With…Anne Wojcicki: The Doyenne of DNA Says: Just Chillax With Your Ex

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With…Anne Wojcicki: The Doyenne of DNA Says: Just Chillax With Your Ex

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — In 2007, Anne Wojcicki, then 33, lassoed the moon.

She was getting her new company, 23andMe, a mail-order genetics testing firm, off the ground with her “Party ’til you spit” celebrity get-togethers.

She married Sergey Brin, the cute co-founder of Google, also 33 and already one of the richest men in America, at a top-secret Esther Williams extravaganza in the Bahamas. The bride in a white bathing suit and the groom in a black one, they swam to a sandbar in the Bahamas and got hitched in the middle of the sparkling aquamarine ocean.

Soon after the marriage, as Mr. Brin accumulated more power, a yacht, and a fleet of jets, Ms. Wojcicki became pregnant with the first of their two children and Google invested millions in her start-up, named after the 23 paired chromosomes that consist of our DNA.

But six years later, the Silicon Valley fairy tale was shattered by two public humiliations: Mr. Brin got involved with a beautiful young Englishwoman named Amanda Rosenberg, who provided a public face for Google Glass — an attachment that broke up his marriage. And the Food and Drug Administration shut down the primary function of Ms. Wojcicki’s business, calling her D.N.A. spit vial “an unapproved medical device” and imposing stricter rules for consumer genetic testing. Her business, once so ripe with promise to tackle health issues, was curtailed to its ancestry testing division.

And here is where genetics saved the genetics entrepreneur. Her father, Stanley, fled Poland in 1949 when he was 12 with his mother when the Communists took over. Her mother, Esther, was the daughter of impoverished Orthodox Russian Jews who immigrated to New York in the ’20s.

The Wojcickis grew into Silicon Valley royalty. It’s the sort of family, Anne jokes, where “you’re only a viable fetus once you have your Ph.D.” Stanley is the former chairman of the Stanford physics department and an emeritus professor. Esther, whose family just wanted her to marry a nice Jewish man and have children, became valedictorian of her high school and got a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. She is a journalism teacher so beloved at Palo Alto High School that her former student James Franco made a video paean to her.

Besides Anne, there are two older daughters, Susan, who was Google employee No. 18 and is now the C.E.O. of YouTube, and Janet, an epidemiologist, medical anthropologist, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and a Fulbright scholar.

“My mom is utterly the believer, like she can get anything done,” says Anne Wojcicki, also known as Baby Woj, now 44. “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.’ Her little brother died when she was little. You don’t let a bad experience hold you back, otherwise you spend the rest of your life ruined by that experience. So it doesn’t matter what happened today. Make it better tomorrow.”

Ms. Wojcicki used that philosophy to claw her way out of her dark hole.

“It was a bad year,” she says, sitting in her small glass office in her “uniform” of Lululemon shorts and shirt and “company-issued” jacket. She laughs ruefully. “I’m pretty optimistic. But we’d occasionally sit around and be like, ‘Wow, it’s really, it’s been really bad.’ Some of my friends and I bought these baseball hats that have these little unicorns attached to them. That was kind of our ‘We’re going to wear these hats and just kind of believe in the potential of what can come.’” Funnily enough, she grasped at the magical creature as a symbol of hope before it caught on as a popular Silicon Valley term for a billion-dollar start-up, which 23AndMe became in 2015.

“In some ways, when you have that many bad things happen, it’s a sense of disbelief,” she says. “This was one of those situations where there’s two aspects. A divorce and the F.D.A. There was no workaround in either. So it was one of the first times in my life where you have to accept, you have to actually change. Like, I need to come up with a different way of approaching both of these relationships.”

Mr. Brin is fortunate that Ms. Wojcicki is not the vengeful type. Once they learned, from his spit test, that he has a rare genetic mutation that increases the risk for Parkinson’s disease, she bought the patent on a gene variant that could protect people who have that Parkinson’s-related mutation.

As Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in Vanity Fair, the love triangle that ended Ms. Wojcicki’s marriage was analyzed in different ways in Silicon Valley. To some, “it’s about the danger inherent in data sets, when the data includes too much information about one’s mortality. If Brin had never learned about his Parkinson’s risk, he might never have had what a friend of the couple’s characterizes as an emotional crisis and strayed from his wife. (But had Wojcicki not helped him discover his risk for contracting the disease, he might not have enacted the healthy lifestyle choices that may prolong his life.)”

Ms. Wojcicki says that after the separation, she felt like she had entered another dimension, comparing it to stepping through Harry Potter’s Platform 9¾. “It’s a crazy world and you never knew it existed until you enter it,” she says. She tried reading a book about divorce but stopped when she got to a story of a divorced man whose ex-wife came over and chopped up his new girlfriend’s underwear.

“I was like, ‘I never want to be one of those people,’” she says. “I never want to be angry. For me, it’s a lot of work. I can be angry for 24 hours and then I’m just like, ‘Well, let’s just be friends.’”

It is a sentiment echoed by her mother.

“My theory is that you’re only hurting yourself when you’re angry and revengeful,” Esther Wojcicki says. “I was mad at Sergey for what he did. But I don’t carry grudges. He’s the father of my grandchildren. He was not such a good dad when the kids were babies. But he’s a very good dad now. He made his own life difficult, unfortunately. I can still be civil to him. Why not? What’s in it for me being nasty?”

Anne Wojcicki, who saw so much “Wolf of Wall Street” behavior and had so many “We’ll talk about it after the lap dance” conversations when she was a Wall Street biotech analyst for a decade that she thought she might never want to get married, still speaks fondly of her oddball courtship with Mr. Brin. He would leave her voice mail messages in Morse code or notes about where to meet him in Braille.

“And I’d be like, ‘Ugh, can’t you just tell me where to go?’” she recalls. “But it was fun. I feel like you need to balance each other in relationships. Somebody can be totally insane, and then somebody has to buy food and pay rent.”

She says their swimsuit wedding “was fun because I’m not a hair-and-makeup person. And so I was like, ‘Look, there’s no hair and makeup because I’m swimming.’”

She lights up when she reminisces about “the beauty and fun of hanging out” with “the little team” of Mr. Brin and his Google co-founder, Larry Page.

“They genuinely see the world in a different way, and that’s what’s fun,” she says. “Like, the sky is not blue. It’s some other shade.”

As an example, she describes the time she and Mr. Brin had to take their children to the passport office. After 10 minutes in line, Mr. Brin was able to give the teller a redesign for the office for better traffic flow.

‘What’s an A-Rod?’

Ms. Wojcicki has a big house near Mr. Brin’s big house in Los Altos — where she also owns a children’s cafe and an arcade — and they see a lot of each other. “For me, it doesn’t matter if we’re married or not,” she says. “We have children.”

Like others in Silicon Valley obsessed with living forever, she takes the long view: “If we’re going to live to 150 years, the reality that you’re going to be with one person for 100 years is low. And so you have to find a way that we can have relationships with people and preserve what’s positive.”

She says she wants to be a model for how to deal with controversy and disappointment to her son and daughter.

“I get really sad when I meet people who have conflict in their family,” she says. “Like people who hate their parents or don’t like a sibling or have an acrimonious divorce. Life is just too short.”

One of the friends who helped her through that period was Ivanka Trump, though their relationship has grown more complicated.

“She was super-supportive when I got divorced and had all kinds of issues,” says Ms. Wojcicki, who was a big Hillary Clinton booster. “Do I agree with all the things that are happening politically? No. But as a person, the way she treated me, I have a lot of respect for that. And I consider her a friend.”

Two years ago, through friends, Ms. Wojcicki met a strapping man who represented every woman’s dream of how you one-up an ex, especially a Silicon Valley nerd.

“Do you know anything about baseball?” Ms. Wojcicki asked her friend Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer.

“I know how many innings there are, which is more than you know,” he replied.

“I think I’m starting to date a baseball player,” she said. Mr. Specter assumed she meant a lawyer who played baseball on the weekends.

