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23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki ’96 joined University President Peter Salovey last Thursday in the latest installment of the School of Management’s Gordon Grand Fellowship Lecture series.
In an hour-long Zoom webinar attended by around 300 students, staff and community members, the pair discussed Wojcicki’s experience at Yale, her career and her views on science. After graduating from Yale College with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Wojcicki worked on Wall Street and in healthcare investment before co-founding 23andMe, a genomics company that focuses on bringing personalized genetic and medical information directly to consumers.
“I always liked starting things, but it was always sort of with that purpose of, I want to solve a problem,” Wojcicki said. “I found it insulting, frankly, the concept that people couldn’t understand their own genomes.”
With this in mind, Wojcicki, who — according to School of Management Dean Kerwin Charles, who introduced the event — “embodies that spirit” of SOM by connecting business to society, began her company with the mission of helping consumers access and learn from the information held within their own genome. Fascinated by the power of an individual’s ability to transform their own health, Wojcicki told the assembled virtual crowd that she frowned upon the traditional belief in the healthcare industry that people cannot change their habits and ways of life.
Wojcicki also spoke about her time at Yale, where she worked in the lab of Professor Emeritus of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Sidney Altman, played varsity women’s ice hockey and served as an aide in Jonathan Edwards College under then-Head of College Bernard Lytton.
“The people that you meet at Yale, whether it’s a professor, your peers or your students, are truly extraordinary,” Wojcicki said. “When I think back on what was most meaningful, it’s the people.”
Wojcicki recognized this from the first time she set foot on campus, where she recalled having a fascinating debate about the definition of rock ‘n’ roll with her Korean-American, Jewish student host, who hoped to become the first Korean cantor and rabbi. Continuously emphasizing her love for the passion of the Yale community, she advised students on Thursday to form as many bonds and get as much out of the community as possible.
When asked about COVID-19 research findings through the 23andMe database, Wojcicki noted that individuals with O blood type appeared to have more protection against the virus.
“I think what’s the silver lining in my tiny ecosystem of digital health is that COVID-19 has driven home and shown that so much of healthcare can actually be online,” Wojcicki said.
Despite all of these promising advances, Wojcicki also touched on the issues that science continues to face today, including a lack of racial diversity and distrust in the field.
“Without a doubt, the biggest issue facing science, and I would argue our country, is the credibility of what is science,” Wojcicki said.
Throughout the event, she also offered many pieces of advice to the viewers from what she has learned through her experiences at Yale and beyond. Wojcicki, whose curiosity took her from following her physics professor around to ask questions, to Wall Street and founding 23andMe, encouraged everyone to not be afraid of the unknown, take opportunities as they come and to be open to change.
Salovey ended the event by addressing Wojcicki directly, commending the discussion as exactly what the family of Gordon Grand ’38 had envisioned when the fellowship was set up.
“Your energy and your intelligence and your story and your very warm nostalgia about Yale all come together in a way that inspires me, and I think every one of us who are watching this,” Salovey said. “This is such an extraordinary opportunity for the Yale community to get to hear from you, an internationally recognized business leader, entrepreneur, biologist and, of course, a treasured Yale alumna.”
Salovey also mentioned that Wojcicki would return for the second part of the lecture series.
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Correction, Oct. 14 | An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Salovey as referring to Wojcicki as a “treasured Yale alumni.” He actually referred to her as a “treasured Yale alumna.” The story has been updated.