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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Deb Liu

In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by Ancestry CEO Deb Liu, as they discuss the business of genomics, Deb's experience managing some of the top products at Facebook, and her plan to make Silicon Valley more accessible to women.

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANDY SERWER: In this episode of "Influencers," Ancestry CEO Deb Liu.

DEB LIU: Looking at your ancestry and your DNA, you realize that we are one human family. It's really important that you be able to have control over your privacy. Knowing that history, the resilience that our families had over many generations is an important part of who we are.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ANDY SERWER: Hello, everyone and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest Deborah Liu CEO of ancestry.com and also author of the new book "Take Back Your Power, 10 New Rules for Women at Work." Deb, nice to see you.

DEB LIU: Thanks for inviting me here.

ANDY SERWER: So why don't we start off by you talking a little bit about ancestry.com. Tell us what the company does.

DEB LIU: Ancestry is a leader in family history and DNA genomics. And we help you find your ancestry through records, through your DNA, through matches. And it's been a company that's been around for 35 years and we've been helping people tell their family's story during that time.

ANDY SERWER: There are a number of competitors, most prominently, perhaps 23andMe. So how are you guys different?

DEB LIU: Well, I think that their product is actually really incredible and that they're focused-- but they're mostly focused on health. So really, kind of, discovering a little bit more about your health. We're really focusing on your ancestry, you know, where you're from, where your family is from and also matching you to the ecosystem of DNA of other people who built their family tree. So you can actually discover what you have in common, whether you have a great grandparent that you share it with somebody that you might even know.

ANDY SERWER: I want to talk more about your company. But first, I also want to dive into your book a little bit. Congratulations, just came out within the past month or last month, I guess, actually. Tell us about why you decided to write this book, Deb.

DEB LIU: I just think over the last eight years I've actually coached and mentored over 1,000 women. I have an open door policy. People can call me and, kind of, do one call with each person. And I realized there's a lot of themes that we're very, very similar, people running into the same circumstances.

And I can't continue to scale this. I can talk to another 1,000 women over the next eight years or I could write a book and actually, hopefully, amplify the message of hey, when you get stuck, here's what you should do. Here's how you should shape your career path, how you find your voice, how to find allies. A lot of those things which I give advice on one-on-one I was able to compile into a book so that I can actually share that message with more people.

ANDY SERWER: It's hard to believe or at least it's hard for me to believe. But you talk about growing up being an introvert. You don't seem like an introvert anymore. So what happened? Did you have to make yourself change to be more extroverted or is that just growing up? What do you think?

DEB LIU: Well, I've been reading the book "Quiet" from Susan Cain and introverts-- you know, and the power of introverts. And I grew up in extreme introvert. And in fact, I grew up in a small town in the South looking as I do, being really different and people telling me to go back to where I came from.

And for me just being quiet and being unassuming actually helped me a ton. I was already naturally shy and that just made me, kind of, clam up. And I realized that it just wasn't working when I got to the workforce because when you're asking other people to draw ideas out of you, when you're an introvert, you're actually holding back something, which is your idea, is your wisdom, your insight. And so I forced myself to learn the skill of actually learning to speak up.

And for me I treat it like a skill like any other just like learning a foreign language. It was like a foreign language to me actually. It's so foreign to how I grew up, how I learned to speak. And yet at the same time, really finding my voice was really powerful and actually getting me to where I am today.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, you could have taken another path, which is just remained an introvert and/or not achieved the way you've achieved. And I'm just wondering, have you ever thought about what drove you to actually go out and do what you've done in the world as opposed to just not taking those steps?

DEB LIU: Well, I think that you can have a choice in life, right? There are things that you can't control and things you can. And I said, you know what, the things I can't control, like, I'm going to take every advantage and understand what it takes to be a leader. And a lot of that coaching I got from my mentors, my sponsors was you need to learn to speak up. You need to push for your ideas. You're not doing anyone any favors by withholding your ideas and your thoughts.

