Esther Wojcicki: Godmother Of Silicon Valley Teaches Leadership Lessons – Virtually Speaking Ep. #16
Esther Wojcicki is known as The Godmother of Silicon Valley, a California Teacher of the Year Award winner, a bestselling author of two books, and a teacher whose many students, and her own three daughters, have gone on to change and impact the world greatly. Steve Jobs even made sure that his kids were Esther’s students
Esther’s has two bestsellers are: “How to Raise Successful People” and “Moonshots in Education” She’s the mother of three incredible daughters: Anne is the Founder of 23 and Me, Susan is the CEO of YouTube, and Janet is a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of San Francisco.
Esther has been featured in Forbes, Fortune, Wired, Time Magazine, The Financial Times, The LA Times, Psychology Today, Business Insider, and many more, and is the author of viral blog posts for the Huffington Post.
She’s always been at the forefront of emerging trends in education and has been intimately involved with Google and GoogleEdu since its inception, where she was one of the leaders in setting up the Google Teacher Academy.
In this conversation Esther and Chris talk about her effective and widely respected approach of collaborative leadership and teaching. This style has led her to be widely recognized as one of the most important and impactful educators in our country.
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Esther Wojcicki: Godmother Of Silicon Valley Teaches Leadership Lessons – Virtually Speaking
Joining me is Esther Wojcicki who is called the Godmother of the Silicon Valley, an educator who won the Coveted California Teacher of the year award. She’s a teacher whose many students have gone on to change and impact the world greatly. Even Steve Jobs made sure that his kids were Esther’s students. She’s the author of two bestsellers, including 2019’s How To Raise Successful People. A mother of three incredible daughters, Anne the Founder of 23andMe, Susan who’s the CEO of YouTube and Janet, a professor of Pediatrics at USF doing groundbreaking work there.
Esther has been featured by Forbes, Fortune, Wired, Time Magazine, The Financial Times, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many more. She’s the author of viral blog posts for the Huffington Post. She’s always been at the forefront of emerging trends in education and has been intimately involved with Google and Google EDU since its inception, where she was one of the leaders in setting up the Google Teacher Academy. Please join me now with the incredible Esther Wojcicki.
Esther Wojcicki, how are you doing? Thank you for joining me on the show.
I’m happy to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.
It’s an honor to have you, the Godmother of Silicon Valley herself. I was excited when that title started being used about you in the media, when your latest book came out, How To Raise Successful People. That’s the perfect title for you.
I was a little surprised but I am very honored to be called the Godmother of Silicon Valley and watching over Silicon Valley.
It’s amazing because many amazing things have happened from your household, from your world. Things have been created including three incredible daughters who have gone on to do incredible things that you raised. You being an incredible teacher, leader, educator, it makes sense that all three of your daughters went on to be successful. Janet being the Professor of Pediatrics at USF and doing groundbreaking work there, Susan being the YouTube CEO and Anne is the Founder and CEO of 23andMe. These are very successful people that you’ve raised. Google might’ve been started in your daughter’s garage.
What happened is that my daughter needed somebody to help her pay the rent. She thought, “My garage is sitting there empty. Maybe I should let somebody have an opportunity to rent it.” She looked around and it happened. She’s very lucky. She found two guys that seemed to want to rent her garage. They happened to be Larry and Sergey. They moved all right in with their 30 computers and hundreds of wires were exciting. The main thing she was trying to do when they first moved was keep them out of the refrigerator.
She ended up dating Sergey for awhile.
That was Anne, her younger sister. Susan got married.
Your other daughter started dating your other daughter’s renter.
She came over to see what was going on in her garage and there was Sergey. That’s what happened.You can't learn to ride a bike by reading a book about it. You have to try it and do it. Click To Tweet
I never got that story straight because it’s a little confusing but now I got it. Anne went on to start her own tech company, 23andMe.
