Esther Wojcicki: A Jewish mother of the tech revolution
I sometimes direct tourists toward 'the HP garage,' which is marked with a plaque and gets photographed a lot. It is three blocks down the street from my house. HP bought that garage, and the house it is attached to, decades ago, and preserves it. HP holds receptions in that old house sometimes, and people cherish the honor of being close to two pioneers of the technology revolution.
I'm here to tell you this: Some pioneers of the technology revolution are Jewish women. You don't hear very much about them, because no one has put up a plaque for them yet. One of then is named Esther Wojcicki, aka "Woj." Woj serves as Vice Chair on the Creative Commons Board of Directors, and is a pioneer in education and technology.
I sat down with her, and when I listed a few of the women contributors to the technology revolution, she had never heard of them but was not surprised that she hadn’t heard of them. “Girls, women, are taught to be retiring, and quiet,” she said. “I tell my kids to be very careful about that when they go out into the world.” Woj, as she is called, is the mother of three daughters who went into high tech, and is the surrogate mother to thousands more students she has taught in her 27 years as head of the journalism department at Palo Alto high school. She acknowledges that there is a lot of discrimination, and thinks women should just go ahead anyway.
“My daughter, Anne, had it the worst,” she relates. “She was in investment banking, and men would ask her to get them coffee, would try to get her to sleep with them, and she just told them,” Woj paused, “she just told them where to get off.” Anne, the youngest of Woj’s daughters, ran a mutual fund specializing in biotech before starting 23and Me, a personal genomics company.
“I would say I’m a feminist, yes,” Wojcicki said thoughtfully, “but I’m not a flag-waving feminist. I don’t devote my life to feminism. But what I do is I basically walk through life as a feminist and try to make sure all the doors are as open to women as they are to men, and I treat women in my classes the same way I treat men.”
Woj is proud that, even though they don’t have to, everyone in the family works. She and her husband helped their children, but only to a point. Her oldest, like most children, got some help from Mom and Dad when buying a house, but needed to rent out part of that house to two young graduate students (named Larry Page and Sergei Brin) to pay her mortgage.
"It was a huge house, 5 bedrooms and 3 baths for two people," Woj said "We told 'em 'use your resources!' and it worked out."
Now that Wojcicki daughter is a vice president at Google, “in charge of all their revenue,”Woj said proudly. "It worked out really well."
Part of it is an unspoken ethic of tikkun olam, or as Woj calls it, making the world better. “You bring it into their childhood, the ethic that you can’t just sit around and do nothing, you have to change the world,” she said “And you have to realize that as a mother, you have almost zero control, once they get their own ideas.” Rebellion, she insists, is more than healthy—it’s essential.
Wojcicki has belonged to a synagogue all along, and sent her children to the public schools K-12. She is proud that her three daughters all belong to synagogues in the Bay Area, but a little puzzled that they send their children to private school.
“All my grandchildren are in Jewish Day schools.” Woj said, looking surprised. "I never thought that would happen."