And so it took me a long time to get there. And I think we have a choice. We can either have a learning mindset and we can continuously say, what's going to help me grow? Or we can stay in our comfort zone. I worry that sometimes we just say, well, this person is introverted. This person's extroverted and therefore. And I said, as opposed to saying I'm an introvert, and that's the end of the sentence, why don't we say, I'm an introvert but I can learn to speak up? I can share my ideas.

And it's not a fixed thing. I still at the end of the day run out of words as I tell my husband, who is an extrovert. However, I just value the idea that we are always a lifelong learner. And we can always continue to grow and iterate and change for the better.

ANDY SERWER: You're not the first person to have to write a book about women in the workplace and the challenges they face and ways to circumvent those challenges. What do you think, is there something different about your message and that you have to share?

DEB LIU: For me I've read a lot of those books. And I love the book "Lean In," by the way. So Sheryl is my mentor and my sponsor. She actually wrote the foreword to my book. And, you know, it's funny I am only where I am today because she gave me the lean in talk before the lean in talk with the thing and before you know she wrote that book.

And she said, don't leave before you leave. You should show up. You're between-- I had just had my second child. I was breastfeeding and she's like, you should join Facebook. You should get on the rocket ship. And she gave me the talk and I actually took that in the next 11 years had an incredible experience at the last company I was at.

And, you know, I just think that each book tells a different point of view. I think with "Lean In" it is it was an incredibly empowering book and it really transformed my life. For me, I really wanted to focus on the really practical tips of the day-to-day, which is not just the inspiration of showing up but how to do that on a very tactical basis.

And my book is much more-- the first chapter is really here's the playing field you're on and then the next nine chapters is given the system you have, here's the playbook to address it. And I went with something that was much more day-to-day here's what you need to do. And it's because sometimes there isn't enough detail of the guide and so I really wrote the guide. Here's what you should do when you show up to a meeting.

And a lot of that was really, kind of, born from the idea of not just inspiring women to lean in but actually telling them the details of how to make that happen through the stories of many women that I've interviewed.

ANDY SERWER: There are some people who say that progress is just naggingly slow that really women haven't made much progress, maybe particularly in Silicon Valley, maybe particularly in product and engineering roles, which that's your background. How optimistic are you? And without being pollyannish like, oh, of course, I'm optimistic, is change really-- has changed really occurred? And do you think it's really continuing to occur?

DEB LIU: Well, you know, I tell the story in the book of Lenore Blum, where over 40 years ago, she and her friends wanted to bring more girls in STEM. They were at Berkeley. She was a math professor. And eventually, she was-- actually, her contract was renewed at Berkeley. She was almost fired from her next university. And it was just a time when women didn't get PhDs in math.

And for 40 years, she and her friends created [AUDIO OUT] and brought a million girls through to encourage them to become STEM, study STEM in college. And when we went to the 40th anniversary dinner, she's like, I thought we would have made more progress at this point. But they had made tremendous progress in so many ways and there was just still so far to go.

And so I write this book from a place of hope, which is we are making progress. The next 40 years will be better than the last 40 years because I've had women math professors. I have worked with incredible women leaders in the time when 40 years ago, they didn't have that. There were no role models.

And so I think in 40 years it's going to be so much better. And I think all of us should believe that the arc of history is bending towards more opportunity for everybody. And that's what I want. That said, I think we have work to do every single day.

I wish I had a magic wand and said the system will be fair tomorrow. But without that, how do we actually change our behavior and do the things that we need to do to help bring about the change that we want?

ANDY SERWER: Can men read your book, Deb? And what can they do? What can they draw from your experience or what you have to say in your book?

