When Susan Wojcicki became the new CEO of YouTube earlier this year, there was some head-scratching. Susan who?
For although Wojcicki is a consummate Google insider–she was Google Employee #16–she is largely unknown outside the tech community. Indeed, she’s been called The Most Important Googler You’ve Never Heard of. Another superlative that has been attributed to Wojcicki is The Most Important Person in Advertising. This stems from the fact that she helped create AdSense, the revolutionary, money-gushing business that allows websites and blogs to make money on their sites by displaying Google ads. Last year, AdSense helped account for Google’s $55.5 billion in revenue.
But throughout her impressive career at Google, where she worked on the teams that oversaw the acquisitions of DoubleClick and YouTube, Wojcicki the person has remained largely a mystery. Low-key and unshowy by nature, she has steered clear of the spotlight. Not that she’s uncomfortable in it, notes one former Google executive–she just hasn’t sought it out as some of her peers have. (This Fast Company cover story is her first magazine profile.)
Herewith, is a primer to the woman who has been entrusted with the biggest online video platform on the planet with a mandate to make it even bigger.
Not many people (and very few women) are chosen to be a member of Larry Page’s inner-circle “L” team, but Wojcicki is one of them. Her close relationship with the Google founders dates back to the very earliest days of the company, which was formed in her garage. After Page and Sergey Brin graduated from Stanford and were trying to turn their senior project into a business in 1998, they rented space in Wojcicki’s Menlo Park garage for $1,700 a month. At the time, Wojcicki–whose husband, Dennis Troper, is also a Googler–was pregnant, and looking for extra cash to help pay off the mortgage. In a commencement speech at Johns Hopkins University last spring, Wojcicki recalled “late nights together in the garage eating pizza and M&Ms, where (Brin and Page) talked to me about how their technology could change the world.” Not long thereafter, Wojcicki left her job at Intel to become Google’s first marketing manager. She tells me that one of her first tasks was finding office space for Google once they moved out of the garage. She found a place in Mountain View that won her over for one key reason: it had a kitchen.
At Google, having the “trust of the founders,” according to one former Google executive, is crucial.
“If you don’t have that, or if you have it and you lose it, it’s fatal,” this person said. “Because at the end of the day, Larry is going to make the call and Larry is going to give you as much leash as he thinks is appropriate. Folks like Susan, Salar (Kamanger, the former CEO of YouTube), and Marissa (Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo) at various points had very long leashes, and I think Susan has always maintained a relatively long leash. Some of that has come from, she hasn’t only focused on being a starter. She’s focused on being a scaler.”
Wojcicki has four school-age kids, and she laughingly calls herself the “mom of Google.” That metaphor works on a few levels. Wojcicki was the first employee to have a baby, and she designed Google’s progressive, in-house daycare center (which drew flack for its high cost back in 2008). But Wojcicki also has a very maternal attitude toward her work–Google, and now YouTube. Frequently during our interview, she talks about her experiencing watching Google “grow” and how she now wants to nurture YouTube.
For Wojcicki, work and motherhood are inextricably linked. She even associates each of her children with Google milestones. “I joined Google when I was pregnant, so my oldest I’ve associated with Google. Then I worked with the team and together we created AdSense after I came back from maternity leave (with my second). My third one, I associate with YouTube. The last one is DoubleClick.”
Wojcicki’s mother teachers high-school journalism and her father is the former chair of the physics department at Stanford. She says she and her two, younger sisters–including Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder of 23andMe and Brin’s wife (they recently separated)–“grew up on a college campus,” surrounded by academics, mathematicians and scientists. (George Dantzig was a neighbor.)
“We had all these amazing people around us and they really cared about doing something meaningful for the world. They didn’t really care as much about–their goal wasn’t to become famous or make money, it was to do something that was meaningful for the world because they had a passion, they found something interesting and they cared about it. I mean, it could be ants or it could be math or it could be earthquakes or classical Latin literature.”
“So I think we grew up really caring about academics and caring about finding something that you’re really passionate about. I think that’s motivated me. It’s kind of funny, I don’t think I’m actually a very career-oriented person.”
Wojcicki went on to study history and literature at Harvard, and planned on getting her PhD in economics. “No one in my family had ever worked in business beforehand. So there was the expectation that I would just go into academics.”)
Everything changed, though, when she “discovered technology.”
“I realized, wow, this is really interesting,” she says. “I realized, oh, I can make things, I can sell things, I can have influence. And then when the Internet came out, you could reach people all over the world. I mean, that was just amazing.”