Master Class

How Anne and Susan Wojcicki's parents raised the founder of 23andMe and the CEO of YouTube

Here's what it was like growing up in the family that raised two of the most successful women in Silicon Valley

Anne Wojcicki, 44, is co-founder and CEO of direct-to-consumer genetics testing company 23andMe, which has raised almost $500 million in funding since being launched in 2006 and is valued at $1.8 billion. One of her sisters, Susan Wojcicki, 49, is the CEO of YouTube and previously was a senior vice president at Google. And another sister, Janet Wojcicki, 48, is both an anthropologist and an epidemiologist with a Ph.D. and a master's in public health and is an assistant professor at the University of California in San Francisco and a Fulbright scholar.

That's a power-packed trio of sisterhood. So what was it like growing up in the Wojcicki household?

"My parents gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of independence," Anne Wojcicki tells CNBC Make It. "There was a lot of independence. ... We had freedom to go around the neighborhood, we had freedom to make decisions."

It was that sense of independence that inspired Anne to launch 23andMe, what she saw as a radically different approach to the health-care industry. "I wanted to have a company that was, frankly, somewhat rebellious and was going to inspire people to try to really be healthier," Wojcicki told Y Combinator's Sam Altman in April.

Growing up Wojcicki

The Wojcickis' father, Stanley, fled Poland when he was 12 in 1949 when the Communists took over the country, and their mother, Esther, was born to a family of poor Orthodox Russian Jews who moved immigrated to New York in the 1920s, according to a 2017 New York Times profile of Anne Wojcicki.

Susan was born in Santa Clara, California, and Janet and Anne were born in Palo Alto. When the Wojcicki sisters were kids, in Silicon Valley, Stanley was chairman of the physics department at Stanford University. (He's now professor of physics emeritus. Esther is a celebrated and beloved journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School.) The girls grew up on the university's campus.

The Wojcicki family: Janet, Anne and Susan in front (L to R). Esther and Stanley in the back.
Photo courtesy Anne Wojcicki

"My parents really looked at us always as like mini adults," Anne Wojcicki tells CNBC Make It. "I think the one thing that my parents really did is they gave us a taste of freedom. And they encouraged it. They encouraged us to find our passions, they weren't controlling," she says.

"We were just very supported, but we were really encouraged to, you know, be creative and to be independent."

The Wojcicki sisters: Anne, Susan and Janet (L to R).
Photo courtesy Anne Wojcicki

Starting from a young age, Anne Wojcicki developed that fierce independence.

"Figure skating was an example of independence for me," Wojcicki explains to CNBC Make It. "So my parents hate my ice skating past. They really did not … they thought I should play tennis, they thought I should do something else. They did not like that I was a figure skater, so my parents told me, 'If you want to skate, you pay for it yourself.'"

So Wojcicki won fundraising competitions every year to get her skates and she exchanged babysitting for lessons.

"In some ways, it was the first example of me being stubborn where I said like, 'I know that you don't want me to do this. You want me to do tennis, and I'm not going to. I'm going to skate, and I'm going to figure out my own way to do it whether you support me or not,'" she says.

The Wojcicki sisters' parents also expected them to go to college, work hard and contribute to society, Anne Wojcicki says.

"My parents were really clear like you should do something that's meaningful in the world. And I look at the Stanford campus community and the people I grew up with were people who did things that were meaningful. They weren't necessarily financially successful, but they were contributing to society in some way — and so there was always that sense ... you should contribute, you should give back. ... your children should look at you and be proud," Wojcicki says.

"I felt pressure that I knew I had to go to college. I knew that my parents would be disappointed if I didn't put in my best," says Wojcicki. "But I never felt pressure that like, 'oh, you have to go to Yale or you have to go and do something amazing."'

Finding success

Anne Wojcicki launched 23andMe in 2006 and since then, the founder has had to lean into resilience she learned from her mom, in particular, she says. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled the spit-DNA kits 23andMe was offering were not "analytically or clinically validated." The same year, she separated from the father of her children, now ex-husband Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (now a subsidiary of the parent company, Alphabet).

"It was a bad year," Wojicki told the Times.

"My mom is utterly the believer, like she can get anything done," she told the Times. "She had a real fighter mentality growing up, and I feel that was how we were raised. We're all super-comfortable in controversy. 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.'"

Starting in 2015, 23andMe sold "carrier status" reports for 36 diseases that would inform a potential parent if they have a risk of passing certain conditions along to their children. And as of April 2017, 23andMe received FDA approval for a $199 test to allow patients to find out of they have a genetic risk for a selection of diseases, including Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Currently, for $99, a customer can receive information about their ancestry and where their relatives lived around the world, too.

Esther, Susan, Stanley, Anne and Janet Wojcicki (L to R).
Photo courtesy Anne Wojcicki

Full circle

Now Anne Wojcicki has two young kids of her own (born in 2008 and 2011), and she draws upon her upbringing to raise them.

"You know, I look back now, as a mother. I think about the amount of freedom that we [sisters] had and you know, I'm impressed," Anne Wojcicki tells CNBC Make It of her mom and dad's parenting.

Wojcicki wants to give her kids some of that. "I want my kids to have passions," she tells CNBC Make It. "I model a lot of what my parents taught me — and that was independence. And I think the reality is a level of normalcy comes when you are, you're independent, and you're not given everything you want."

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