DEB LIU: So I've had a lot of men read the book. And what's really interesting is the feedback comes in, kind of, one of three forms. First is a lot of people just didn't know, and even women didn't know a lot of the statistics. Start of the book it's pretty heavily statistics oriented. And the reason is just showing you hey, look, men are considered leaders if they're competent. Women are considered leaders they have to be competent and warm. Is that fair?

No, there's a double standard and yet at the same time, that's the reality. And by the way, other women expect that of women as well. Or things like, for every 100 men who are promoted to management, 86 women are. That is just the reality of where we are today.

And I don't think people-- these aren't salient points of view that people have or the stats that people have at the top of their head. But I think revealing that and saying, hey, if there are four candidates in a pool and one of them is a woman, she has 0 probability of getting that job. And any individual woman or man would never have any idea that this happened, because you don't see what the candidate looks like when you're on the other side.

And so really just sharing some of these-- sharing some of the data and then saying, hey, this is the system that we live in today, how can you be a great ally? So that's one is just knowing the stats. I think for a lot of men just, kind of, seeing that on paper has been helpful.

The second one is I think a lot of men don't hear the conversation that women have. So I recently did a book reading, and it was like 90 women and maybe five men. And it was so interesting because the men afterwards came to me and said, we never hear about these challenges women talk about.

And I said, it's because we don't spend our time at work talking about this, right? We talked about breastfeeding and maternity leave and some of the challenges of being a working mother or being dismissed as not being the leader. And it was just kind of revealing for men to see it from that perspective.

And I think the third is a lot of these tips are very universal, having a learning mindset, finding your voice. Even for introverts, a lot of men especially who are introverts or minorities have said that this was also very useful for them. And that's why I wrote it just for women. And so I think it just depends on where you situate. But I hope that this will make everybody better allies, mentors, and sponsors with all the people around them, especially people where they don't see some of the challenges that the other folks that are around them face.

ANDY SERWER: You talked about Facebook. I want you to delve into that a little bit more for us, Deb. What did you take away from your time there? Maybe talk a little bit first, I guess, about what specifically you did and then getting back to what you garnered from that.

DEB LIU: Yeah, so I started out in the payments team and eventually worked on payments and games. And then I worked on app and sell ads, the Facebook audience network, which is the ad network for mobile. And eventually I led the development of what was called at the time Facebook Pay and now is the Meta Pay and Facebook Marketplace, which is the commerce experience used by over a billion people.

And so during my 11 years there I've worked on many products and owned many, many different things, and it was an incredible adventure. I think the thing I learned the most is that a small group of people who really care about a product or a problem can solve so many things. And whether that's within a company or outside of a company is that technology has the opportunity to connect a billion people to buy from their local community. It has the opportunity to make it possible for small businesses to grow.

And I think that that's the most important message of tech is that sometimes we hear a lot of criticism about tech. But think about what the opportunities it's created as well that people can start companies and support their small businesses and make them more efficient every single day because of technology.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, you helped create Marketplace, right, which is an incredibly important part of that company. What is the culture like at Facebook? You talk about working with Sheryl and you wrote about your interview with her and her putting one role and then you having the idea, I guess, for marketplace essentially. And so what is it like and with Rob Cox and Zuckerberg and all the rest of those people?

DEB LIU: Well, I think a lot of people see them as somebody you see on TV or somebody you read articles about. But, you know, it's just incredible how human and how kind and these are people who are friends. These are people we spend time with and really learned and build together with.

And I think that a lot of times when you read a lot of articles, it's talking about something that's a specific issue and it, kind of, mentions someone's name. But instead, I think that they're building something that's really important to the world, being able to connect people, to communicate, to grow businesses, to help people succeed, and to create more in the world. And that's what's really incredible, and that's why the mission is so important there.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, on Facebook, you talk about it as a place that's building something incredible. The company had some problems. I think even senior management would acknowledge that. What are the problems to your mind, Deb? And how systemic are they and how can they be fixed?

