Why Anne Wojcicki Believes You Should Fail Every Day

The founder and CEO of the revolutionary genetic testing service, 23andMe, talks about how she’s working to transform healthcare—and what she views as the critical component to success.

Anne Wojcicki
When her extensive access to the inner-workings of the healthcare system, as an investor on Wall Street, began to rub her the wrong way, Anne Wojcicki did what she advocates anyone do when they feel like they’re confronted with a problem of epic proportion: she determined to solve it herself.

“Once you know the information,” Anne says, “How can you sit on the sidelines and not do anything about it? The healthcare system was not one that supported my best interests as a patient—so I started to explore how I could change that.” Anne cycled through a number of different ideas, eventually landing on the desire to take advantage of the genetic revolution and provide people with easy, affordable access to their genome. Not only that, but, in tandem, also create the world’s largest genetic research community, with data provided by the individuals themselves.

Although Anne was in New York at the time, she’d been practically raised on the Stanford campus in California, surrounded by scientists—her father, included—and brought up with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Her Silicon Valley roots had given her front-row insight into how companies like Facebook and Livestrong were utilizing social engagement to build products with viral appeal. Anne applied the same filters to healthcare and asked how she could revolutionize the research world using people, for the first time, not as subjects—but as participants.

Her genetic testing company, 23andMe, was born from this vision. Using a vial of saliva you collect at home and send in through the mail, 23andMe analyzes hundreds of thousands of variations scattered throughout the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up your personal genome. As a participant, you’re offered the chance to opt in to contribute to the research by completing a survey that provides added data points about the way you lead your life.
“We don’t understand much of the genome,” Anne explains. “But if you tell me things about yourself, I can start to understand why you are the way you are.” This can be as novel as why you think cilantro tastes like soap, or as important as whether or not your future children will have an added risk of developing Cystic Fibrosis or Sickle Cell Anemia. The genetic report gathered from your DNA also gives you information about your family history and your ancestry.

“Usually there’s a hard and fast wall between researchers and the data they’re collecting and you, the participant. It’s not a two-way exchange. You never get back your information.” By involving the participants in the process, 23andMe has formed a community of people who are contributing to necessary genetic discoveries in real time. She’s also empowering each person who participates by handing them the most valuable information about themselves, in the form of their genome and what it means.

As genetic discoveries are made, and more becomes known about the human genome, the goal is to create the ability to personalize healthcare and medical treatment well beyond the current offerings. “Most academics make one discovery at a time,” Anne points out. “We’ve created an engine with the capacity to create thousands of discoveries at once.” We spoke to the inspiring scientist, entrepreneur and executive recently and asked her to opine on blazing a new trail, disrupting an industry and staying the course in the middle of a controversy.


1. Don’t do it for the accolades

We never launched looking for accolades. We knew that the existing drug development system, and the way we interact with healthcare, did not work. My approach has always been, try something new. At the time we launched, it was untested and had not been validated, but at least it was different.

2. Love what you do

Passion and curiosity are infectious and they resonate with people. I’m using what we’re doing to solve my own problems. I can relate to my customers. No one loves their healthcare as it stands today, and that’s part of what motivates us.

3. Never stop learning

As kids, my parents took my siblings and I around the world. We never ate out and we stayed in cheap places—my mom always said, “A bed is a bed. It’s for sleeping; you choose the cheapest bed.” Our life was about prioritizing experiences and learning something new. There’s no better way to learn something than to see it.

4. Keep a long-term vision

When got an FDA warning letter , it was a bump in the road; not a major deviation. It meant that what we were doing wasn’t well-communicated. We have the same mission and goals today that we did when we started. The short-term bumps don’t matter as much because we’re focused on our long-term view.

5. Fail every day

Don’t be afraid of failure. I think about people like Richard Branson, who says, “Do things in a different approach;” or Esther Dyson who, at the end of every email, closes with these words: "Fail every day." It’s imperative to look at the world differently in order to move the needle forward.

6. Encourage the next generation

I see a lot of women who have had to fight so hard to get to where they are, it’s difficult to then allocate the time to spend one-on-one mentoring the next generation, but the way that women are going to come forward and be more excited about science is if we do that reach-through and spend the time to encourage and support them.

7. Ask yourself where you’re most effective

As a mentor, understand where your contribution will have the greatest impact. I am good at inspiring people to think big, believe in themselves and recognize that we’re each good at something. I do a lot of work with start-ups and schools. I almost never say no.

8. Raise children with a love of knowledge

Kids are so naturally curious. My son learned to read and that opened up the world of books. We taught him to use the computer, and now he can use Wikipedia. My job is teaching my kids the foundations so they can pursue their curiosities. I don’t overly structure what they have to learn; I love seeing what they’re interested in. If your child is interested in dinosaurs, plan your next vacation to Montana and go on a dig. Meet someone who’s in the field, finding bones. My goal is that by the time my kids are 18, they can look at any problem and have the tools they need to solve it.