“His name is Alex Rodriguez,” she said. “I think he plays for the Yankees.”

Mr. Specter explained to the woman who had never attended a professional baseball game that her new suitor was one of the 10 best baseball players who ever lived.

“When I started dating Alex,” Ms. Wojcicki says, “my mom was like, ‘What’s an A-Rod?’ I was like, ‘Mom, that’s his name.’”

Being a math wiz, Ms. Wojcicki proceeded to learn every stat. When Mr. Rodriguez saw her watching a YouTube show called “Physics Girl” and asked her what it was, she told him, “It’s like the YES Network but for physics.”

The two enjoyed their cultural-collision romance, once Ms. Wojcicki installed TV sets in her house so A-Rod could watch baseball.

“I didn’t realize that you need special channels to watch sports games,” she says. “Alex is a really sweet guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a good person. Alex lives in this world of cash-flow businesses, and Silicon Valley lives in this world of the potential of the future. So it was actually kind of a really fun conversation. Alex was really into car dealerships, and I was like, ‘We’re all about self-driving cars. Nobody’s going to buy a car. You want to buy a car dealership? I’m going to short your car dealership.’”

At the Met Ball in 2016, in a move described by Vanity Fair as “head-spinningly civilized,” the couple arrived in the same car as Mr. Brin and the woman he is now living with, Nicole Shanahan, the founder and C.E.O. of ClearAccessIP.

Ms. Wojcicki was carrying a specially designed clutch made from gene chips, the same ones her company runs DNA saliva samples on.

Eventually different coasts and parenting obligations pulled her and Mr. Rodriguez apart.

“I liked A-Rod, he was a very nice man,” Esther Wojcicki told me. “He came from a Hispanic family. We liked them, they were very sweet. He seemed to be genuinely in love with Anne. But I right away figured out this was a mismatch. He had no academic background. We couldn’t have an intellectual conversation about anything. His main interest in life was something that none of us had ever focused on, which was baseball. He could park himself in front of a TV and watch baseball for 10 hours a day. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go on the yacht with Anne because the TV might not be working. I wish J-Lo all the luck in the world.

“We couldn’t go anywhere with him. If we went to Target to look for clothes for the kids, all of a sudden we’d be looking around and people would be saying, ‘We just want a selfie with A-Rod.’ He can’t walk across Central Park. He has to take a cab. That will work better with J-Lo because she’s like, ‘Take a picture of me anytime.’” (The evidence can be seen on the current cover of Vanity Fair, in which an entwined J-Rod gaze longingly into Mario Testino’s lens, and in an inside spread with him pulling up her dress to reveal a crystal-encrusted Tom Ford thong.)

Mr. Specter teases Ms. Wojcicki: “You’ll be the answer to an S.A.T. question: ‘Which woman who dated Alex Rodriguez is not like the others? Kate Hudson, Madonna, J-Lo or Anne Wojcicki.’”

Ms. Wojcicki admits that next time, “I’d really love to date someone who’s really simple and not famous. My life is already pretty complicated.”

Laundry on Fridays

Her mother raised the Wojcicki girls to be skeptical of anything too flashy or polished and to remember that it’s just as easy to wear a jacket in the house as it is to turn up the heat.

Even now that she owns a billion-dollar company, Ms. Wojcicki remains frugal and says repeatedly that she does not like “froufrou things.”

“Fancy cars and houses and the right dress,” she says dismissively. “It’s not a top priority. This is why I’m lucky to have Susan.”

Of her sister, she says, “Susan went to the Oscars with me last year and literally at 4 o’clock in the afternoon — you’re supposed to be ready at 5 — she’s like, ‘I’m in Macy’s. I found a dress on sale.’ And I’m like, ‘Susan, you kill me.’”

She still rides her bike to work every day — even in the rain — shops at Payless shoes (but also sometimes indulges in Louboutin) and cuts her children’s hair herself.

