“There was this sort of commiseration,” recalls Esther Wojcicki from her sunny home on the campus of Stanford University. “Like ‘oh my god, a third girl, what are you going to do?’”
“I had a close friend who called up and said ‘oh I’m so sorry,’ almost like a death,” she says.
Wojcicki grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community that valued sons more than daughters. The fact that she already had two daughters (Susan and Janet) meant that to some of her friends, Anne’s birth was a disappointment.
Not to Esther. “I said to myself: Just you wait. I’ll show you.”
That would be an understatement. You could call the Wojcicki sisters the female version of the Emanuel brothers, without all the controversy and aggression. Susan Wojcicki is the CEO of Youtube (Google was invented in her garage,) Janet Wojcicki is a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at UCSF, and baby Anne grew up to become co-founder and CEO of genetics company 23andMe. When they get together for breakfast at their childhood home, they joke about how Esther had zero reverence for standards of “appropriate” behavior.
“We’d eat at Sizzler and my mom would be like ‘there’s only three people here, there’s not five,’” recalls Anne, noting that the other two sisters would be hiding in the bathroom, ready to take their turn at the all-you-can-eat buffet. “We had no shame in being kicked out of a restaurant.”
Esther Hochman was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, raised by extremely observant Jews (both of her grandfathers were rabbis) who had emigrated from Ukraine and Siberia. Her childhood was defined by a tragedy: the death of her baby brother David when she was 10 years old. David, just 18 months old, was playing with a bottle of aspirin and accidentally swallowed a handful of pills. Esther’s mother called a doctor, who told her to put David to bed. After a few hours, David became violently ill. The family took him to four hospitals, but no hospital would admit him because the family did not have proof of payment (in those days, hospitals were allowed to turn away patients who could not pay.) David died, and Esther lost all respect for authority.
She decided that her immigrant family’s deference to doctors and hospitals had kept them from getting help, a mistake she promised herself she would never make. “My mother was afraid to ask questions, so I decided I was gonna be just the opposite,” she says. “I was going to ask every tough question there was, and I wasn’t gonna let people get away with it just because they had a fancy title.”
Her daughters learned that lesson well. “People always say ‘How do you think big? How do you think about crazy ideas?’ and to me it was just that you question a lot of the biggest assumptions,” says Anne. “I don’t think we were ever intimidated by anyone. I never remember Mom or Dad being like ‘Oh, you’re going to meet so-and-so and they’re SO important.’”