DEB LIU: Well, I think the problem in all technology, new technologies is that just as every technology has ways that people exploit it, people use it for bad means, every technology has faced this. And, you know, it wasn't-- phone scams are a real thing. And I remember we talk about a technology enabling so many things and yet there's also opportunity for people to exploit and take advantage.

And I think it's important that companies who work in these spaces work on how to work on regulation as well as protecting people from those things that happen. But those things are constantly evolving. If you actually look, like for example, Facebook is taking down more fake accounts than there are people in the world, I think, at this point, something like that.

And so people are trying to exploit the ecosystems that they built because they are so powerful. And really, protecting people and protecting the way that we're able to communicate is really important. And that's something which the company is very focused on.

ANDY SERWER: So how is it that you left Facebook and became the CEO of ancestry.com?

DEB LIU: You know, I had talked to several companies about different roles as a CEO. And when I got the call about Ancestry, it felt really right. Telling your family's story, I'm very close to my family even though I grew up really far away from them. We were half a world away, half the country away from most of my family.

And so really capturing your family story, telling your family history is such an important part of my own life. And so it just felt really right when they called. And, you know, I just knew that this was the opportunity for me because I think especially during COVID we realized just how important our family was when we couldn't see them anymore, when we couldn't connect with them, when they're sick.

And, you know, it's one of those things where it was a reminder that what we have in life is our health, our family, our friends, and those are more important than other things. And so this is a company that's really dedicated to that and truly capturing your own family story but to share with your own family and to have a history for your children and your grandchildren as well.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, maybe expand on that a little bit, Deb. What really is the benefit of people learning about their ancestry? I mean, how does that help us as human beings?

DEB LIU: Well, I just think, for example, during the Ukraine war, you see people go to a train station and they say, do you want to go to X country or Y country? This will take you to this country and this will take you to another country. And people are deciding the future of their world with a decision in a train station with all the things that they have.

And so much of that was the history of how we, especially in America, a family-- a country of immigrants who decided to get on a boat and come to this country. And for my parents, coming to America with almost nothing, they came to go to college. They had a few hundred dollars and a couple of suitcases and they built a life here not knowing if they were ever going to make enough money to go home. And they started a life here and they didn't go home for a long time because they couldn't afford it. And at the time, it wasn't like they could afford to call and this changed the trajectory of their future generation.

And so knowing that history, the resilience that our families had over many generations, it's an important part of who we are. And I think that that makes us more resilient as a society. I also think it's really important that we realize that we are more interrelated than we think. Looking at your ancestry and your DNA, you realize that we are one human family. And seeing the connections you have with people who don't necessarily look like you but are part of who you are, that is an incredibly powerful message that I hope people will see.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, people are fascinated by this stuff. I saw this article in the paper just last week about people finding each other who looked a lot like each other. And then it turned out they were, in many cases, related, right?

DEB LIU: Yeah, the doppelganger article was incredible. But it's amazing to find somebody who looks like you and it turns out that you share a lot of DNA. And so, you know, you have such similarities and it is such an incredible story that two strangers can meet and actually be related through DNA and yet never know that.

ANDY SERWER: Right. Yeah, I love that. Tell us more about ancestry.com in terms of how many people work there and the business model.

DEB LIU: Yeah, we have about 1,500 employees. And we really focused on-- really a lot of the focus is on the DNA business as well as the family history business and basically discovering your roots. And our business model is a subscription business. So we have a subscription where you, kind of, access our content records, you access other people's trees and you're able to actually build out your family history.

We also have the DNA business, where you buy a kit and you do the sample test and then you're able to discover, for example, relatives, so matches. You discover what countries you're from and what share of your DNA comes from what country. And then you also discover now we just launch parental inheritance from which parents you actually-- so even if your parents have passed away, you can find out from which parent you inherited your ancestry as well. And so it's a pretty fascinating new product that we put out as well.

ANDY SERWER: My understanding is that in the past, Ancestry has faced criticism for working best for people of Western European descent. And what is Ancestry doing to be more inclusive to people of different heritages, Deb?

