Deborah Liu, CEO of Ancestry.com, talks about recruiting women into big tech

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When the pandemic isolated almost everyone at home, our fascination with ancestors intensified. This was especially true after Covid-19 felled many elderly family members, says Deborah Liu, CEO of Ancestry.com.

“The people we lost during Covid-19 are stark reminders 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 is also the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a mother of three.

Now, as the pandemic begins to recede, Liu is looking for new ways to connect people with their past and grow a genealogy giant that has already amassed more than 30 billion digital records. Ancestry.com recently revamped its mobile app to better serve users on the go again for work and play. Meanwhile, the company is developing more family-oriented collaboration tools, so subscribers can easily scan and share old photos, for example.

“We will make Ancestry not just something we do on our own,” says the 45-year-old chief executive. “We call it ‘the me to us’.

Liu took command of the world’s largest provider of digital family archives during a growth spurt that saw its revenue soar 10% in 2021 to $1.3 billion. She joined the company early last year, after nearly 12 years at Facebook, where she created and ran Marketplace, its popular online flea market. She previously held positions at eBay and PayPal, primarily in product management. A civil engineer by training, Liu also holds an MBA from Stanford.

TIME recently spoke with Liu about the tell-tale risks of DNA testing, conquering his “impostor syndrome,” managing Gen Z staff, and ways to increase the number of women in the tech industry. .

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The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What additional information about your own family did you glean from Ancestry.com?

I started using Ancestry while exploring the role of CEO here. Finding out new things about my family has been an amazing journey. My brother-in-law found out that his mother is 40% Native American. There are many stories to unlock in each of our families.

Ancestry.com DNA tests sometimes reveal long-hidden family secrets, such as infidelity or adoption. Special teams are handling customer inquiries regarding these unexpected test results. If not, how are you going to handle this sensitive issue and avoid the integrity issues that your former employer, Facebook, faced?

There are a number of guarantees. As we reveal secrets, we want to make sure people are supported on their journey through their story. Special teams make sure people understand what the DNA results mean for their lives.

The customer is in control first. We respect user privacy and preferences. You can do this test just for yourself and not let other people connect with you. You can get results and then delete your DNA. We will continue to improve our products.

You grew up in a small town in South Carolina with few Asian families. You have been bullied relentlessly. Some hateful residents even broke the windows of your family’s house. How did this mistreatment make you feel about your Chinese heritage?

I lived two very different lives in the middle of nowhere. My parents only spoke Chinese at home. They were cooking Chinese food. They prioritized things like seeing our family overseas. They took us to Asia every four years. I was very proud to be of another heritage. Yet at the same time, I was really torn because that part of me was something people teased, mocked, and bullied me constantly. Being abused for being Asian American taught me internal resilience. It gave me the strength to say, ‘I’m going to show them. I will go to university on a scholarship. I had a lot of fight in me.

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Throughout your career, you have often been a stranger in a strange world. Has being the only woman or the only person of color in the room shaped your leadership style? Has your “unique” status also complicated efforts to feel like you belong?

Being a “unique” made me realize that leaders must first find commonality and alignment. We talk about diversity and inclusiveness, but without belonging, none of that holds together. It’s really important to me. I help people find that belonging again. Look at Ancestry’s highly diverse leadership team. We come from very different backgrounds, but we serve the same purpose. Let’s focus on what we have in common: aligned vision and customers. I then cultivate psychological safety. If you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to come up with ideas. You have to trust yourself enough to be vulnerable.

What was your biggest fear when you agreed to become the CEO of Ancestry.com and run a business for the first time?

We all fear failure. My biggest fear was rejection, that I was not the right person for this role. The stakes were high. You are announced as CEO of a legendary company with 39 years of history and a significant brand. I had no idea what the business was like. I had never met anyone in person, never set foot in any of our buildings. I’m used to being prepared for anything. Stepping into a role where I felt unprepared was like flying without a net. Every day I was like, ‘What if I’m not good at this?’

You have now been running the business for over a year. Do you still have doubts about your legitimacy, in other words the syndrome of the impostor?

The impostor syndrome used to be a hindrance. Now it’s a tool. I say, ‘I’m not going to be the best CEO. I will amplify what I am good at. And I’ll get help with the things I’m not. There will never be a time in my life when I feel like the expert or the best. People fail when they claim to know everything.

A record number of companies, worldwide, went public in 2021. At one point, Ancestry.com went public. Blackstone, a major private equity firm, currently owns a majority stake. When and why might you go public again?

We have been private for more than 10 years thanks to several investors. Going public is not the destination we are aiming for. If it makes sense for the business, we would have this conversation at the right time. There is no artificial delay.

Will Blackstone not decide to make Ancestry.com public again?

We would make the decision together. We succeeded. We have enough cash. There’s no pressure anyway.

Worker retention is a major issue for companies these days. How should companies inspire, retain and manage their Gen Z employees?

All companies need to really think about what they offer. It changes a lot. Gen Z employees want to find meaning in their work and see that their company’s vision is aligned with what interests them.

How do you persuade your colleagues that they serve this kind of higher purpose?

Reinforcing and repeating the message is extremely important. People here sometimes correct recordings by hand. It is easy to get into the weeds. The biggest mission is to help people learn more about their grandparents and the history of this country. Remembering this helps people find meaning in their work. Remember, “I don’t just build bricks. In fact, I lay bricks. I am building a cathedral.

Do female CEOs have a moral obligation to train a female successor? If not, how should leaders like you help advance other women?

As a female leader, I should really help other women in the organization who want to advance their careers by making sure they have the right skills. I should also develop women who might have parenting challenges.

Sometimes you feel like you’re failing at work or at home. I’ve been there too. We have to say, “It’s okay to have torn feelings and doubts. But let’s work through this together.

When I joined Ancestry.com, we announced a return to work three days a week starting in September 2021. We changed the policy because people wanted more flexibility. We will have room for you if you choose to come to the office. We also allow 100% remote. The people who have appreciated the change the most are often the mothers. They suffered quietly.

You are a strong proponent of greater gender diversity. You co-founded Women In Product, a non-profit organization with over 22,000 members that advocates for their equal representation. You and your husband have invested in a dozen startups founded by women and minorities. Yet the level playing field remains uneven for women in the tech industry. On average, women will make up less than a third of the workforces of major global tech companies this year, Deloitte Global predicts. What more should tech giants do to achieve gender parity in your lifetime?

They should really look into requirements that are not necessary, such as technical degrees. We filter qualified people with other degrees. Many of them are women because of the way technical degrees have been obtained over the past 20 years.

It means expanding our definition of what is possible. Let’s tap into a broader pool of people with different experiences, abilities and backgrounds who are passionate about the work we do. It takes extra work for companies to really dig deep and say, “Let’s open the door.” Let’s bring in more people to talk to. They might be some of the best people we’ve ever had in this role.

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