Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe says “you have to stick to things” to be successful
Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe.
Only three years after the human genome was sequenced, Anne Wojcicki co-founded 23andMe — and kickstarted the personal genomics industry in the process. Today, as CEO of the company, she is still focused on her original goal: empowering people by giving them meaningful information from their DNA.
In our conversation below, Anne discusses why collaboration rather than competition is so key in new industries, creating a work culture that supports women, and the healthcare benefits that DNA can unlock.
Xfund’s managing general partner Patrick Chung was one of 23andMe’s first venture investors. Tell us how you first became connected.
When23andMe was doing its Series A, we found out that one of the VCs we were working with had invested in a competitor. We said, “You can’t invest in both of us.” So, we were left in a situation where we were doing our round, and we had a hole. I needed somebody who was going to come in and be able to help set valuation and bring some of the VC discipline. One of the board members suggested NEA and Patrick.
So, I chatted with Patrick and gave him the pitch deck. Within 24 hours, he was like, “I’m in, and here’s the check.”
I think Patrick was ahead of the time in this way. I meet a lot of people, and you can kind of just tell, based on their passion, who will end up working out. Due diligence is necessary, but in some ways, there’s only so much you can do. You can do lots and still end up with a bad result.
Patrick heard the concept and the vision. He did his diligence, and he committed pretty rapidly. I liked him from the start. We actually negotiated to have the board seat tied to Patrick, not NEA, which I feel was one of my best moves.
What do you look for in a board member? What makes a good board director?
I’ve always felt that when you are starting, your board members are like your spouse, and there’s no divorce clause. If you have VC support, I think you should be careful about which investor from your VC is on your board.
We’ve been with Patrick now for over 15 years. It’s remarkable. We’ve gone through all kinds of iterations, and he’s helped me through them.
I love Patrick. We had it in our charter that at our board meetings, you had to do a specific genetic-based dance, and you always had to wear pink. Patrick would show up every time. He’d be like, “Here’s my pink, and I’m going to do my DNA wiggle.”
Patrick has always brought that combination of serious business acumen, perspective on the industry, and responsiveness, and he makes it fun. I can throw fun things at him, and he’ll run with it and do the DNA wiggle. He’s unlike most VCs in that capacity.
Last year, you were named among the best CEOs for women by Comparably. What are your guiding principles when it comes to supporting women at work?
One of the most important things is having representation. I remember little things from the times when I was the only woman working in a group of men. For example, you’re the only one who uses the women’s restroom. Little things like that add up, so the most important thing is representation.
Secondly, you have to be mindful of small aspects of culture. For instance, there was a time at 23andMe when we would do pizza nights. A pizza night appeals to a certain crowd, but not others. If you’re a working mom, you’re not going to stay for pizza night — you’ve got to get your kids, and you have other things to do. Plus, carbs are slightly out of favor.
So it’s important to think about the biases in the activities you’re doing, even with something as innocent as a pizza night. You have to recognize how culture impacts people differently.
23andMe pioneered the personal genomics industry. Thinking back to the mid-2000s and comparing those early days to now, what are the most significant changes?
It’s also important, in real time, to give people feedback. When I see a woman get railroaded in a meeting, I immediately try to text or Slack them and say, “You got railroaded. You should speak up now. Don’t do it after the meeting, because then it’s too late.” This real-time feedback is crucial.
You have to be aware of pay as well. One thing I’ve noticed is that women are worse at advocating for their pay. It’s the company’s responsibility to coach women and make sure they’re aware that it is okay to ask for more — that they should ask for more, because their peers are doing that.
Everything has definitely changed. When we first started, in some ways people had no idea why they would ever want their genetics. It was seen as weird.
Additionally, our competitors at that time labeled us “recreational genomics.” That was unfortunate. When a new sector is getting off, having these tiny, baby companies fighting with each other is only going to prevent adoption of the sector as a whole. For example, with Navigenics, the whole medical industry was saying, “You’re just this little dinky recreational company.” That label hurt the entire industry, and those other companies all went under. I try to remember this when I invest in companies myself.
So, in those early days, the question was, “Why do you want your genetics?” The next phase was, “Wow, ancestry is interesting!” and it kind of exploded with, “Holy cow! I can find relatives.”
I think people still don’t understand and don’t recognize the health benefits of genetic access. Largely, that’s due to our healthcare system. It’s not structured to think about prevention; it’s reactionary. In contrast, genetics help you understand your health risks and how you can modify behaviors or health practices to mitigate those risks.
What are you proudest of in your career?
Prevention’s just not part of how the system was set up, but it’s evolving. That’s part of the reason why we bought Lemonaid last year. I’m now optimistic that genetic health and genomic health can take off.
Finally, the way we collect data and do research is different from everyone else, and that was a challenging hypothesis in the early days. Back then, people wondered if crowdsourcing data was more like a fishing expedition, and they questioned whether we could get high quality data. Now, we’ve proven we can.
Honestly, I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve stuck with it. Change happens over time, so you have to stick to things, and we’ve really stuck to it throughout a lot of hardship. I sometimes feel like I’m in a pinball machine, and I’m constantly hitting obstacles, or getting banged in different ways. But we’ve slowly made progress.
We started with a pitch deck during our Series A and our mission has stayed the same. We have an ethical, social mission that is in the interest of the consumer, and we haven’t wavered from that.
What are you looking forward to in 2022, especially after your acquisition of Lemonaid?
I’m also really proud that 23andMe has created a real community. I think that by having a good culture, you build that community. We also have a lot of people who are at their first job, and you help them set that expectation of how people should be treated.
I love that I’ve worked with some people for a decade or more. Growing alongside people and watching them take on more is amazing. I’m also happy to see so many people who have left and started companies on their own — good companies with good culture. I really think there is a butterfly effect. What you do and how you treat people influences everyone else.
This year, we have all the integration work with Lemonaid. It takes a while to integrate, set up our systems, and get everything going.
In addition, our Therapeutics division just announced in early January the first in-human testing of our first wholly-owned therapeutic, the immuno-oncology antibody 23ME-00610. It’s pretty amazing that you can have this crowdsourced research that yields such meaningful insights that you can actually develop a therapeutic in human trials.
What advice do you have for founders?
So, I’m excited about the introduction of real genomic medicine and more therapeutic progress.
Frankly, I’m also excited because next year is 2023. I feel like ’23 is going to be our big launch year. I’ve been thinking about it — how can we mark that? In ’23, every day is going to be magical.
There’s nothing more exciting than creating. People always ask me about entrepreneurship, but I don’t love entrepreneurship for its own sake. I love to create — I love to solve a problem, and I love to create.
Second, I advise people in the startup mode to never to over-hype your pitch. It’s like groveling for a significant other who doesn’t really like you. It has real long-term consequences. Be honest in your pitch, because eventually it all comes out.
Finally, who your investors are matters, and you want to align yourself with the right investors. It’s like choosing a college again, because the right match makes all the difference.