She went on to start her own. She had been focused on changing healthcare since she was 14 or 15-year-old. She had seen a lot of people in her life, in our lives who had done poorly after they were admitted to the hospital. One of the things she wanted to do early on was to create something called a Patient Advocate System. If you went to the hospital, you had somebody there that would make sure your care was good. Somehow that didn’t work out because it was hard. Instead, she’s like, “I want to make sure that you can be in charge of your healthcare.” That’s how she founded 23andMe. She wanted you to know your genetics, your DNA so that you can take the best care of yourself because no one’s more interested in you than you if you know your DNA, then you know how to take care of yourself.
Your daughters are all very caring and good leaders. They got both of those qualities from you.
I’m humbled to say that they got it from me. Thank you so much. I’m honored.
You won California’s Teacher of the Year award.
I did in 2002.
You also started a program at a school in journalism that turned out to be when you retired in June of 2020, the greatest, the largest of its kind in the nation. Tell us a little bit about that journey with you as a teacher and turning this program into something special.
I started this program in 1984. That’s when I was hired. There were only twenty kids in the program. The goal was for me to teach them journalism. That’s what I was told to do.
Were you a journalist coming into that?
I was a journalist coming into that. I was hired to teach Journalism, English, Math. Those were the main things. Being a journalist, I was particularly interested in the Journalism program. I didn’t have very many kids at that point. I thought, “Let’s see what I can do to make it exciting for kids.” The first few months, it was boring, I have to admit. I was following all the rules that they told me to follow, which is make them read the book, have them listen to you then the test is on Friday. “Here’s a whole bank of tasks. You can use one of those.” After about 3 or 4 months, I was like, “This is brain-deadening.”
I took a look at my students out there and I was like, “They look like they were bored to tears.” I changed the way I was teaching. I decided it was going to be collaborative. If you know anything about education in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not collaborative. Collaborating was called cheating. As a matter of fact, when the parents got the homework, they were supposed to assign the homework, the child did the homework themselves, no calling their friends, no asking for help, no talking to the parents, nothing.
It’s just yourself. You can imagine, here I was in class asking kids to work with each other. That was looked upon as heresy. It seemed to work for the kids. They loved it and the program grew. By the year 1998, there were already 100 kids in the program. I said, “I think now is a good time for us to start another publication. How about a magazine?” The administration said, “A magazine? I never heard of a high school publishing a magazine. That is far out.” I said, “You never heard of it before but you’re going to hear of it now.” We published a magazine. The first year it was published, it won first place in Columbia.
In what competition?
Columbia Scholastic Press Association. There were no other magazines for us to compete against but they loved us anyway. We got all those awards. The best part of it all is that the administration said, “Maybe you should start a magazine. That’s a good idea. They’d like to have public recognition.”
Columbia is not a bad place to be recognized.
I have to thank Columbia. I’m happy that happened. We started a magazine. All these magazines are still published. In the next many years, I started another magazine every two years. We have sports, arts and entertainment, foreign affairs, science magazine, travel magazine and anything kids wanted to do as what we said it was okay.
I remember a story that I heard. Now I get to ask you the question about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs knew who you were and he wanted his kids to take your class. What happened there? Is that a true story? Is there a little bit of embellishing going on? What happened?
The true story is that one day around 4:00 in the afternoon, this man came into my office, did not introduce himself and sat down. I said, “It must be a parent.” Sure enough, it was a parent. He didn’t introduce himself at all. He started quizzing me about my program was like, “What do you do? How do you teach it? How often does it well?” Steve Jobs style. After about 45 minutes, I was like, “I guess he’s trying to figure out whether one of his kids to take my class.” Sure enough, that was what was going on.
His oldest daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. His daughter was in a private school in Atherton. He said, “I think she needs to come here.” He pulled her out of private school and put her in my program. She was in high school in 10th grade.
He cared a lot about the teachers he had for his kids and the school.
Steve was a good guy. He used to come into my class and hang out.
