How to get over a Google billionaire ex: Date a baseball star before J.Lo does, own a billion-dollar start-up

Anne Wojcicki (left) and Sergey Brin onstage during the 2nd annual Breakthrough Prize Awards at the Nasa Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California on Nov 9, 2014.
Anne Wojcicki (left) and Sergey Brin onstage during the 2nd annual Breakthrough Prize Awards at the Nasa Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California on Nov 9, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California (NYTimes) - In 2007, Anne Wojcicki, then 33, lassoed the moon.

She was getting her new company, 23andMe, a mail-order genetics testing firm, off the ground with her "Party 'til you spit" celebrity get-togethers.

She married Sergey Brin, the cute co-founder of Google, who was also 33 and already one of the richest men in America, at a top-secret Esther Williams extravaganza in the Bahamas. The bride in a white bathing suit and the groom in a black one, they swam to a sandbar in the Bahamas and got hitched in the middle of the sparkling aquamarine ocean.

Soon after the marriage, as Brin accumulated more power, a yacht and a fleet of jets, Wojcicki became pregnant with the first of their two children, and Google invested millions in her startup, named after the 23 paired chromosomes that consist of our DNA.

But six years later, the Silicon Valley fairy tale was shattered by two public humiliations: Brin got involved with a beautiful young Englishwoman named Amanda Rosenberg, who provided a public face for Google Glass - an attachment that broke up his marriage. And the Food and Drug Administration shut down the primary function of Wojcicki's business, calling her DNA spit vial "an unapproved medical device" and imposing stricter rules for consumer genetic testing. Her business, once so ripe with promise to tackle health issues, was curtailed to its ancestry testing division.

And here is where genetics saved the genetics entrepreneur. Her father, Stanley, fled Poland in 1949 when he was 12 with his mother when the communists took over. Her mother, Esther, was the daughter of impoverished Orthodox Russian Jews who immigrated to New York in the 1920s.

The Wojcickis grew into Silicon Valley royalty. It's the sort of family, Anne jokes, where "you're only a viable fetus once you have your Ph.D".

Stanley is the former chairman of the Stanford physics department and an emeritus professor. Esther is a journalism teacher so beloved at Palo Alto High School that her former student James Franco made a video paean to her.

Besides Anne, there are two older daughters, Susan, who was Google employee No. 18 and is now the CEO of YouTube, and Janet, an epidemiologist, medical anthropologist, associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and a Fulbright scholar.

"My mom is utterly the believer, like she can get anything done," says Anne Wojcicki, also known as Baby Woj, now 44. "She had a real fighter mentality growing up, and I feel that was how we were raised. We're all super-comfortable in controversy. My mom's like, 'Listen, a lot of really bad stuff happened in my life. You either let that control you or you make the rest of your life great.' Her little brother died when she was little. You don't let a bad experience hold you back, otherwise you spend the rest of your life ruined by that experience. So it doesn't matter what happened today. Make it better tomorrow."

Wojcicki used that philosophy to claw her way out of her dark hole.

"It was a bad year," she says, sitting in her small glass office in her "uniform" of Lululemon shorts and shirt and "company-issued" jacket. She laughs ruefully. "I'm pretty optimistic. But we'd occasionally sit around and be like, 'Wow, it's really, it's been really bad.' Some of my friends and I bought these baseball hats that have these little unicorns attached to them. That was kind of our 'We're going to wear these hats and just kind of believe in the potential of what can come.'" Funnily enough, she grasped at the magical creature as a symbol of hope before it caught on as a popular Silicon Valley term for a billion-dollar startup, which 23andMe became in 2015.

"In some ways, when you have that many bad things happen, it's a sense of disbelief," she says. "This was one of those situations where there's two aspects. A divorce and the FDA. There was no workaround in either. So it was one of the first times in my life where you have to accept, you have to actually change. Like, I need to come up with a different way of approaching both of these relationships."