“That’s actually kind of a disagreement between me and Sergey,” she says. “He doesn’t think I do a very good job. And my poor son is very sweet, so he’ll be like, ‘No, Mommy, I love it.’”

She makes an effort to keep her children’s lives from slipping into the “insanity” of megawealth.

“I have people who clean the house three days a week,” she says. “And I just told them to stop doing laundry on Fridays because my kids need to learn how to do laundry on Fridays. It’s so easy to be like, ‘I don’t have to do laundry again. I don’t have to cook again.’ But then you’re not normal. I have a new rule lately. I just don’t go out on weekdays. If I’m raising kids, I need to be focused on helping implement that normalcy.”

Sometimes she lets them wear their clothes to bed because it saves time in the morning. “The other thing I used to do, when we’d travel in the summers, because I don’t like to pack a lot,” she says, “and so I’d have the kids bathe in their clothes and then they change into something else. And then their clothes are clean for the next day. Versus the hotel laundry, which is so expensive.”

She’s focused for now on her children, her new Bengal cats and her company, which has more than three million customers and its own drug-development program. It started selling kits in CVS and Target, got the F.D.A.’s permission to resume giving consumers health reports on 10 conditions, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and the $99 ancestry kit won a spot as one of “Oprah’s favorite things” this year, with Oprah calling it “The Ultimate Selfie.” Fast Company portrayed Ms. Wojcicki as the Comeback Kid of tech.

She realized that she had a treasure trove of DNA data and began teaming with Genentech and Procter & Gamble, which started mining it to make breakthroughs in Parkinson’s, depression and skin care.

In many ways, her struggle with the F.D.A. was a microcosm of the increasingly tense battle between hidebound regulatory agencies and freewheeling tech companies.

Although some people thought Ms. Wojcicki would have to sell her company, she healed the breach with the F.D.A. the same way she healed the breach with Mr. Brin. She did not huff away and seethe and backbite. She “put one foot ahead of the other,” as her mother advises, hired the best regulatory experts and found a respectful new configuration for the relationship.

“We were not communicating in the right way,” she says of the period the F.D.A. felt it was being ignored. “We were not showing Silicon Valley arrogance. We just were running around with our shoes on in a Japanese house. We were not a cultural fit and we weren’t expressing what we were trying to do in the right way.

“Some companies are trying to circumvent the regulators. We weren’t. We just got caught in the cross hairs. We clearly pissed them off. It took us a long time to generate a lot of data to prove that our intentions actually were right. But I feel like we’re doing the right thing in terms of proving that the customer is capable of getting this information on their own.

“I see it from the F.D.A. perspective. It’s a new product. It’s genetics. It’s direct to consumer. It caused anxiety. So, you know, the onus was on us.”

She had to explain to her team: “Listen, when you go to the D.M.V., you don’t argue about the vision test. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I just had a vision test. I don’t need to do the vision test.’ Like, you just do it. The F.D.A. is in charge of public safety, and I have a respect for the job that they have to do. And we’re just going to do the job that they’re asking us to do.”

I ask her if Harvey Weinstein, an early investor, is still involved.

“Once an investor, always an investor. It’s like ‘Hotel California,’” she says. “He has always been supportive of the company and of me, but he clearly has behavior that you can’t possibly condone. You recognize that people can have two different worlds. So it’s disappointing.”

She said that her best mentors have been Arianna Huffington and Diane von Furstenberg. “They are the two people who are just like, ‘I want to support women. I want to support you doing awesome things. I believe in you. You can do it.’”

I tell her that I am too scared to take her spit test. I don’t want to know if my father wasn’t my father, or if I’m German and not Irish, or if the future holds some hideous disease.

“Genetics is like your cholesterol test,” she says. “So your cholesterol test is going to tell you if you have high cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. But it’s not saying you’re going to die immediately from heart disease or even die at all from heart disease. It’s just saying you have a risk factor. And so genetics is similar. It’s saying you have a risk factor. So the beauty to me of genetics is, it’s always a story of hope.”

RELATED: Maureen Dowd plays Confirm or Deny with Anne Wojcicki.

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