As the head of boundary-pushing genetic-testing company 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki is impacting lives and inspiring much discussion—especially now that her products have finally garnered FDA approval after previously being removed from the market. Interviewed by Lizzie O’Leary, a host of public-radio show Marketplace, the CEO talks about what keeps her pressing ahead.
Fast Company: What’s the draw to going out on your own and building a business from the ground up?
Anne Wojcicki: What I’m most excited about is this consumer-health revolution. Consumers are more and more standing up and saying they want to take control.
FC: But the motivation was internal too.
AW: I think about when we started 23andMe. When you’re solving a problem that’s for yourself, it seems very obvious and very natural. Like, I really want 23andMe for me, and I have this vision that’s just so obvious to me—for what it should look like, for how we can actually change health care.
A lot of that creativity comes from this vision of a world that I can imagine. It’s the ability to mentally enable yourself to say there could be lots of possibilities. Part of the beauty of Silicon Valley is that people generally encourage you to think crazy. It’s the hypothesis that there’s nothing sacred that can’t be changed. I always joke that when we went to get my son’s passport at the passport office, we had to wait 15 to 20 minutes, and during that time, Sergey [Brin], my ex-husband, was like, “This office infrastructure is all wrong: You can do the entire passport system a different way.” When we sat down with the agent he was like, “I have a whole new plan for you.” There’s something beautiful in that thinking. It’s almost this constant desire to optimize and think about everything in a new way. People look at the world and say, “How could you potentially imagine things in a different way?” There’s a lot of space and creativity in that community to say, “Wow, if health care sucks today, why don’t we try doing it totally different and see what could work?” That’s where I think a lot of creativity comes from.
FC: In Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of [talk about] “make a difference,” “change the world.” Does the Valley get out over its skis, particularly with regard to regulators? I feel like that’s a pretty contentious relationship. Is there circular thinking within Silicon Valley that inhibits innovation?
AW: There’s a beauty in being unrealistic. When we were all kids, did you ever really think you could start your own rocket company? It’s kind of crazy, the fact that Elon Musk has started a rocket company and a car company. It’s pretty insane. There’s something beautiful about ignoring all realistic constraints. And I do this frequently with our team. I say, “Imagine a world where there’s unlimited resources and no regulatory landscape. What would we do?” It’s really important for teams to think about that. And then, laws are meant to be changed; they’re meant to evolve and adapt to society. Look at Uber. If you just think about the world of possibilities with the existing infrastructure, you’re massively limiting yourself. I do think there’s a disconnect and Silicon Valley doesn’t necessarily understand a lot about politics and how to communicate, but I think it’s really great at imagining a world of what makes the most sense and how we can actually work to change policies. It’s really important to realize that laws are meant to evolve; they’re not meant to be fixed.
FC: I hate work-life balance questions because if you were a dude no one would care. But do you think your path as CEO is different because you are a woman?
AW: I was really raised in a gender-neutral household. I always knew I was a girl, but it never occurred to me that there was a limitation. It was clear that, yes, there are more men in certain areas than women, but to me that was always a question of time and society evolving and adapting. One of the things I think a lot about is, it’s our job to actually be here and be a role model for the next generation—show that there are women CEOs, there are women in biotech, having an alliance and being supportive and mentoring. The reality is that the only way change comes is when you lead by example. 23andMe is just now changing our paternity policy, because it is not just women who want time off. We try to be super supportive of both the men and the women [on staff]. I think it’s important as a leader to set that tone and that example. It’s changing, and we will be part of the change that is helping inspire the next generation.