You didn’t know who he was. He was sitting there talking to you for 45 minutes.
I didn’t know who he was. Even after I knew his name, I didn’t pay attention. He hadn’t developed the phone yet.
Apple is a well-known company.
One thing that I realized is that, “Apple must be all those great computers.” I got much more excited. It’s like, “I love your computers.” We became good friends.To be innovative or creative, you have to be willing to take a risk and make yourself vulnerable in trying it. Click To Tweet
Your whole approach as a mom and a teacher is collaborative. You give the power to the kids to learn, make mistakes and do what they want to do, the freedom to create and explore. Is that the basic inkling behind where you’re coming from as a teacher and a parent? Also, as a leader, this is how it should be?
You summarized it well. No matter whether you’re 5 or 25 years old, one of the things that’s important to you is to be trusted and respected. I built that into my program at school. I did that with my parenting. I made sure that my kids always felt empowered, always felt like they could achieve whatever it was they set out to do. I gave them the opportunity to do it. Even if they failed the first few times, it’s like riding a bike. You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book about it. You have to try it and do it. You fall off and finally get it right then you can do it. One of the problems with a lot of parents is they expect their kids to do it right the first time, whatever it is.
There’s no way to do it right the first time. I’ve had kids in school who I say, “It’s an opportunity for you to try and if you make a mistake, no problem.” He’ll say, “Really? I can do it again?” I was like, “Yes, you can do it again. Not only that, I encourage you to revise and do it again because if you did it perfectly the first time, why are you here at school? What are you doing? You could be hired as a teacher. Maybe you could take my place.”
Is that the premise of your book How To Raise Successful People? It can be used as a blueprint for business people as well who are leaders because as a teacher, as a parent or as a leader of a company, all these things work in all of those examples. You had been hired by corporations and companies to talk to them about leadership because they recognize that. Tell me a little bit about what congruency is there with those three areas? How that at all is the same mindset?
It is the same mindset because you are the same person, your body changes. In the corporate world, people don’t learn by sitting in any kind of meeting for an entire day where people are talking at them. It doesn’t work. Corporations like to think at work. They do that. They hire people that are going to lecture to you all day. All the research shows that lectures are the least effective way to learn. Let’s say a company is trying to talk about being more creative and innovative. They bring in somebody that talks about innovation and creativity. Can you learn to be innovative by listening to a lecture? Can you learn to be innovative by reading a book about it? In order to be innovative or creative, you have to be willing to take a risk, make yourself vulnerable and try it.
The best way for corporations who want innovation or creativity is to get somebody who comes in, gives a talk and then allows people to do it, to try it. The same thing’s true in school. If you want kids to be able to do something well, they have to do it. If they just memorize it, like for any of those tests, AP tests that people memorize, do you know that the studies show that after two weeks, you only remember 32% of what you studied? Parents are paying all this money for those AP tests and kids are killing themselves to get a good score. All the tests are how good you are at memorizing. That’s all it does.
Do they ban the SAT score from getting into some college?
Some colleges have now dropped the SAT and dropped the AP test. There’s a school in Palo Alto called Castilleja. It’s a private girls school. They dropped all AP classes. You can’t even take the class, no tests, no classes because they realized that what they were teaching is memorization and not anything else. If you want to remember something, you have to do it then when you do it, you remember it. Like if you learned to swim when you were ten years old and you fall in a pool when you’re 25 or 30, you will know how to swim. That’s the same thing. If you learned how to be a good public speaker when you were in high school and it’s time to give a talk when you’re 30, you still remember how to do it but you won’t remember if you read a book about it.
You’ve always been hands-on. Your first book was called Moonshots in Education. The premise behind that was blended learning.
Moonshots in Education was launching blended learning in the classroom. Blended learning was a combination of teacher direct instruction and technology, computers. When I published it, teachers were not using computers in the classroom. The computers were in the classroom and they were sitting there. Why is that? What can we do to help teachers see computers support learning? They don’t just replace learning. They support it. That book did well. I wrote the second book, How To Raise Successful People. I called it people, not children because I want people to realize children are people.
