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When the pandemic isolated nearly everyone at home, our fascination with forebears intensified. That was especially true after Covid-19 felled many older family members, says Deborah Liu, CEO of Ancestry.com.
“The people we lost during Covid-19 are a stark reminder of how important our family stories are, and why we should preserve their memories while we still can,’’ adds Liu, a Silicon Valley veteran who’s also the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a mother of three.
Now, as the pandemic starts to recede, Liu is looking for fresh ways to connect people with their pasts and grow a genealogy giant that has already amassed more than 30 billion digital records. Ancestry.com recently revamped its mobile app to better serve users on the move again for work and play. Meanwhile, the company is building more family-oriented collaboration tools, so subscribers can easily scan and share old photos, for example.
“We will make Ancestry not just something we do by ourselves,’’ the 45-year-old chief executive explains. “We call it ‘the me to we.’’’
Liu took command of the world’s biggest provider of digital family history records during a growth spurt that boosted its 2021 revenue 10% to $1.3 billion. She joined the company early last year, after nearly 12 years at Facebook, where she created and led Marketplace, its popular online flea market. She previously held roles at eBay and PayPal, mainly in product management. Trained as a civil engineer, Liu also holds an M.B.A. degree from Stanford.
TIME recently spoke with Liu about the revelatory risks of DNA tests, conquering her “imposter syndrome,” managing Generation Z staffers, and ways to expand the number of women in the tech industry.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What additional insights about your own family did you glean through Ancestry.com?
I started using Ancestry as I was exploring the CEO role here. Discovering new things about my family has just been an amazing journey. My brother-in-law found out that his mother is 40% Native American. There are a lot of stories to be unlocked in each of our families.
Ancestry.com’s DNA tests sometimes reveal long-hidden family secrets, such as infidelity or adoption. Special teams handle customer queries about these unexpected test results. How else will you deal with this sensitive issue and avoid the integrity problems that have confronted your former employer, Facebook?
There are a number of safeguards. As we reveal secrets, we want to make sure people are supported on their journey through their history. Special teams ensure people understand what the DNA results mean for their lives.
The customer is in control, first and foremost. We’re honoring users’ privacy and preferences. You can do this test just for yourself and not have other people connect with you. You can get results, then delete your DNA. We will continue to improve our products.
You grew up in a tiny South Carolina town that had few families of Asian origin. You got bullied relentlessly. Some hateful residents even broke windows of your family’s home. How did that mistreatment make you feel about your Chinese heritage?
I lived two very different lives in the middle of nowhere. My parents spoke only Chinese in our home. They cooked Chinese food. They prioritized things like seeing our family abroad. They brought us to Asia every four years. I was very proud to be of a different heritage. Yet at the same time, I was really torn because that part of me was something people constantly teased, taunted, and bullied me about. Being mistreated because I am Asian-American taught me internal resilience. That gave me the resilience to say, ‘I’m going to show them. I’m going to go to college on a scholarship.’ I had a lot of fight in me.
Throughout your career, you’ve often been a stranger in a strange world. Did being the only woman or only person of color in the room shape your leadership style? Did your “only” status also complicate efforts to feel like you belonged there?
Being an ‘only’ enabled me to realize that leaders need to first find commonality and alignment. We talk about diversity and inclusiveness, but without belonging, none of that hangs together. That’s really important to me. I help people find that belonging. Look at the very diverse leadership team of Ancestry. We come from very different backgrounds, but we’re serving the same purpose. Let’s focus on what we have in common: the aligned vision and customers. I then cultivate psychological safety. If you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to bring forth ideas. You have to trust each other enough to be vulnerable.
What was your biggest fear when you agreed to become Ancestry.com’s chief executive and run a company for the first time?
We all fear failure. My biggest fear was rejection, that I wasn’t the right person for this role. Stakes were high. You’re announced as CEO of a storied company with 39 years of history and an important brand. I had no idea what the company was like. I had never met anyone in person, never set foot in any of our buildings. I am used to being prepared for everything. To enter a role where I felt so unprepared was like flying without a net. Every day, I said, ‘What if I am not good at this?’
You’ve now led the company for more than a year. Do you still experience doubts about your legitimacy–in other words, the imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome used to be a hindrance. Now, it’s a tool. I say, ‘I am not going to be the best CEO. I’m going to amplify what I am good at. And I’m going to get help on the things that I’m not.’ There will never be a point in my life where I feel like I’m the expert or the best. People fail when they pretend they know everything.
A record number of companies, worldwide, went public in 2021. At one point, Ancestry.com was public. Blackstone, a major private-equity firm, presently owns a majority stake. When and why might you go public again?
We have been private for over 10 years through multiple investors. Going public is not the destination we’re shooting for. If it makes sense for the business, we would have that conversation at the right time. There’s no artificial deadline.
Won’t Blackstone decide whether to take Ancestry.com public again?
We would make the decision together. We have been successful. We have sufficient cash. There’s no pressure either way.
Worker retention is a major issue for companies these days. How should businesses inspire, retain, and manage their Generation Z staffers?
All companies need to really think about what they’re offering. It’s changing a lot. Generation Z employees want meaning in their jobs–and to see that their company’s vision is aligned with what they care about.
How do you persuade your colleagues that they serve that kind of higher purpose?
Reinforcing and repeating the message is incredibly important. People here are sometimes actually hand correcting records. It’s easy to get into the weeds. The greater mission is helping people learn more about their grandparents and the history of this country. Reminding that helps people find meaning in their jobs. Reminding yourself, ‘I’m not just creating bricks. I’m actually laying bricks. I’m actually building a cathedral.’
Do female CEOs have a moral obligation to groom a woman as their successor? If not, how else should leaders like you assist in advancing other women?
As a woman leader, I should really be helping other women in the organization who want to grow their careers by making sure they have the right skills. I also should develop women who might have parenting challenges.
Sometimes you feel like you’re failing at work or at home. I went through this, too. We have to say, ‘It’s okay to have torn feelings and doubts. But let’s work through this together.’
When I joined Ancestry.com, we announced a return to work three days a week as of September 2021. We changed the policy because people wanted more flexibility. We will have space for you if you choose to come into the office. We also allow 100% remote. The people who most appreciated the change are often moms. They were quietly suffering.
You’re an outspoken proponent of greater gender diversity. You co-founded Women In Product, a nonprofit with more than 22,000 members that advocates for their equal representation. You and your husband invested in about a dozen startups founded by women and minorities. Yet the playing field remains uneven for women in the tech industry. On average, women will represent fewer than a third of the workforces at large global technology companies this year, Deloitte Global predicts. What more should tech giants do to achieve gender parity during your lifetime?
They should really be looking at requirements that are not necessary, such as technical degrees. We’re filtering out qualified people with other degrees. A lot of those are women because of the way technical degrees have been earned over the last 20 years.
It means expanding our definition of what is possible. Let’s pull from a broader pool of people with different experiences, abilities, and backgrounds who are passionate about the work we’re doing. It does require extra work from companies to really dig deep and say, ‘Let’s open the aperture. Let’s bring in more people to talk to. They might be some of the best people we have ever had in this role.’
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