Silicon Valley has a problem with women. There aren’t enough of them.
Despite more women than ever earning college degrees and entering the workforce, just 26% of computing operations jobs in the U.S. get filled by women. In most of Europe, Asia, and Africa, those numbers look even more dismal. Social scientists, economists, and tech gurus alike wonder why.
Is it the “pinkification” of girls — the idea that girls are introduced to gender-specific roles at an early age? Is it the insider network culture of technology firms? Do many women just not enjoy STEM fields? Do they find working in these fields incompatible with other life goals?
Experts are still learning what will help rectify the gender imbalance in global technology firms. But one woman is already serving as a female powerhouse in Silicon Valley, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. Not only does Wojcicki serve as the head of the world’s second-largest search engine, but she also earned two business-related master’s degrees before climbing her way to the top through the male-dominated corporate jungles of Intel, Bain, and Google. Recently, Forbes ranked Susan seventh on its “Power Women” list and estimates her net worth at $480 million.
How does this one woman compete in the modern technology universe? What does it take to thrive as a female in Silicon Valley? And what can men and women entrepreneurs alike learn from Susan Wojcicki’s astounding success.
The Story Began Before Wojcicki Was Even Born
Susan’s grandfather Wojcicki was a towering political figure in post-war Poland, often targeted by the Communist leadership for his independent views. Eventually, his political activities plunged his family into danger. So in 1949, Susan’s grandmother, uncle, and father Stanley — then just 11 years old — boarded the S.S. Viking and sailed away from their native Poland. Since the ship held only enough space to cloister three refugees, Susan’s grandfather remained behind.
For 48 hours, the family of three kept absolute silence to avoid detection. Finally, after days on the open sea, the ship docked in Stockholm, and eventually, the little group made its way to the U.S. In 1952, Congress passed a bill that granted the Wojcicki’s permanent residence, and President Harry Truman signed it into law.
Grandfather Wojcicki died in Poland in 1983. Grandmother Janina Wojcicki served at the Library of Congress, where she built the largest collection of Polish material in the United States. She also raised the couple’s two sons, sending them to a Franciscan boarding school in New York. Susan’s father Stanley excelled at maths, graduated from Harvard, and then earned a Ph.D. in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He married Esther Hochman, a prominent educator and technologist.
Together, Stanley and Esther raised their three daughters — Anne, Janet, and Susan. Each of them has achieved global recognition in their professional fields.
Coming of Age in California
Raising children like the Wojcicki girls doesn’t come about by happenstance. Esther Wojcicki encouraged her daughters’ creativity, independence, and entrepreneurial leanings from an early age. By the time she was five years old, Susan had sold handicrafts and fruit around the neighborhood. Sometimes, she would pick lemons from the neighbors’ backyards and then sell them back to the original owners at their front doors.
The Wojcicki’s also instilled a deep passion for the world in their girls. Susan spent time working as a volunteer in India during college, and her sisters volunteered in South Africa and Russia.
Esther says that from the earliest days, Susan was a nice person, helpful, stable, and calm. With her parents encouragement, Susan wasn’t afraid to try a variety of activities. Her mother believed it was important for her daughters to be passionate, to fail, to lose, and to have a purpose. Esther later said her goal was “creating self-responsible people in a self-responsible world.”
Given that two daughters grew up to be CEOs of major companies and the other to be a professor of pediatrics, Esther Wojcicki’s methods seemed to work. Susan thrived after she left home for Harvard.
Getting Educated for the Roles
Although Susan’s Dad served as a professor of physics at Stanford University in California, Susan herself picked an Ivy League school on the East Coast to further her education. Not a STEM girl then, Susan opted to major in the liberal arts, ultimately earning her bachelor’s degree in history and literature. She expected to complete a master’s and a Ph.D. in a related field and spend her adulthood in academia, poring over heavy texts and teaching undergraduates.
A course in her senior year changed the direction of her life, however. The previous summer, Susan had worked at a tech startup near her home in southern California, which sparked her interest in the field. So she enrolled in her first computer science course that fall.
She later told the 2014 graduating class at Johns Hopkins, “Plans are made to be broken. You need to be prepared to explore a bit, to make decisions on what you find, enjoy, discover. I never would have discovered that technology could be creative. I never would have started my career in tech, joined Google, led YouTube, if I had tried to stick to a specific plan that I had made when I was your age.”
The Garage Days with Larry Page and Sergey Brin
After graduating from Harvard, Susan headed back home to California. She first earned her master’s in economics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and followed that with a Master of Business Administration from the UCLA Anderson School of Management in 1998. That same year, she married Dennis Troper who now serves as Director of Product Management at Google. Susan herself went to work at Intel. The couple bought a house and shortly thereafter, Susan got pregnant with her first child.
Hoping for a little help with the mortgage and the expenses around coming little one, Dennis and Susan decided to rent out their garage. A friend introduced them to a couple of Stanford guys who needed space to keep working on a little internet thing, a search engine. And that’s how Susan got to know Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in what they were doing as long as they remembered to take out the recycling and pay the rent,” Susan later told an interviewer. “But, over time, I got to know them more and began using their search engine, Google. My ‘eureka moment’ came one day when I was at work. I went to search for something on Google, but the site was down. I realized in that moment that I had become completely reliant on Google.”
