For the first time, two sets of siblings appear on Forbes’ annual Self-Made Women ranking. The Instagram savvy Kardashians and Silicon Valley powerhouses Anne Wojcicki, cofounder and CEO of genetic testing company 23andMe, and her oldest sister Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube .
Anne, 44, who is also the former wife of Google cofounder and billionaire Sergey Brin, makes her list debut at no. 44, just two spots below her sister, thanks to the skyrocketing value of her biotech company 23andMe, known for its at-home swab kits. Last year the company won approval for 10 genetic risk tests including one for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Celiac disease. This year, 23andMe also became the first-ever direct-to-consumer genetics company to receive FDA authorization for cancer-risk tests.
Sister Susan has been ranked among America’s top women entrepreneurs since 2015 when we first published the list. One of Google’s first employees, she urged the company to buy video site YouTube in 2006 and became its CEO in 2014. Their sister Janet, who has a PhD in medical anthropology from the U. of California Los Angeles and teaches at the U. of California San Francisco Medical Center, is no slouch either.
Given the success of all three sisters, FORBES decided to pay a visit to their mother Esther, 77, who herself has become an international figure in education and the founder of Palo Alto High School’s media program, the largest in the nation. Affectionately called “Woj” by students (including actor James Franco), Esther, who raised her ultra-successful daughters on Stanford U.’s campus where her husband Stanley worked as a respected physicist, is sought after by parents and teachers looking for advice on how to raise children. She’s even currently writing a book on the topic (expected to come out in spring 2019 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called “How to Raise Successful People”).
Many of the core principles behind Esther’s teaching pedagogy overlap with her parenting style: promoting independence and critical thinking, encouraging kids to dig into topics that truly excite them, and developing the self-sufficiency to take control of their future, both to be happy and to affect positive change in the world.
As soon as her oldest child Susan was born in Santa Clara County in 1968 (Janet and Anne were born two and five years later, respectively, in Redwood City), Esther’s first priority as a parent was to try to help her children learn as much as possible as early as possible, she told Forbes.
“I used them as an educational experiment, and my goal was to see how early I could teach them anything,” says Esther, sitting on a white couch in her family’s pristine home on Stanford’s sun-drenched campus, in the home where she and her husband have lived for about 50 years and where they raised their daughters. Esther and Stan used to take their daughters to plant nurseries when they gardened on weekends and made a point of teaching them the botanical names of flowers. “It was fun for me to teach them to swim early, read early, ride a bike, know facts about the neighborhood. You can teach kids really early.”
Esther also believed in giving her students and daughters an uncommon level of control to help them think and act more independently. When her daughters started reading, she took them to the local library every week with a laundry basket to fill with books, letting the kids gravitate to what interested them. Susan had a passion for art early on, while Janet loved math and Anne’s interests were “socializing”, along with just about every subject, Esther says.
She gradually gave her daughters more responsibility by letting them take small steps like picking their own clothes (although they nearly exclusively bought clothes at Sears on sale), and allowing them to walk to Lucille Nixon Elementary School with their family dog Truffle when they were just five-years-old. They could visit their neighborhood friends as long as they kept a 5:30 p.m. curfew to make swim practice at 6 p.m.
Esther didn’t only want her daughters to have freedom, she wanted to ensure they knew that their opinions and creativity were valued. When Susan was six years old, for example, Esther let her decorate her bedroom, down to the floor. Susan got to look through the entire flooring store and ended up selecting “hot pink shag carpet,” Esther recalls. “She loved it, and it lasted 12 years…It was the beginning of her independence.”
Esther says she saw her daughters’ entrepreneurial leanings develop early. Starting around age five or six, they each sold fruit and handicrafts around their neighborhood. Neighbors called the sisters “the lemon girls,” because they sometimes sold lemons they picked from trees on their lawn or neighbors’ yards back to their original owners, Esther says. “They would make things and sell them, little pillows. They all learned to sew.”
Personalities That ‘Stuck’
The personalities her daughters showed as children have “pretty much stuck” through their adult life, Esther says. Susan was a “nice kid from day one,” the one who was always calm, sensitive and helpful. “If there’s a difficult decision to make, talk to Susan. She thinks really clearly in all situations,” Esther says. Janet was inquisitive and the “most energetic” of the three, and prolific in languages. Anne was “miss social butterfly and, ‘Oh, I am so cute from day one,” Esther says, as well as very smart. “She could charm the pants off of anybody. Number one charmer.”
Making A Difference
Another value Esther, as well as her husband Stan, instilled in their daughters was around making a positive impact in the world.
“A lot of kids, their number one goal in life is to get more toys than someone else,” Esther says. “That is not a good goal. We all need to do something to make the world a better place.”
Esther says the time her daughters spent working overseas in college — Susan in India, Janet in South Africa and Anne in Russia and China — helped shape their drive to make a difference to society.
“It was in that travel that they realized they wanted to do something to improve the world,” Esther says.
History of Grit
Esther’s own independence and drive developed early through her upbringing by two Orthodox Jewish parents in San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County. Her parents came to the U.S. without a college education. Her father worked as an artist and a gravestone carver, while her mother stayed at home. Her family couldn’t always comfortably afford food and health care. Esther never had health insurance, and she attended the public school system.
By the time she was in seventh grade she was determined that excelling academically was key to escaping her family’s financial reality. “I said, when I become a mother, I want a better life for my children,” Esther says.
While the Silicon Valley that the Wojcickis now live in (and helped build) looks different today than it did when the three daughters grew up, Esther supported her daughters’ foray into the industry from the start. She still sees huge opportunity in the technology field for women.
“I think they’re all revolutionaries,” Esther says of her daughters, recalling how they embraced computers early, and that Susan let Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin start the search engine from Susan’s garage. “I thought it was great.”
Looking back on her career, Esther’s proudest accomplishment, aside from her journalism program at Palo Alto High School, is how her daughters grew up: “I have to congratulate them,” she says. “I never stepped in their way.”
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