They’re just not kids. You can’t boss them around, push them around and do all these things to them without them remembering. Treat them with some respect. They might not be able to tie their shoelaces but they will eventually do that. They’re going to be able to do all this stuff but inside is still a sense of self and you want to nurture that sense of self so that they grow up to be empowered and caring people. They learned to be caring when they see it modeled by you.
Those are great lessons and great reminders for us all to know. Why do you think it was that all three of your daughters became successful? I want to know some more details from the book and from your personal archives of memories and practices that you had. Did you ever think that they were all going to be successful? Did it happen because of the fact that you were the kind of mom that you work with?
Many people have said to me over the years, “Look at her track record as a mom, we can’t be more excited to have somebody come in and tell our parents how to be successful or for somebody to get the people who they’re leading as in their subordinates or the people who are their employees or even their peers within an industry.” How do you inspire people to learn and grow in what they’re doing? You must be the master of that. When people look at your three daughters, they go, “How could we argue with anything she says?” Tell us a little bit about some of those mindsets and practices that you did with them.
One of the things people need to realize is that when you believe in someone and trust them, they then believe in themselves. It sounds silly but most people don’t trust themselves. That’s why they’re always going out and asking for experts on this and that because they don’t trust themselves to come up with the right information. One of the things that I always did is I wanted my children and students to know how to get expertise easily themselves.
Back in the old day, if you look behind me, you see all those books, those are all my friends but nowadays, it’s all online. I don’t have to go to the library anymore. I can go on my computer and I can compare what one person says to what another person says. If I feel that I’ve got the intellect to do it, I will do it. It’s important for your children to feel good about themselves. If they question you, they’re not rebellious but they’re asking good questions. You want to encourage kids to ask good questions, to try new things. No matter what it is that they might’ve tried before, maybe it didn’t work out doesn’t mean they should stop.
You want to be willing to explain everything to them too if they have a question, not be, “It’s because I said so.”
It’s not because I said so. It’s because I understand and I know how to do it.
Do you do a lot of explanation like, “This is why we’re doing this and what the thinking behind this is?”
When they were little, I did a lot of explanations. When I was a teacher in class, I did a lot of explanations. I always was willing to admit that I made a mistake. I’m modeling that for kids because it’s okay to make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to try something new. As long as people are afraid to try something new, you’ll never be innovative. That’s one of the things that I did with my children, in my classes and in the corporate world.
I’m friends with the guys that wrote the book, Trillion Dollar Coach. That is Jonathan Rosenberg, Eric Schmidt and Alan Eagle. They wrote this book about Bill Campbell, who was a great football coach. He moved from being a football coach to being a coach of people in Silicon Valley. If you read that book, it says exactly the same thing that I’m saying. He was advising CEOs. I’m advising kids, parents and also, the corporate world, CEOs. That’s how it works. It doesn’t change just because you have a little body from a big body or vice versa.
Why do you think this Godmother of Silicon Valley title was bestowed on you by many people? What do you think is behind that?
Many kids who have been through my program and feel empowered to do what they want and went on to do great things. I’d been an advisor to many Silicon Valley companies and many of my students have gone on to do great things. I’m honored to have this title, which I never thought about myself.
When you advise these Silicon Valley companies, I’m curious to know what they’re bringing you in to talk about with them. What are they asking for you to advise on?
Primarily innovation, creativity, people getting along better, product managers that what can our product managers do to be more effective, to increase productive productivity, increased services, whatever it is that they’re doing. How can we have a more effective company? I’ve been doing that.
What do you tell them when they’re asking? What are your policies and ideas on that?