Brin is fortunate that Wojcicki is not the vengeful type. Once they learned, from his spit test, that he has a rare genetic mutation that increases the risk for Parkinson's disease, she bought the patent on a gene variant that could protect people who have that Parkinson's-related mutation.

As Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in Vanity Fair, the love triangle that ended Wojcicki's marriage was analysed in different ways in Silicon Valley. To some, "it's about the danger inherent in data sets, when the data includes too much information about one's mortality. If Brin had never learned about his Parkinson's risk, he might never have had what a friend of the couple's characterises as an emotional crisis and strayed from his wife. (But had Wojcicki not helped him discover his risk for contracting the disease, he might not have enacted the healthy lifestyle choices that may prolong his life)".

Wojcicki says that after the separation, she felt like she had entered another dimension, comparing it to stepping through Harry Potter's Platform 9 3/4. "It's a crazy world and you never knew it existed until you enter it," she says. She tried reading a book about divorce but stopped when she got to a story of a divorced man whose ex-wife came over and chopped up his new girlfriend's underwear.

"I was like, 'I never want to be one of those people,'" she says. "I never want to be angry. For me, it's a lot of work. I can be angry for 24 hours and then I'm just like, 'Well, let's just be friends.'" It is a sentiment echoed by her mother.

"My theory is that you're only hurting yourself when you're angry and revengeful," Esther Wojcicki says. "I was mad at Sergey for what he did. But I don't carry grudges. He's the father of my grandchildren. He was not such a good dad when the kids were babies. But he's a very good dad now. He made his own life difficult, unfortunately. I can still be civil to him. Why not? What's in it for me being nasty?" Anne Wojcicki, who saw so much "Wolf of Wall Street" behaviour and had so many "We'll talk about it after the lap dance" conversations when she was a Wall Street biotech analyst for a decade that she thought she might never want to get married, still speaks fondly of her oddball courtship with Brin. He would leave her voicemail messages in Morse code or notes about where to meet him in Braille.

"And I'd be like, 'Ugh, can't you just tell me where to go?'" she recalls. "But it was fun. I feel like you need to balance each other in relationships. Somebody can be totally insane, and then somebody has to buy food and pay rent."

She says their swimsuit wedding "was fun because I'm not a hair-and-makeup person. And so I was like, 'Look, there's no hair and makeup because I'm swimming.'" She lights up when she reminisces about "the beauty and fun of hanging out" with "the little team" of Brin and his Google co-founder, Larry Page.

"They genuinely see the world in a different way, and that's what's fun," she says. "Like, the sky is not blue. It's some other shade." As an example, she describes the time she and Brin had to take their children to the passport office. After 10 minutes in line, Brin was able to give the teller a redesign for the office for better traffic flow.

Two years ago, through friends, Wojcicki met a strapping man who represented every woman's dream of how you one-up an ex, especially a Silicon Valley nerd.

"Do you know anything about baseball?" Wojcicki asked her friend Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer.

"I know how many innings there are, which is more than you know," he replied.

"I think I'm starting to date a baseball player," she said. Specter assumed she meant a lawyer who played baseball on the weekends.

"His name is Alex Rodriguez," she said. "I think he plays for the Yankees." Specter explained to the woman who had never attended a professional baseball game that her new suitor was one of the 10 best baseball players who ever lived.

"When I started dating Alex," Wojcicki says, "my mom was like, 'What's an A-Rod?' I was like, 'Mom, that's his name.'"

Being a maths wiz, Wojcicki proceeded to learn every stat. When Rodriguez saw her watching a YouTube show called Physics Girl and asked her what it was, she told him, "It's like the YES Network but for physics."

The two enjoyed their cultural-collision romance, once Wojcicki installed TV sets in her house so A-Rod could watch baseball.