DEB LIU: Well, once I joined the company, we embarked on a project and, kind of, a strategy called Ancestry For All. And that is to make Ancestry more accessible to everybody. Part of it is we've had an incredible 35-year history. We have worked with governments. We have scanned documents. We have collected the best collection of genealogy records, public records archives in the world. And a lot of that happens to be our roots, right?

We worked with a lot of Western European governments, for example. And that's where a lot of the best records come from, a lot of the ship records, things like that. And that's been incredible. But we have more work to do.

We have expanded our collections recently. We put out the Freedmen's Bureau and the Freedman's Bank which came out after the Civil War. We've also worked on a number of different initiatives to bring on records from other countries such as Latin America and areas that we traditionally have not had as many records for. And we're diversifying our DNA to make sure that we're getting samples from other places so we can get more fidelity around different ethnic communities as well.

And so we're getting better every day. We still have a long way to go. But I think that everybody loves their family equally wherever you're from. And so how do we actually make our product more accessible? We are working on being able to do more storytelling. So if you don't have records, for example, and I didn't have a ton of records because my parents and my in-laws immigrated to the US, now we can tell our own story.

We can upload-- we recently launched the ability to upload and correct photos, making it easier for those shoeboxes of photos you have to actually be digitized and share with your family. Being able to create sharing with your family within the product as well. So we have a lot of work that we've done to actually bring us to where we are. But we still have a journey that we need to go on together.

ANDY SERWER: So what mechanisms do you have to protect privacy?

DEB LIU: Well, I think privacy is really incredibly important to us. You can do your DNA test and then you can also delete the sample if that's something that you want or not match with other people. So we do make it possible for you to actually protect your privacy in that way.

But in other ways, it's really important that you be able to have control over your privacy, so really you consent to how we use the DNA. We also ensure that we are encrypted so that people don't have access to match your DNA to your name and identity in a number of different checks and balances across our system.

And then obviously, security and privacy go hand-in-hand. So obviously, we make sure that we have really secure storage so that we do not actually accidentally or intentionally have somebody actually get access to the DNA.

ANDY SERWER: What is the growth trajectory of the company like, Deb? And how do you measure that? How susceptible would you guys be to an economic downturn? How cyclical-- what does exposure to the economy look like? Those types of things.

DEB LIU: I would say, like all consumer products, this is ongoing. We're really understanding the consumer economy. And we've continued to grow through COVID, and we're expecting to continue to really see people continue to see interest in this category. That said, we'll see how the economy goes. I think inflation is hitting everybody. And so that's important that we keep that in mind as discretionary income changes over time.

But this is something that people invest in, not just through the short term. Discovering your family history is a long-term experience and project. And we want to be able to power that for many years to come.

ANDY SERWER: Do you talk about the number of users, your audience size?

DEB LIU: Well, we talk a little bit about the number of subscribers. We have 3.8 million subscribers, and it's something that we do share. And we're going to continue to iterate on that. We also want to make sure that we're offering new opportunities and new services over time as well. So we're going to continue to iterate on our product and make it available to as many people as possible.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, what ways could you grow outside of this specific area, though? I mean, what else could you guys get into potentially?

DEB LIU: Well, let's say like for example, bringing more of your family members. So not just having one person be a subscriber but engaging in social and community activities, building your family story together, sharing memories of your grandmother with your cousins, those types of things, which is maybe one person subscribes so multiple people are able to participate in the storytelling together.

So that's some of the work that we're doing is actually to make this a family activity. We call it going from me to we, which is-- 2/3 of people told us that the reason that they do family history is to share with their family. And so we want to make that easier. And so a lot of the work we're doing is not just making the subscriber experience amazing, but also making it amazing for those who are consuming and actually collaborating on the product itself.

