“Don’t hide what’s normal,” YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki once told her youngest sister, Anne.
Not that Anne Wojcicki was trying to conceal anything on Sept. 21 when she was at the private Maroon Creek Club in Aspen, Colo. Anne Wojcicki is co-founder and chief executive of the personal genomics and biotechnology company 23andMe, a genetics testing service based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
While the ski resort town attracts Hollywood A-listers, Washington elite, and the 1 percent of the 1 percent, Wojcicki was in Aspen for a conference of elite business leaders.
Wojcicki, who was just named “The Pioneer” on Marie Claire’s list of 25 Women Changing the Future, said the meetings had let out when her infant daughter needed to eat. With the sky threatening rain, she ducked into a booth near the first hole of the golf course, where membership is by invitation only and initiation fees and annual dues combined hover near $250,000. No one was around, she said, when she sat down on a bench and began nursing. However, soon after she started, an employee drove up in a golf cart and told her she should breast-feed elsewhere, she said.
She relocated across the street to “a pile of rocks on the ground” to continue feeding her daughter.
She was stunned.
“People with small children need help. It’s hard enough when you have small children,” said Wojcicki, who is a single mom to her newborn and shares two other children with her ex-husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. “Breast-feeding is an important part of child rearing."
“It’s odd. I don’t know,” said Maroon Creek Club general manager David Chadbourne, when he was reached for comment about the incident. He said he had been unaware of the incident. “We have members that breast-feed here all the time.”
He said Wojcicki’s experience was not “a fair representation of what the club was all about.” He apologized, saying he wished she had told him personally about what had happened, even if part of the purpose of tweeting about the incident, which she did afterward, was because women shouldn’t have to lean on privilege to get the respect they deserve when it comes to feeding their children.
With her hair pulled back in a ponytail and wearing capri leggings and a hoodie, Wojcicki, who is No. 33 on Forbes’s 2019 list of Richest Self-Made Women, admits she “didn’t look like I was part of a fancy conference, not that it should have mattered.”
“I often live in a little bubble,” where she’s treated well, Wojcicki said in a phone interview. “But it’s nice to be in a situation to see how people are really being treated. Everyone should be treated well and be made to feel welcome.”
Wojcicki also breast-fed at an event with a much higher profile this summer, the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, when her daughter was 5 or 6 weeks old.
She was powwowing with an older man, she recalled, when she told him, “ 'I’m sorry, but I have to feed her.’ ”
“Now?” he asked.
“Yes, now,” she replied. “You can go tell your daughters you’re a modern man who had a meeting with a breast-feeding CEO.”
Wojcicki said it would never occur to her to try to hide breast-feeding; instead, she wants to help normalize it, including at the 23andMe offices, where there are breast-feeding rooms with desks, pumps, lockers, snacks and phones. There’s also a 1,500-square-foot playroom for kids, for employees whose children have a child-care issue or who have to pop into the office for a shorter visit. There is paid parental leave at 23andMe for all employees, a fertility benefit plan, adoption assistance plan and surrogacy reimbursement program.
“I hate pretending that you’re something you’re not, and a good percentage of my employees have kids,” she said.
Her baby always accompanies her to work.
“People de-stress when there’s a small person around,” she said. “It’s fun and it humanizes me. I’m in a luxurious position where I can do this, and normalizing it is part of how I can help people."
Transparency has been among the guiding principles of Wojcicki’s career, because giving people something they can’t see (DNA results) requires a fundamental trust.
That’s at the crux of what irked her at the Maroon Creek Club: how little she was seen, despite what was right there with her.
“They were totally unapologetic. It was such an intentional move, and there was absolutely no remorse. I was so shocked,” she said. “It’s a world that needs a little more empathy for people. When you are breast-feeding your child, you’re vulnerable, and they took advantage of me. They kicked me while I was down.”
However, it would be a mistake to characterize Wojcicki as anything resembling a victim, in this instance or any other.
“In some ways, I feel fortunate that it happened to me and not someone else because I have a platform to keep driving positive change,” she said.