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Susan Wojcicki: ‘We spend as much time as other parents taking their phones away from our kids’

Google began in her garage, and Susan Wojcicki was one of its first employees. YouTube’s CEO tells Rosamund Urwin about balancing family and career, and tackling Silicon Valley sexism

By Rosamund Urwin

Susan Wojcicki is insisting that she's "not very career-orientated". "I was at Intel, I was pregnant and I joined a company that had no revenue and almost no employees," she tells me in her US west coast drawl. Except that company happened to be Google, and the 49-year-old is now chief executive of YouTube, the video-sharing site the technology giant bought in 2006.

Sitting in the café in YouTube's office in King's Cross, Wojcicki is unstuffy, rhapsodic about YouTubers and profusely thankful when a coffee arrives to combat her jetlag (she only arrived from California two days earlier).

She has been in the Alphabet inner-circle for 18 years. In fact, Google was born in her garage. Nineteen years ago, wanting help paying her mortgage, Wojcicki rented the building to two PhD students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. She later joined as employee number 16 when she was four months' pregnant with the first of her five children. Her husband, Dennis Troper, is a Google executive, while Wojcicki's youngest sister, Anne, was married to Brin until they divorced in 2015.

Wojcicki says it was the vision "to organise the world's information, to make it universally accessible" that attracted her. She felt this continued the work of her grandmother, who was a librarian at the Library of Congress in the Slavic department during the Cold War. "In my first week at Google, I saw users saying they were doing things they could never do before and saw how amazing this platform could be," she adds. How much does she see Brin and Page now? "Not much. If I need them, I call them. And I see them socially."

She has her own revolutionary domain now. In 12 years, YouTube has transformed from a platform where people uploaded cat videos to a vast empire hosting thousands of new media companies. Teenagers broadcasting from their messy bedrooms have become celebrities with millions of viewers, book deals, make-up ranges and TV shows.

The daughter of a teacher mother and academic father, Wojcicki is the eldest of three power sisters - middle sister Janet is an anthropologist and epidemiologist (and would wipe "Google HQ" off the garage whiteboard way back when), Anne is the co-founder of genetic testing company 23andMe. Where did this family drive come from? "It's funny, because I feel like we're a normal family." She grins, a nod to how ridiculous she knows that sounds. "We didn't have unusual ambitions, but (our parents) encouraged us to have interesting careers, to do something meaningful."

What she also has is a desire to "stick it out" during hard times, something her sister possesses as well. She beams with pride talking about Anne: "She has an idea that's ahead of its time. In future, all medicine will be done with some genetic component. Anne has both the interest and the endurance. There was a period where the FDA shut down her ability to show some of the data and she kept going." Has she done the genetic testing? "I was her first customer. I didn't have a choice; I was just told, 'You will be part of the test'."

Wojcicki talks more openly about politics than most CEOs. Her father was forced to flee Poland because his father was a leading opposition figure under communism, leading her to speak up about the refugee crisis. "When you come from a refugee family yourself, you see yourself in these people. They're just trying to ensure their children have a better life."

How has it felt, then, watching the US under Trump shut the door? "It's been hard to see. People went to the airport to protest for refugees - I never thought I'd see that."

Wojcicki is also from the Sheryl Sandberg school: a female tech boss willing to speak out about sexism in the industry. "So many disciplines - whether it's architecture or communications - are being transformed by technology, yet women are only a minority of this force that is causing so much change and creating opportunity."

She believes change has to come from the top, which usually means from men: "CEOs need to say, 'We're going to make sure this is a great environment for all types of people'. I was a beneficiary of that. I got support from the leaders of Google - all men."

One of the problems, she argues, is that the job of improving diversity often falls on minority staff. "(Bosses) say to them, 'Can you help us with your network? Would you come to a recruitment event? Would you speak on a panel?' By trying to reach out to a group more, you're taxing that same group, and that diversity work may be less valued (by the company) than other work."

While she hasn't suffered blatant discrimination, she is conscious of everyday sexism. When she was pregnant, she says, colleagues asked if she would quit. "I do see a lot of micro-aggressions in the company: people interrupting you, people explaining basic things to you as if you don't understand them, or just people thinking your male colleague has more experience; who are they talking to when they ask a hard question?"

Google trains staff to make them aware of their unconscious bias.

A common complaint about YouTube is that its advertising is too targeted, which can threaten privacy. As a 32-year-old woman, I see hundreds of pregnancy test ads each year. Wojcicki counters this complaint by emphasising that users can opt out, but adds that YouTube can't win: "People complain when ads aren't relevant and they complain when ads are too relevant. And people are actually more likely to add to their (profile) than remove it, so they'd say, 'You don't know I'm interested in guitars'."

She hopes a new service, YouTube Red - which gives ad-free streaming for a fee - will come to the UK later this year.

Wojcicki not only scrutinises what her children want to watch, but says being a mother has made her better at her job. "Having a limited time forces me to focus on the big projects. They say that of artists: that they do better with constraints. People would suggest things and I'd say, 'Forget it, that's not big enough'. It caused me to prioritise early on - definitely a valuable leadership skill."

It also made her a tougher negotiator. "Suddenly, when you have kids, you become responsible for these other people - like if something's not working out at school. I learned to speak out."

She says that like all parents, she and Troper have wrestled with the rules for their children over tech. "We spend as much time as other parents taking their phones away from our kids, saying ..." - she puts on the parental nagging intonation - "... 'You need to go outside!' 'No phones at the dinner table!'"

Wojcicki doesn't just have that family, though - there's also the YouTube one. When I ask her to name her favourite YouTuber, I realise it's like forcing her to pick a favourite child. She will only gush about how "engaging, funny and tolerant" they are.

As the interview wraps up, she points to a screen with 36 YouTubers broadcasting on their channels. It could be a Benetton ad. "That shows the diversity of the creators. YouTube has moved culture forward in attitudes - on refugees, on LGBT issues, especially trans issues. There was untapped demand there; a lot of our users would still be under-served without us. We're a platform that enables everyone to have a voice."

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