ANDY SERWER: Shifting gears here, Deb, you also, I believe, founded and run, correct me if I'm wrong, a nonprofit Women in Product. Correct me if I'm wrong and then tell me about it.

DEB LIU: Yeah, so I founded Women in Product with a number of women on a whim, actually. We were at dinner. We've been hosting dinners for four years with women across Silicon Valley because there were so few women in product management at the time.

And one of the things we did was create this community. Now it's 30,000 members strong. And it is a nonprofit really dedicated to helping women find new roles and product, to grow their careers, to be able to continue to product management is important in that it decides exactly what products we use as a society. These are the people who choose the roadmaps, the features, the priorities of what gets built and the apps that you have and the experiences that you use. And so that is a really important function.

And for a long time there were a lot of women in the function and then it suddenly dried up and nobody knew why. And it turns out in 2004 Google required a computer science degree to enter product management at their company. Now, again, that worked really well for them. That was really important to them. A lot of companies followed suit at that point. And if you look at the computer science degrees, though, only 20% of computer science degrees are earned by women.

And so you suddenly dried up the pool of people who were entering. At the same time, what happened was women who didn't have computer science degrees couldn't get their next job. I myself went to Facebook as a product marketer not in product management because of that. And many women we found had to take a different role and re-enter a different field in order to stay in tech.

And one of the things we advocate for is are the best product leaders all have computer science degrees? And the answer is no. Actually, at Facebook we realized that three of the most successful product leaders were women who didn't have computer science degrees, which meant there was a flaw in the system. And we eventually went on to lead our own product and engineering teams.

And so one of the things we advocate for is actually bringing more diversity to the table. How do we bring more women and minorities, people who are underrepresented to the table so that we can build better products that are for everyone?

ANDY SERWER: That's fascinating about that change with computer science because I certainly know people who don't have computer science degrees who are excellent product managers. And does Google still have that policy?

DEB LIU: No, no, they dropped that policy many years later but it was several years ago. And I think that that's helped them actually bring on new talent as well, which is incredible.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, I mean, that's one of those rules, Deb, right, where it's like it's a good idea if you but we'd love to hear a great exceptions.

DEB LIU: Yes.

ANDY SERWER: Right?

DEB LIU: The rule made sense for them. But now very few companies have that requirement. And they still have incredible product teams. And some of the best product leaders I don't have a computer science degree. And so not only making that exception, but saying we want voices from some of the best product managers. One product manager had a political science major. And so it's I think that having that diversity of points of view actually makes us stronger as product organizations.

ANDY SERWER: I guess you could argue that Steve Jobs was a product manager and he studied calligraphy.

DEB LIU: That's right.

ANDY SERWER: Right. So final question, Deb. You still have so many more years to go in your career. But I'm wondering if you've given any thought in terms of how you want people to see the work that you've done already and maybe in terms of the future as well.

DEB LIU: Well, as I write in the book, the last chapter is called Making Your Mark, which is what is the legacy you want to leave? When I first got to business school, they asked us to write our obituaries at the very start of school. And, of course, we were 20-somethings and we laughed about it. We wrote it and we joked about it. And then when we hit our 15th reunion, two people had passed away.

And so I think the question we should ask ourselves is are we leaving the world better than we found it? Every interaction, every moment, are we helping, are we hurting? Are we creating good or are we creating hurt?

And I think that that's how I really want to look at the world, which is each day you have the opportunity you meet, you make thousands of decisions. You probably need several dozen people over email or chat or you're touching all of these people's lives. Are you making it slightly better or are you making things worse?

And I just hope that people will say, every opportunity she got, she left everything better than she found it. And whether it's a relationship, whether it's just a communication. And so I do think that that's what I hope for and how I live my life really.

ANDY SERWER: Deborah Liu, CEO of ancestry.com and also author of the new book "Take Back Your Power, 10 New Rules for Women at Work." Thank you so much for your time.

DEB LIU: Thank you.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.

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