Anne Wojcicki isn’t a typical CEO.
The 44-year-old mother of two who runs the consumer genetics and research company 23andMe, reportedly valued at over $1 billion, prefers a uniform of Lululemon shorts, bikes to work every day -- unless it’s raining -- and didn’t exactly set out on the executive path.
“I was in college. I didn't know that there were real jobs. I think about how naive I was on the job development process,” Wojcicki says on an episode of ABC Radio’s “No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis” podcast.
Wojcicki says she grew up in an “academic environment.” Her father was the chair of the physics department at Stanford University and her mother, Esther Wojcicki, is a renowned journalism teacher.
Her parents raised three successful daughters: Susan Wojcicki is CEO of YouTub and Dr. Janet Wojcicki is an anthropologist and epidemiologist at UCSF.
Growing up they were taught “to just be curious and to problem solve.”
As a child, Wojcicki loved science and recalls a definitive moment from Kindergarten when she first learned about DNA.
"My sister was talking about genes and I kept staring at her. I was like, 'But you have shorts on,'" she recalled. "It was because they were talking about DNA. And that was the first time I ever heard about DNA and I was fascinated. Absolutely fascinating that there's like this thing inside you and you could discover it."
When it came time to apply for jobs after college, Wojcicki, who studied biology at Yale University, didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do.
“My mom was like, ‘Just interview for a bunch of stuff and see.’ And I very randomly got this job offer for the Wallenberg family in Sweden as an analyst," she said. "I had no idea what it was."
She spent nearly a decade working in healthcare investing, focusing primarily on biotechnology companies. She says the information she learned on the job was invaluable.
“In some ways, as an analyst on Wall Street, I couldn't have asked for a better training because here I was at 22 and I had this opportunity to study every single healthcare company out there. I always felt like my 10 years on Wall Street was like getting a Ph.D. and then a postdoc,” Wojcicki said.
She loved some aspects of the job: studying healthcare companies, learning the science behind the work they were doing, and speaking to CEOs and even Nobel Prize winners. But she became disillusioned about the healthcare industry as a whole.
“The big conclusion that I learned was, this was a system that does not reflect what's in my best interest. I loved the research and that element but I also just started to feel like this is a system that was taking advantage of people,” Wojcicki recalls.
Keeping her day job, she began to volunteer in hospitals at night and she saw firsthand how patients struggled with astronomical medical bills. Her tipping point? A conference about insurance reimbursement.
“All these people were at this meeting just to figure out how to optimize billing. How can you bill more for every procedure? And I just realized, I’m done. It was that moment where I was like, 'The system's never going to change from within, [and] so many people make money on the inefficiencies of health care,'" she said. "And I felt like that was the end. I know how the system works. I'm going to try to make a difference.”
Wojcicki left her lucrative career on Wall Street to launch 23andMe, a genetic testing and research company that offers affordable, home-based saliva collection kits to provide customers with access to their genetic information. This includes reports on traits, wellness, carrier status and genetic ancestry.
They also offer customers the option to opt into research participation.
“23andMe was intentionally set out to be very different than every other company I'd ever researched because I wanted to reflect what's in the best interests of the customer, the consumer and to actually try and help people be healthy,” Wojcicki said.
Now 12 years old, 23andMe has built one of the largest databases of individual genetic information and has raised almost $500 million in venture capital funds, according to the company.
But it wasn’t without setbacks. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demanded that 23andMe stop marketing their kits, citing “potential health consequences” resulting from “false positive or false negative assessments.”
The FDA had classified 23andMe’s Saliva Collection Kit and Personal Genome Service as a “medical device” and claimed it had not been “analytically or clinically validated” for the intended use. Some experts worry that people get the genetic advice without enough interpretation about what to do with the information.
“I always argued we had the right intentions but ... I realize now we didn't know how to communicate," Wojcicki said of the FDA controversy. "So it was a moment, it was definitely a shock.”
Wojcicki became committed to working with the FDA, following their guidelines and, in 2015, 23andMe received authorization for its first genetics test for Bloom syndrome. In 2017, the FDA approved 23andMe's offer of 10 genetic health risk reports, including late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and celiac disease.
And earlier this year, the company received the first-ever FDA authorization for direct-to-consumer genetic test for cancer risk for its BRCA1/BRCA2 report.
For Wojcicki, her success and the success of her company is about determination.
“There's very few cases where there's overnight success. We've been working on all of our approvals. Like BRCA ... we've worked on this for years. So sometimes it just takes a lot of work to get something done," she said. "And one thing I advise to entrepreneurs is you have to stick with it. Success comes from actually, like really sticking with it.”
And her advice to those just starting out?
"Everything when you're 22 is interesting. It doesn't matter what job you take. Just take a job where you're going to learn something and then keep learning. And the minute you stop learning get a different job," she advised. "Every job I ever had contributed to who I am today and what I've learned."