The number one thing that everybody needs to recognize is that you’re working with people and the more people feel good about themselves and empowered, the better job they’re going to do. If they can hardly wait to leave at 5:00 because they can’t stand being there, this is not a very good situation. What can you do to care about the whole employee, the whole person? How can you make sure that their needs are met? Google does a great job because they have free food three times a day or 24 hours a day.If you want to remember something, you have to do it. And then when you do it, you remember it. Click To Tweet
That was the most unbelievable food court I’ve ever seen. It was all free.
That’s one of the things that is important for all companies to realize, how you take care of your employees predicts the future of your company. One thing that I think is interesting that happened is, Siemens, a large German company, decided that in pandemic and after, the main thing they were going to focus on was a product. In other words, what did the employee do? What was their final product? They were not going to micromanage anymore. No more checking all the time. “Are you doing this? Are you doing that?” They were going to trust and respect their employees. When it was time, they would share whatever it was that they had been working on.
That’s the wave of the future. I’ve heard several leaders and thought leaders on leadership talk about that. In education, you’re retiring after 40 years.
I’m entitled to take a break.
You’ve seen a big amount of change, transition and growth in this area but also, at the same time, maybe not that much. Maybe things are still being done the way they were 50 years ago in a lot of cases. What do you think is the future of education with technology? You’re a big fan of technology being a part of it. The pandemic is also making technology become a big part of it. What are your thoughts on that?
The kids are going to have more control of their learning hopefully. I set up a company with a former student of mine, Ari Memar. The name of the company is Tract.app. What is unusual about the company is that kids, teenagers ages 16 through 20 are creating learning paths for younger kids. The reason that it’s great is because it allows collaboration between older kids and younger kids. If you remember back to that time, the most exciting thing you could experience was an older kid thinking you were cool. We’re trying to build that in. It’s like my program. My program had 10th, 11th and 12th graders in it together. The 12th graders help the 10th graders and the 11th graders. It was all peer-to-peer. This is peer-to-peer learning and gaming. They’re doing both at the same time. We want to make them have a good time. Why suffer?
The future of education is kids helping other kids?
The future of education is collaborative. I’m in the workplace. The workplace, we’re all working in groups. It’s all collaborative. Shouldn’t we be changing training kids to be collaborative in school? Shouldn’t we be training them for the work world? That’s my idea. They should collaborate in class, in school. This is an opportunity for kids who may not have that opportunity wherever they are in the country to have some exciting collaborative work online.
Is it through Zoom?
No. It’s normal. It’s an app that is being built by the group, my former student and all the engineers that he’s working with. Try to have five hours of Zoom calls and see if you wouldn’t be brain dead after that. Zoom school is not the way to go. Zoom calls are fantastic. I don’t have to fly to San Diego and see you. I can do it at my house. If I’m doing that day after day, 5 hours or some kids 6 hours a day, this is not great.
Technology with tablets and computers being in the classroom is making things more fun and the kids can then take the tablet home and learn things on.
I’m in favor of that. Not only do they take the tablet home but they’ve got it at home. Now they don’t go to school in a traditional sense. I hope we’re going to be able to go back to school in 2022 but I know we’re not going back to school by January 2021. It’s not going to happen.
It’s a challenging time for teachers. More than ever, this is a moment where teachers can see how valuable we are.
I saw something at the beginning that was funny. There was a Facebook post who said, “I now realize that teachers are not the problem.” I was like, “Yes. I tried to tell you that for a long time.” Teachers and parents, we’re a team together and that’s the way it should be, working together to make sure that your child is the best that child can be.
Esther, this has been so much fun. You are amazing. Your books are chock full of incredible tools, practices and ideas that have proven very successful for you in the classroom and at home. You’re an inspiration to many people. It’s a privilege to know you and have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming on.
It was great to be on. Thank you for the good questions. I look forward to getting more questions from some of the people that you’re working with. Thank you so much.
Esther, my pleasure. I will talk to you soon.
Take care. Bye.
About Esther Wojcicki
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