she makes her kids do the laundry, cuts their hair herself, and even has them sleep in their clothes to save time in the morning.
This kind of humility is as hardwired into the Wojcicki clan as serious success. Her older sisters are also professional anomalies: Susan is CEO of YouTube, and Janet is an epidemiologist, medical anthropologist, and associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. In her family, “You’re only a viable fetus once you have your PhD,” Wojcicki told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd.
“My mom is utterly the believer. Like, she can get anything done,” Wojcicki continued. “She had a real fighter mentality growing up, and I feel that was how we were raised…My mom’s like, ‘Listen, a lot of really bad stuff happened in my life. You either let that control you, or you make the rest of your life great.’”
This philosophy drove Wojcicki not just to found 23andMe but also fight through a public divorce to Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2015 and a seemingly company-ending breech with the US Food and Drug Administration the same year. Wojcicki’s billion-dollar idea was to empower consumers by giving them access to their own genetic information—a move that would change the face of healthcare. But FDA roadblocks forced her to sequester her ambitions to ancestry-kit testing for a spell.
Under Wojcicki’s leadership, 23andMe has brought personalized medicine directly to the public, making a wealth of genomic information affordable and easy to access. What’s more, as someone who works at the intersection of science, technology, and business, Wojcicki remains a powerful advocate for women.
In an interview with Quartz, Wojcicki reflects on the value of persistence and how she learned to leave jobs that didn’t teach her more than she taught them.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
I am obsessed with bringing the consumer voice to healthcare. As it stands, healthcare is a $3 trillion industry that is primarily a B2B business. I believe everything in healthcare can change if the consumer has a voice.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
We were raised to not shy away from conflict. That quality has helped me focus on what I believe is the right thing to do and manage the conflict and criticism that has come our way.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Balance the workforce: Hire one man for every woman, and balance it across positions of management. The only way to really drive change is to have diversity represented.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I would have known that every experience, no matter how random it seemed at the time, added up and contributed to who I am today. So long as I was learning, every experience ended up being valuable.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
Throughout my career, I felt most despondent when I was in jobs where I felt like I wasn’t learning and I was not being given opportunities to grow. I was thankfully able to leave those roles.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I am lucky to work with a fabulous team! There are three core tenets to my relationships with my colleagues. First, the core of my relationship with everyone I work with is trust. I hire people I believe in, and I trust them to be great at what they are doing. Secondly, I am always honest and transparent. This means I am direct with feedback in real time, and I ensure people know where I stand. Lastly, it’s critical that I own my mistakes when they happen. We cannot pioneer a new industry by being afraid of mistakes. There is no better way to eliminate that fear than by showing firsthand that mistakes happen, but that we can learn from them and keep moving forward.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
In 2013, we received our warning letter from the FDA. It was a rough time trying to figure out exactly what the path forward would be. I received some great advice from a regulatory team that in many ways has been applicable for life. She asked me if I wanted to sell the company quickly and get out, or stay in for the long haul and really fight for our mission. I told her the latter. If so, she said just put your head down, do the work you need to do, and don’t give up. It will take years, but persistence will pay off. And persistence has paid off!
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
I have worked with both men and women who have made my life challenging in the workplace, so I don’t think it’s just the question of what men can do. The most important thing I can do as the leader of the company is to lead by example. I have tried to create a culture at 23andMe that is supportive of employees as their lives evolve, and it is my job to make sure that the leadership team around me fosters a culture that reflects that.
I wish people would stop telling me… to wear makeup.
Everyone should own… their health information.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.