It's Wednesday afternoon, and Anne Wojcicki is embracing the chaos.
The 23andMe co-founder and CEO bobs on a Peloton bike in front of a sunny window in her Silicon Valley living room, a baby blanket and stuffed animal draped over the couch behind her. The youngest of her three children, a daughter born last summer, plays on the hardwood floor a few yards away.
Wojcicki's older son and daughter with ex-husband and Google co-founder Sergey Brin pitch in with their quarantine duties, doing laundry and taking out the trash, but she's having more trouble getting the family pets to cooperate. Hence the fake mouse on the ground, which she hopes will bait the cats into helping around the house.
"I was trying to convince the cats that they need to eat the mouse," Wojcicki explained on a Zoom call, after agreeing to discuss with Protocol how she's working and leading from home. "I have mice that occasionally run through the house, but the cats seem to only want to bring mice from outside and leave them on the floor."
The last two months have been a blur for Wojcicki, who decided in late February that it was time to start implementing contingency plans for COVID-19. She'd followed tweets from Italy and spoken to her sister, University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Janet Wojcicki. "It became really clear that it was potentially awful," she said.
On March 4, as the outbreak took hold in Seattle, 23andMe ran a drill to test whether it could go fully remote. It was a Thursday, and Wojcicki and most of her colleagues didn't go back. As it turned out, the stakes were escalating. The day prior, Wojcicki had hosted a business guest from the East Coast.
"I remember I wouldn't shake his hand, I wouldn't hug him, and he thought it was kind of odd," she said. "He came from New York, and he ended up having COVID and died."
For 23andMe, the pandemic adds to the challenges of a decline in consumer demand for genetic testing, which in late January forced the company based in the Silicon Valley suburb of Sunnyvale to lay off 100 employees, or about 14% of the staff. The cuts came a year and a half after 23andMe announced it was broadening its business by partnering with multibillion-dollar drug developer GSK, which invested $300 million in 23andMe.
Though tech companies including Amazon and fellow genetic testing startup Color have leaped into COVID-19 testing in recent weeks, Wojcicki is taking what she sees as a more measured approach. The company stopped short of wading into the testing market earlier this month, while announcing that staff researchers had begun analyzing 23andMe's database of customers who have opted into medical research "to understand how genetics may influence the differences in severity of this virus."
"I worry that there's so many people who are jumping into the COVID-19 fray because, like, that's the thing to do, rather than because they can really add value," Wojcicki said. "We don't have a lab. I'm not going to jump into some of the testing stuff."
Or at least not yet. While Wojcicki isn't convinced that companies have the "right kind of sensitivity and specificity" to work with at the moment, she said 23andMe "would love to partner with a group at the right time."
For now, she's scheduling more one-on-one calls, joining virtual company yoga classes, planning a speaker series and asking employees to take time to reflect on how the company will fit into a post-pandemic world.
"I don't want to add to the chaos," Wojcicki said. "The area where we can really help is in terms of genetics, because I have the largest community of people consented for research, and I have customers who are eager and willing, so we will definitely help out where we can."
Making major business decisions from home is nothing new for Wojcicki, who was on maternity leave last year. But the early weeks of quarantine, with no school and no in-house help, were different. There was, she said, "a level of obsession" in keeping up with news about the virus. Zoom meetings happened in the closet. She and her sisters, the epidemiologist and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, started talking about things like "you know, holy cow, what's the latest technology in mopping floors?"
Anne Wojcicki doesn't stick to strict hours for video calls, and she goes for a walk twice a day. Photo: Courtesy of Anne Wojcicki
Earlier in the year, when 23andMe was forced to make cuts, Wojcicki publicly wondered if fears of a recession might be contributing to consumer skittishness. By the mid-March morning when Bay Area governments ordered businesses to close and residents to shelter in place, it was clear that the boom years that propelled 23andMe and Silicon Valley at large were over.
"The markets were crashing, and Monday morning we have our executive team meeting at 9:15," Wojcicki said. "I was supposed to get my kids ready for their online school, and I'm supposed to feed them, theoretically."
The first step, she said, was recognizing that "it's madness, and you can't do everything." She soon settled on a schedule of washing the sheets on Sunday, giving each child one towel for the week, and allocating one color-coded plate and cup per day, and that has brought more order. A Dyson pet hair vacuum cleaner helped, as did an attachment that allowed her to rig a mobile device to a stroller.
Wojcicki doesn't stick to strict hours for video calls, but she walks every day at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. She takes calls on her laptop wherever is convenient, or while riding one of the two stationary bikes set up in her living room next to an elliptical — a mini version of 23andMe headquarters that Forbes once described as "a cross between a Silicon Valley startup and a fitness club."
One thing that she thinks may have changed in her work life for good: call etiquette. "Before I never really Zoomed, and I didn't FaceTime that much," Wojcicki said. "It feels almost offensive now for someone to call without the face."
23andMe won't be rushing back to the office. The company has found ways to enable even its therapeutics division to work remotely, Wojcicki said, and she's awaiting more clear data on the trajectory of the virus before changing course. "Look, I don't think that we're going to go back in the normal way anytime soon," she said. "I think there's still just a lot of unknowns. The lack of coordinated testing is just really odd to me."
At home, Wojcicki, in consultation with Brin, decided that homework is still important, but that there are bigger life lessons to be learned from this much concentrated time at home, namely "basic domestic skills." For down time, the family acquired an inflatable backyard projector, on which Wojcicki recently screened "Footloose" as well as another classic that suddenly seemed relevant: "I just had my kids watch 'Groundhog Day,'" she said.
One other by-product of her pragmatism, cutting her kids' hair, has also come in handy — though she acknowledges one emergency video call to a hairstylist to fix her son's bangs.
"I told my daughter that she could cut my hair now," she said. "I figured nobody's going to see me for a while."