A Story of Excellence and Advantage — The Story of Esther Wojcicki

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Esther Wojcicki is a very bright woman. On Friday, the education expert wrote a piece on TIME magazine titled “I Raised Two CEOs and a Doctor. These Are My Secrets to Parenting Successful Children.” The piece is an excerpt from her upcoming book, “How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results.” In it she talks about the importance of Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness as her “TRICK,” or values important to successful children.

Let us put Esther’s “successful children” in perspective. To be fair, her three children aren’t just successful. They are uber-successful. Susan (50), is the CEO of YouTube and was involved in the founding of Google in 1999. She proposed the acquisition of YouTube by Google in 2006 (I’d provide a link to Google, but I figure you can just, well, Google it). Her net worth is estimated at $500 million. Janet (49) is a Fulbright-winning anthropologist at UC San Francisco who specializes in obesity and sub-Saharan African populations. Anne (45) became an investment analyst for the biotechnology and health care industry after college, and founded the genetic testing giant 23andMe in 2006. The value of 23andMe is unknown, but Forbes estimates Anne’s net worth at $440 million. She was also married to one of the two founders of Google, Sergey Brin.

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Thus, perhaps we should all be reading Esther Wojcicki’s book to learn about how to raise successful children. She was no slouch on her own and neither was her husband, Stan, who was the chair of the physics department at Stanford. Ms. Wojcicki was born to Russian Jewish immigrants who moved from New York to California when she was born. She served as her high school’s valedictorian at a public school in California and became the first in her family to go to college and made the most of the opportunity. She graduated from UC Berkeley with three college degrees, an advanced degree from Sorbonne in Paris, and another credential and yet another degree from San Jose State University. She met her husband at Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in physics. Prior to that, he earned a BA from Harvard.

Both Wojcickis were of good education stock. Given that they both were bred from new immigrants to the US, they had work ethics equal to the opportunity that America offered for their parents, with the exception of Stan’s father, who was never allowed to emigrate to the US. Whatever water the Esther and Stan’s parents were drinking was transferred by parenting to their children. We can argue that DNA played an important factor, but how the three girls were raised and what opportunities they were presented obviously mattered greatly. And the college track was open in a large way for the children. It is apparent that the children grew up in a community of success. Their family and friends were the elite of scientific and scholarly society.

Susan, the YouTube CEO, first attended Harvard, then UC Santa Cruz, and finally UCLA, earning a BA, MS, and MBA along the way. Janet earned her four college degrees at Stanford, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, including a Ph.D. Anne scraped by with a Yale BA. She is the 23andMe phenom who’s ex-husband, the Google guy, was also a Stanford student. All told, the three Wojcicki children earned eight college degrees: three BAs, three masters, one MBA, and one Ph.D. Successful beyond imagination.

The professional accomplishments of the entire Wojcicki family is striking and to be heralded, especially for the women in a predominately male-dominated world. And, clearly, Esther and her husband were focused parents while also being influential people in their careers. But they also were able to create something else that many other families can hardly do: create an educational legacy.

As Ms. Wojcicki stated in her TIME article, “The ultimate goal of TRICK is creating self-responsible people in a self-responsible world.” She suggests avoiding being a helicopter parent and illustrates how she brought up her children to deal with anxiety and other very typical afflictions. Her book has yet to be released, but I anticipate that her thoughts are reasoned and reasonable. That stated, the Wojcicki family is not your typical American family.

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The Wojcicki education trend is telling. The parents and children went to the most exclusive colleges in the world. Harvard. Stanford. Yale. Sorbonne. UC Berkeley. UCLA. The children grew up on the Stanford Campus where their father worked.[1] Interesting to note, Stanford faculty can receive up to $20,000 per year to apply to their children’s postsecondary education. That surely came in handy. As well, children of Stanford faculty get extra points in the admissions process.[2]

Surely, the background culture of both Stan and Esther had a great influence on the children’s upbringing. Historically, immigrants come to the US with more “grit” than students born here. Especially at a time of war, and especially from families that were persecuted. They surely came to America with a fire burning within, and perhaps some grieve and guilt as they were the ones lucky enough to escape. These are some of the aesthetics that made up the Wojcicki family’s foundation.

With children like the Wojcickis, it is worth asking how much the parents grit and determination in parenting impacted their children’s future success compared to the educational opportunities that were provided? If things were slightly different, it is possible that that the children would have been very successful, but perhaps not Google, YouTube, and 23and Me successful.

Advantage almost always begets advantage. As we continue to search for better policies and answers to educational and societal equity, we also want to make sure that no public policy is set to provide a ceiling to what parents and their children can do. But somehow, we still need to focus on raising the floor on what I dare say “normal” parents, including single parents, can do. This is the crux in our social agenda and public policy safety nets.

In American society, we sometimes refer to this as a White Privilege issue, which remains a lever of opportunity that some either fail to admit or remarkably ignore. As feminist and anti-racist Peggy McIntosh wrote, White Privilege is an “invisible package of unearned assets.”[3] I’m not saying that this is what the Wojcickis possessed. In fact, I argue that they had another important asset: the immigrant perspective. But when your parents are massively successful college educators and researchers who learned from the best at the best, something is going to rub off on your children. We’ve certainly heard of the kids of wealthy and successful parents who become underachievers, but those stories typically counter the norm of successful children from successful parents. Advantage and opportunities are presented differently for different people. Still, what people, especially youth, do with those advantages is all important. Some will grab it while others throw it away.

This is all of immediate interest, as this past weekend, music star Pharrell Williams hosted a massive music festival in his home town and our adopted home town of Virginia Beach with some of the biggest artists in the industry. He named the Festival “Something in the Water,” alluding to something on the Virginia Beach Oceanfront that offers substance to make successful people, like himself, and his local colleagues Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Dave Matthews, amount to something.

For the Wojcickis, there was certainly something in the water. Something in their background. Something in their upbringing. And some of it can be replicated in how we raise our children. But some of it is inherent advantage by opportunities provided, earned, and arguably unearned.

 

[1] Many Stanford faculty members live in subsidized housing on campus.

[2] https://patch.com/california/paloalto/inside-stanford-s-exclusive-admission-path-c38ea20a.

[3] http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/jsibbett/readings/White_Privilege.pdf.

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