A bright and young History and Literature student at Harvard University, Susan Wojcicki never gave technology the slightest consideration as a career option, let alone heading a video sharing site. But things changed after she interned at a tech startup during her summer break in the late 90s. Instead of making a career in academia like her parents, Susan decided to pivot and put her bets on becoming an active part of the early 2000s fledgeling tech startup ecosystem. The gamble paid off, and it paid big. As the present CEO of YouTube, the world’s largest video sharing site, this 49-year-old’s life is considered to be a radical, inspiring, and heart-touching story of woman empowerment.
After all, how many tech executives are known to have the agency to oversee hundreds of employees, raise five children, be a powerful voice and also fight fervently for women rights? But all this name, fame, and affluence didn’t come easy for Susan. In fact, it was a long road which had many moments of self-doubt, experimenting, and fighting for her identity in a male-dominated industry. Hence, such a story of struggle, perseverance, and glory can provide courage and inspiration to many women who are on the same road that Susan once tread upon. Scrutinising her life and its trajectory, we note down lessons that can help empower and offer solace to the many women who silently struggle to get to the same domain as Susan.
An enterprising individual, Susan was always keen on keeping herself engaged and learning new skills. Starting out early, as young as 11 years old, she started her entrepreneurial journey selling homemade “spice ropes”. Even during her Harvard years, she interned at different places during the summer, even answering calls at a garbage company. It is in one of these internship gigs that she developed an avid interest in technology which led her to take up a course in computer science at Harvard.
Her ability to take the road less travelled was again put on display after Susan left Intel, which she joined after her MBA from the University of California, to join a then-obscure startup. In 1999, she supported the founders – Sergey Brin and Larry Page – of this unknown startup in setting up shop in her garage at Menlo Park. She became their first marketing manager and 16th employee. That startup went on to become the force to be reckoned with in the tech industry and even became an everyday verb – Google.
Imagine, if Susan had decided to just be content with an academic career. Nothing wrong with it, but she wouldn’t have had the global mass appeal which she wields as one of the most powerful women voices in the tech industry today. It is a clear lesson in being open to taking chances, broadening your horizons, and not being afraid of taking up challenges. So if you are struggling about career decisions, try avoiding your reflexive ‘no’ and instead jump on to something that challenges you. Who knows, it might be a legacy a few years down the line!
Being four months pregnant while joining Google, Susan was the first employee to take maternity leave in the organisation. She considered the leave of absence as a tough decision, as the industry was still unaware about the concept of longer maternity leaves and how important they were. When Susan returned, she extended the maternity leave option from 12 to 18 weeks, eventually transforming how the corporate industry actually looked at pregnancy leave. Her decision to extend maternity leaves was met with several forms of microaggression and critical dialogues, but she remained steady in her resolve.
Many say introducing such a landmark decision was critical in shaping up the discourse on working women and their rights to paternity leaves. The trickle-down effect helped the lives of women across the world. Hence, every decision that you take at that echelon of power works for several other women who do not have the voice, platform, or impact as you do. So, stand up for them.
The environment a company harbours affects the culture of its employees. This is usually passed on from one batch of freshers to another, where they are often pressurised to act in accordance to the status-quo. This toxic nature disallows ownership to one’s responsibility in a company, with employees merely working as cogs. This an issue that Susan realised when she joined YouTube, where employees were initially struggling to link with the community of gamers, family people, and music enthusiasts.
Not someone to run away from a challenge, Susan rolled up her sleeves and immediately worked on the problem and fixed it, by looking at advertising with a different lens. It clearly defines why one needs to lock horns with hurdles as and when they appear, a trait which separates the winners from the rest.
Quite often, we as women read, listen or face gender discrimination in the workplace. Even among employers the discourse is subservient or irrelevant. But it wouldn’t fly with Susan, who broke the chain of silence against gender stereotypes by actually hiring more women. Her idea was to create a virtuous cycle by hiring more and more women, starting from the lower ranks to the senior positions.
“They escape a cycle of men, who mostly hire men. And study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better outcomes, more innovative solutions, less groupthink, better stock performance, and G.D.P. growth,” she said when talking about companies dealing with this idea.
Her efforts led to a change in the corporate sector’s treatment of female employees. Instead of just witnessing the issue and doing absolutely nothing, it ignited the conversation of roles that women play in building organisations.
Even the most successful women entrepreneurs have the difficult equation of balancing their family commitments with their professional ones. So, how do they empower themselves? Well, Susan who herself has five kids is often asked the same question. To this, she replies quite interestingly that both men and women need to be asked about work-life balance, instead of just women. She also mentions the importance of time as well as place in dealing with this balance. She states that “when I’m at a business conference talking about business and all of my peers are talking only about business, I think it’s important that we are treated in the same way.”
Breaking the glass-ceiling is going to be hard, but never let it stop you. After all, every chapter of Susan’s life encourages us to think out-of-the-box, to experiment, to redefine our own reality. Do not let the world dampen your spark – instead rise above it.