"I didn't realise that you need special channels to watch sports games," she says. "Alex is a really sweet guy. He's a smart guy. He's a good person. Alex lives in this world of cash-flow businesses, and Silicon Valley lives in this world of the potential of the future. So it was actually kind of a really fun conversation. Alex was really into car dealerships, and I was like, 'We're all about self-driving cars. Nobody's going to buy a car. You want to buy a car dealership? I'm going to short your car dealership.'"

At the Met Ball in 2016, in a move described by Vanity Fair as "head-spinningly civilised", the couple arrived in the same car as Brin and the woman he is now living with, Nicole Shanahan, the founder and CEO of ClearAccessIP.

Wojcicki was carrying a specially designed clutch made from gene chips, the same ones her company runs DNA saliva samples on.

Eventually different coasts and parenting obligations pulled her and Rodriguez apart.

"I liked A-Rod, he was a very nice man," Esther Wojcicki said. "He came from a Hispanic family. We liked them, they were very sweet. He seemed to be genuinely in love with Anne. But I right away figured out this was a mismatch. He had no academic background. We couldn't have an intellectual conversation about anything. His main interest in life was something that none of us had ever focused on, which was baseball. He could park himself in front of a TV and watch baseball for 10 hours a day. He wasn't even sure he wanted to go on the yacht with Anne because the TV might not be working. I wish J-Lo all the luck in the world.


Baseball player Alex Rodriguez, now dating singer Jennifer Lopez, could not have an intellectual conversation when he was dating genetics entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, her mother said. PHOTO: AFP

"We couldn't go anywhere with him. If we went to Target to look for clothes for the kids, all of a sudden we'd be looking around and people would be saying, 'We just want a selfie with A-Rod.' He can't walk across Central Park. He has to take a cab. That will work better with J-Lo because she's like, 'Take a picture of me anytime.'"

(The evidence can be seen on the current cover of Vanity Fair, in which an entwined J-Rod gaze longingly into Mario Testino's lens, and in an inside spread with him pulling up her dress to reveal a crystal-encrusted Tom Ford thong.)

Specter teases Wojcicki: "You'll be the answer to an SAT question: 'Which woman who dated Alex Rodriguez is not like the others? Kate Hudson, Madonna, J-Lo or Anne Wojcicki.'"

Wojcicki admits that next time, "I'd really love to date someone who's really simple and not famous. My life is already pretty complicated."

Her mother raised the Wojcicki girls to be sceptical of anything too flashy or polished and to remember that it's just as easy to wear a jacket in the house as it is to turn up the heat.

Even now that she owns a billion-dollar company, Wojcicki remains frugal and says repeatedly that she does not like "froufrou things".

"Fancy cars and houses and the right dress," she says dismissively. "It's not a top priority. This is why I'm lucky to have Susan."

Of her sister, she says, "Susan went to the Oscars with me last year and literally at 4 o'clock in the afternoon - you're supposed to be ready at 5 - she's like, 'I'm in Macy's. I found a dress on sale.' And I'm like, 'Susan, you kill me.'"

She still rides her bike to work every day - even in the rain - shops at Payless shoes (but also sometimes indulges in Louboutin) and cuts her children's hair herself.

"That's actually kind of a disagreement between me and Sergey," she says. "He doesn't think I do a very good job. And my poor son is very sweet, so he'll be like, 'No, Mommy, I love it.'" She makes an effort to keep her children's lives from slipping into the "insanity" of mega wealth.

"I have people who clean the house three days a week," she says. "And I just told them to stop doing laundry on Fridays because my kids need to learn how to do laundry on Fridays. It's so easy to be like, 'I don't have to do laundry again. I don't have to cook again.' But then you're not normal. I have a new rule lately. I just don't go out on weekdays. If I'm raising kids, I need to be focused on helping implement that normalcy."

Sometimes she lets them wear their clothes to bed because it saves time in the morning. "The other thing I used to do, when we'd travel in the summers, because I don't like to pack a lot," she says, "and so I'd have the kids bathe in their clothes and then they change into something else. And then their clothes are clean for the next day. Versus the hotel laundry, which is so expensive."