Life after a cheating Google tycoon ex

After her fairy-tale marriage to Google co-founder Sergey Brin ended, Anne Wojcicki started dating baseball star Alex Rodriguez and running a billion-dollar start-up

Ms Anne Wojcicki (left) split with Mr Sergey Brin (above), co-founder of Google, after six years.
Ms Anne Wojcicki (above) split with Mr Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, after six years. PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES
Ms Anne Wojcicki (left) split with Mr Sergey Brin (above), co-founder of Google, after six years.
Ms Anne Wojcicki split with Mr Sergey Brin (above), co-founder of Google, after six years. PHOTOS: BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES

MOUNTAIN VIEW (California) • In 2007, Ms 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 Mr Sergey Brin, the cute co-founder of Google, 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 and got hitched in the middle of the ocean.

Soon after the marriage, she became pregnant with the first of their two children, and Google invested millions in her start-up, named after the 23 paired chromosomes in the human DNA.

But six years later, the Silicon Valley fairy tale was shattered by two public humiliations: Mr Brin got involved with a beautiful young Englishwoman named Amanda Rosenberg, who provided a public face for Google Glass. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shut down the primary function of Ms Wojcicki's business, calling her DNA spit vial "an unapproved medical device".

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 emigrated to New York in the 1920s.

The Wojcickis grew into Silicon Valley royalty. It is the sort of family, Ms Wojcicki jokes, where "you're only a viable foetus once you have your PhD".

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.

Ms Wojcicki has two older sisters, Susan, who was Google employee No. 18 and is now the CEO of YouTube; and Janet, an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and a Fulbright scholar.

"My mum is utterly the believer, like she can get anything done," says Ms Wojcicki, now 44.

"She had a real fighter mentality growing up and I feel that was how we were raised. She'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.'"

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

"It was a bad year," she says, laughing ruefully. "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 start-up which 23andMe became in 2015.

"A divorce and the FDA," she says. "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."

Mr Brin is fortunate that Ms Wojcicki is not the vengeful type.

Once they learnt 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 Vanity Fair wrote, the love triangle that ended Ms 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 learnt 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.".

Ms Wojcicki says after the separation, 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.'"

Ms Wojcicki, who saw so much "Wolf of Wall Street" behaviour when she was a Wall Street biotechnology analyst for a decade that she thought she might never want to get married, still speaks fondly of her oddball courtship with Mr Brin. He would leave her voicemail messages in Morse code or notes about where to meet him in Braille.

He and his Google co-founder, Mr Larry Page, "genuinely see the world in a different way and that's what's fun", she says.

She describes the time she and Mr Brin took their children to the passport office. After 10 minutes in line, he was able to give the teller a redesign for the office for better traffic flow.

Two years ago, through friends, she 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?" she 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. "His name is Alex Rodriguez."

Specter explained to the woman who had never attended a professional baseball game that her new suitor, alias A-Rod, was one of the 10 best baseball players who ever lived.

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

Eventually, different coasts and parenting obligations pulled Ms Wojcicki and Rodriguez apart.

"I liked A-Rod, he was a very nice man," her mother said. "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."

Rodriguez is now dating singer Jennifer Lopez.

Her mother raised the Wojcicki girls to be sceptical of anything too flashy or polished.

Even now that she owns a billion-dollar company, Ms Wojcicki remains frugal. She still rides her bike to work every day, 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, mummy, I love it.'"


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2017, with the headline Life after a cheating Google tycoon ex. Subscribe