Anne Wojcicki is juggling a phone and a one-year-old, when a series of squeals ring out in the background. She flips the phone around to reveal her children throwing themselves on to an inflatable slip-and-slide on her lawn. “We do a lot of our meetings here,” says the 46-year-old, who has been working from home since the pandemic shut offices in February.
Wojcicki is Silicon Valley royalty. She shares two children with Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and one of the world’s richest men, and is sister to Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube. Her at-home DNA kit company, 23andMe, was last valued at $2.5 billion (Dh9.18 billion) and her personal stake is estimated to be worth $690 million, according to Forbes. But it hasn’t always been this way.
She recalls googling her name before her marriage was announced. “It came up with a blank result,” she says. “I took screenshots because I thought to myself, ‘this is fundamentally who I am’.” Wojcicki says she never sought fame or wealth but was driven to do what she loves. And what she loves is our DNA.
In 2006, Wojcicki quit her ‘miserable’ Wall Street job and founded 23andMe with biologist Linda Avey. A Yale biology graduate, Wojcicki had lofty goals of collating the world’s DNA to make it searchable, taking inspiration from her husband’s search engine, which invested $7 million, to help understand disease and discover new drugs. The kits were a hit.
In 2008, the New York Times covered a novel ‘spit party’ hosted by Wojcicki during fashion week, where Rupert Murdoch and Diane von Furstenberg mingled. It attracted backing from Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi and Harvey Weinstein.
It was shortly after the breakdown of her relationship with Brin in 2013 that the American health regulators banned Wojcicki’s kits, claiming there was not enough scientific evidence to support their claims. Overnight, her hotshot biotech firm was reduced to little more than a family tree service: “We just had to hope and believe we could make a difference.” When 23andMe received its first authorisation in 2018, the company soared to new heights, selling five million kits and generating $480 million.
But last year, sales inexplicably dipped. Wojcicki admits to the ‘mistake’ of overestimating growth – a miscalculation that forced her to let 14 per cent of her workforce go last year. 23andMe has yet to make a profit.
“We probably could have been cautious and thought longer about growth and expansion,” she says.
“For instance, we were setting up building a lab but we probably could have waited another year to make sure it was financially sustainable. But there are aspects of business that you can’t predict.”
Investors have not been turned off, she adds. “The main thing I have always told people is that we will always make mistakes and it is not about fearing them but reacting in a timely fashion.”
Now, life has thrown her another curveball in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. Wojcicki says working from home has allowed her to enjoy “the simplicity of life” – although her company is keeping busy.
Landmark Covid-19 study
Critical teams remain in the lab working on a landmark Covid-19 study. They hope to use 23andMe’s database of 10 million genetic profiles to hunt for genes that could explain why some people suffer more severely from the virus than others. It has already discovered that people with the blood type O are less vulnerable, and has new findings – which Wojcicki says are a secret for now – that are due to appear in a journal next year.
The company has also been focusing on developing novel drugs, which is a lucrative part of its business.
In 2015, 23andMe launched a therapeutics division to help use its unique and vast genetic database for drug discovery. In 2018, the company signed a $300 million deal with GlaxoSmithKline to refine the UK pharma giant’s drug development targets. The first targeted drug selected using 23andMe’s genetic service will undergo clinical trials this year. It now wants to offer its Covid-19 data to pharmaceuticals like GSK to help develop a vaccine.
With so much work under way, Wojcicki says the pandemic has not disrupted its service to customers and she is in no rush to send employees back to the office. “Being a health company, I don’t think I could justify forcing people to come back in,” she says. Instead, they are working out density and bathroom policies, and assessing whether they can open the canteen again, for employees who are desperate to return. “People can work pretty effectively from home,” she adds. “Which makes me think we were a little behind the times.”
Google-inspired flexible work culture
In many ways, 23andMe has always been ahead. The appearance of Wojcicki’s children on conference calls has always been the norm.
She has never expected her employees to perform as if they weren’t parents in the way they are expected to in many workplaces.
This flexible work culture was inspired by Google, who hired her sister while she was pregnant.
It was Susan who rented the early Google employees the now infamous garage the company was founded in.
“They always had this very baby-friendly environment and I have realised that there are really talented parents who have to take care of their kids, so all they need is flexibility,” she says. The company offers 80 per cent capacity roles, allowing parents to work fewer hours in a week so they can pick children up from day care or school. Family is extremely important to Wojcicki. She puts her success, and that of Susan and their epidemiologist sister Janet, down to her mother, a former newspaper reporter turned lecturer, and her father, a Stanford University professor.
Working four jobs during high school, Wojcicki planned to save $20,000 by the time she graduated, and she bought her first apartment in New York aged 26.
“Every time I saw someone drink a soda, I was like, ‘that’s 50 cents’,” she says. “I was maniacal.”
Another thing Wojcicki did not expect was the impact her work would have on identity. She now revels in the fact that white supremacists describe her as the “devil incarnate” in blog posts, warning people not to take the test for fear of finding out they might not be as white as they hoped.
However, she appreciates an obsession with our genes can prove problematic. “I think there’s always the concern about the nefarious ways people are going to use information but I would say, overwhelmingly, it has opened people’s eyes to the fact that they’re actually more connected to the universe than they could have expected.”
Customers may be opening a Pandora’s box, looking into a future where they may contract breast cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
But Wojcicki believes it is critical to have as much information as you can to help give yourself the best shot at a long, healthy life.
She is committed to getting the data, no matter whether it is controversial or not.
It is this clarity of purpose and strong will that has allowed Wojcicki to thrive in a field fraught with controversies.
Anne Wojcicki profile
Education: biology at Yale University
Family: three children, two with Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Sister is Susan Wojcicki, chief executive of YouTube
First job: Investor AB
The Daily Telegraph