In just a few months, Page and Brin signed Susan on as their 16th employee at what was then still a small business.
The Early Days at Google
Susan became Google’s first marketing manager. Her previous experience in marketing at Intel and Bain & Co had prepared her well for the job, which was fortunate because what she took on at Google wasn’t easy. In those days, Google was by no means the internet giant it is now. Yahoo! was the long-reigning king of the search engine space.
Google was just a couple of geeks with a rented garage, a few investors, and a fat chance of success. But after her upbringing under Esther, Susan wasn’t afraid of failure.
For their parts, Page and Brin were still contemplating the right future for their company. Around that same time as they hired Susan, the two founders had the opportunity to take a $1 million buyout from Excite! They turned it down, which was surprising considering that the two had been begging for a buyer at that price for nearly two years.
Both Page and Brin were ready to get back into their first love of academia. But something about Google just wouldn’t let them go. Before long, the two men had pulled together a smattering of employees, a real office, Yoshka the dog, and $25 million in venture capital. They also had Susan Wojcicki to sell it all to the public.
Hatching Great Ideas
Susan developed unique and effective marketing ideas. Love the Google Doodle? You can thank Susan for that. Google images fan? Susan was part of that, too. Google Books? Again, Susan took part in that initiative. Her original idea for the Google Doodle was just to liven up the logo for holidays and special events. Over time, it morphed into the Google Doodle people know and love today.
Susan also suggested the product that eventually came to be known as AdSense. She just thought it made sense that Google spread its ads beyond search. Turns out, Susan was right. By 2017, AdSense boasted 11 million users and was making Google $95 billion a year. One of Susan’s biggest projects was Google’s first video service. It wasn’t quite as successful as some of her other ideas, though. The problem was a small-time competitor that was making it big — YouTube.
Transitioning to YouTube
YouTube began in 2005 when three PayPal employees thought it would be a good idea to have a single video-sharing platform. With $11.5 million in startup capital from Sequoia Finance, the three co-founders launched their product in December of that year. Right away, YouTube proved a thorn in the side for Google’s video service. In the fashion of all classic business stories, Google’s leaders knew they had to beat YouTube or acquire it.
So less than one year after its launch, YouTube’s founders sold their company for $1.65 billion to Google. The platform began to grow. In 2009, YouTube registered one billion hits a day. By 2011, that number had jumped to 3 billion and then to 5 billion in 2012. In 2014, Susan stepped into her new role as the CEO of YouTube.
The first 12 months at YouTube proved to be a busy time for Susan. She gave birth to her fifth child, for one thing. But she also attracted more attention than ever for her leadership roles and technology knowledge. AdSense said she was “the most important person in advertising.” TIME called her “the most powerful woman on the Internet” And she ranked as one of the magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015.
But not everything was coming up roses for Susan. YouTube faced legal challenges over copyright violations. Facebook was poaching its best and brightest talent. And content creators said YouTube’s pricing model wasn’t even covering their costs. Those barriers didn’t stop Susan. She hadn’t clambered her way to the top of a male-dominated field to fail. Instead, she was ready to take leadership.
Leading from the Top
The job hasn’t been easy for Susan, but for more than five years, she’s piloted YouTube through choppy waters. The video-sharing powerhouse has faced down upset regulators, circling social critics, unhappy creators, and irritated users to become the world’s second largest search engine.
YouTube now claims more than two billion logged-in users a month who watch an average of one billion hours of video every day. YouTube supports 100 local versions in more than 80 languages around the world. The company’s percentage of female employees has grown from 24% to 30% on Susan’s watch.
Susan has also overseen the development of many new products, including a gaming platform that welcomes 200 million users a day. Plus, she has introduced a subscription service, called YouTube Premium, and a television service, YouTube TV.
Under Susan’s leadership, YouTube has cracked down on hate speech and emphasized its educational content. At the same time, it’s outpaced Facebook to become the most popular social network for teens. Perhaps that’s in part due to Susan’s strong belief in motherhood and family.
Outspokenly Supporting Motherhood and Refugee Issues
In addition to her accomplishments as a leader and technology innovator, Susan has also made a name for herself as an advocate for mothers and refugees. She helped get 18 weeks of paid maternity leave instituted at Google, which reduced new mother attrition by 50%. The shortly after assuming her post at YouTube, Susan wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal saying, “Support for motherhood shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be a matter of course.”
She has also spoken out about the need to make technology fields more inclusive of women and girls and used her personal platform to advocate for refugees, especially those attempting to come to the U.S. from Syria. From atop the world’s leading technology companies, Susan is advocating for the issues close to her heart.
Susan Wojcicki is leading one of Silicon Valley’s largest and most successful technology enterprises in history. Her story shows the importance of family, courage, flexibility, initiative, and hard work. But it also shows the value that a gender-diverse workforce brings to companies that embrace women, not only as employees but as leaders.
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