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The fascination we had with our forebears increased when nearly everyone was displaced by the pandemic. Deborah Liu (CEO of Ancestry.com), says this: “Covid-19 was a devastating event that claimed many elderly family members.”
“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.
Liu now seeks new methods to link people with their pasts as the epidemic begins to ease. He also wants to build a global genealogy empire that boasts more than 30,000,000 digital records. Ancestry.com has recently redesigned its mobile app in order to make it easier for users who are on the go, whether they’re traveling for work or pleasure. The company is also working on family-oriented collaboration tools that allow subscribers to scan and share photos from the past.
“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. Following nearly 12 years working at Facebook Marketplace (a popular online flea-market), she joined the company last year. Her previous roles included product management at PayPal and eBay. Liu, who is a Civil Engineer by Stanford, also has an M.B.A.
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.
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This interview was edited and condensed for clarity..
Ancestry.com has provided additional insight into your family.
Ancestry was the first thing I used when I began to explore my CEO position. My family’s history has opened up new perspectives. My brother in law found out his mother is Native American at 40%. Each family has many stories.
Ancestry.com’s DNA tests sometimes reveal long-hidden family secrets, such as infidelity or adoption. These unexpected results are handled by special teams that deal with customer questions. What other ways can you handle this delicate issue? How will it affect your integrity and prevent Facebook from suing you?
You have a variety of security measures. There are many safeguards in place as we share secrets. We also want to support people on their journey through history. People are supported by special teams that help them understand the implications of their DNA tests.
First and foremost, the customer has control. We’re honoring users’ privacy and preferences. The test is completely anonymous and you can take it only for yourself. Your DNA can be deleted after you get the results. Our products will be improved continuously.
Your family was small and had very few Asian families. You got bullied relentlessly. Some hateful residents even broke windows of your family’s home. What did this mistreatment do to your Chinese heritage?
In the middle of nowhere, I had two lives. In my home, only Chinese was spoken by my parents. Chinese food was their favorite dish. It was important to them that we see our relatives abroad. Each four years they took us to Asia. Being of another heritage made me proud. However, it was also a source of deep conflict for me. People teased me, bullied and taunted me about that side. Because I’m Asian-American, being mistreated taught me how to be resilient. 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.
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Throughout your career, you’ve often been a stranger in a strange world. Your leadership style was shaped by being the only female or the only one of color in the room? 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. Although we often talk about inclusivity and diversity, it’s impossible to have all of those things together without belonging. That’s really important to me. Helping people to find belonging is what I do. Ancestry has a diverse leadership group. 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. Then, I cultivate psychological safety. If you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to bring forth ideas. To be open to vulnerability, you must trust your partner.
What was your biggest fear when you agreed to become Ancestry.com’s chief executive and run a company for the first time?
Fear of failure is something we all have. My biggest fear was rejection, that I wasn’t the right person for this role. The stakes were very high. You’re announced as CEO of a storied company with 39 years of history and an important brand. It was a mystery to me what this company looked like. I hadn’t met anybody in person nor been in one of our offices. Being prepared is something I have come to expect. It was almost like being unprepared to take on a new role. 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?
The imposter syndrome was once a problem. 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. When they think they are the best at everything, they fail.
The 2021 public offering of publicly traded companies was a new record. Ancestry.com went public at one time. Blackstone is a large private equity company that currently owns the majority. Is it possible to make the company public again, and when?
Multiple investors have kept us private for more than 10 years. Going public is not the destination we’re shooting for. It’s up to the company whether it is a good idea. We will have this conversation when the time is right. There’s no artificial deadline.
Won’t Blackstone decide whether to take Ancestry.com public again?
The decision would be made together. It has been a success. There is enough cash. There’s no pressure either way.
Employers are faced with a significant problem these days: worker retention. What can businesses do to inspire, keep, and manage Generation Z employees?
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.
What can you do to convince your coworkers that their higher purpose is important?
Reiterating the message and reinforcing it is crucial. Sometimes, people here actually correct records by hand. It’s easy to get into the weeds. Helping people to learn about their grandparents, and our country’s history is the greater goal. It is important to remind people that their work can have meaning. Reminding yourself, ‘I’m not just creating bricks. I’m actually laying bricks. I’m actually building a cathedral.’
Does a female CEO have the moral responsibility to choose a woman for their next job? What other ways can women leaders, like yourself, help to advance their careers?
A woman leader should help women who wish to develop their careers and have the skills they need. It is also important to help women with special parenting needs.
Sometimes you feel like you’re failing at work or at home. This was something I experienced. We have to say, ‘It’s okay to have torn feelings and doubts. But let’s work through this together.’
Ancestry.com made it clear that we would resume work for three days per week starting September 2021 when I joined. People wanted to be more flexible so we changed our policy. If you wish to visit the office, we will provide space. You can also work remotely 100%. Moms are the ones who appreciate this change most. They suffered quietly.
You’re an outspoken proponent of greater gender diversity. Women In Product was founded by you and your husband. It has more than 22,000 members. They advocate for women’s equal representation. Your husband and you invested in approximately a dozen startup companies founded by women or minorities. Yet, the technology industry is not a level playing field for women. Deloitte Global projects that this year women will account for less than half of global technology company’s workforces. Is there anything tech titans can do more to ensure gender parity?
These people should not be focusing on requirements they don’t need, like technical degrees. We’re filtering out qualified people with other degrees. Because of how technical degrees were earned in the past 20 years, a lot of these are women.
Expanding our vision of possible outcomes is what it means. 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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