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‘Everyone Has the Potential to Learn the Type of Science That We Are Teaching’

The CEO of the genetics-testing unicorn 23andMe on personal setbacks, regulatory rebukes, and those pesky A-Rod rumors. 

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Anne Wojcicki
Job: CEO and cofounder of 23andMe
Age: 42
Residence: Los Altos

In fall 2013, this magazine’s website ran an item about you with the headline “Anne Wojcicki Is Having a Terrible Last Few Months.” Your marriage to Sergey Brin had fallen apart, and you had received a threatening letter from the FDA. Was our headline accurate?
The FDA warning letter wasn’t fun. My divorce wasn’t fun. It was hard to focus. The hardest time was when people were like, “Why don’t you come to dinner?” and you’re like, “Well, because we are secretly divorcing.” [Laughs.] But I’ve always been a very optimistic person, and I find it exhausting to be angry or upset.

The FDA letter was a flash point in the ongoing culture war between Silicon Valley disrupters and Washington regulators. Did you realize, as it was happening, how symbolic it was?
There’s clearly a lack of communication between D.C. and the Valley, and we are without a doubt the poster child of that. But it’s fun to hear people debate why we got our warning letter—it wasn’t hubris. We thought we were working with them in the right way, and we just didn’t know.

What advice would you give the next generation of entrepreneurs—or, for that matter, Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos—about dealing with the feds?
One of the most important things is recognizing that the regulatory world is a different culture, and that you need to understand what their needs and concerns are. These are all talented people who could get jobs doing other things. They’re there in the name of public safety, and so our job, as the innovators, is to help them do their job better.

You’ve said in the past that one of the core beliefs of 23andMe is that “everyone can be a scientist.” How can that be true?
I have an unreasonably optimistic view of the world. I genuinely believe that everyone has the potential to learn the type of science that we are teaching. Some people are going to learn it to a much greater degree than others, but I think that people can understand basic concepts. I believe people can understand risk. I think part of the appeal of 23andMe is that we teach people about themselves.

What has your genetic profile informed you about yourself?
I am at higher risk for breast cancer, and so I stopped drinking alcohol. You should know how to take care of yourself. That’s one of the things that I got from my mother most—she always said that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one will. So now when I meet my friends, I’m like, “How do you not know what your white blood cell count is? How do you not know when you had your last blood test?” 

Do you think that innovations that come out of your company will prolong your own life?
I’ve never once thought about it as being specifically for me. I think about 23andMe as a platform that will help people broadly. 23andMe can do things that no other pharma company or the NIH can do, and that is long-term research and prevention. No one else can really do diet studies like we can.

You are a significant business and property owner in Los Altos. What is your craziest dream for your town?
I want real community. I want some kind of a combination of the dorm and the kibbutz. Does every single person need to have a pool? Does everyone need to have a car? I hope that Los Altos is one of the first cities to have self-driving cars, and if that’s true, well, awesome, because there’s a lot of parking lots that we could get rid of and use for parks. That would be amazing!

I have to ask this because everyone wants to know it: Is it true you are dating Alex Rodriguez?
[Laughs long and hard.] It’s really amazing how much press that lunch generated! Yeah, we’ve become good friends.

 

This interview was originally conducted for the May/June 2016 issue of San Francisco’s sister publication, Silicon Valley.

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