By Cheechee Lin
Visionary. Entrepreneur. Women in tech advocate. Google employee no.16. One of America’s most powerful women. Mother of five. UCLA Anderson alumna.
Add it all up and you’ve got Susan Wojcicki (’98), CEO of YouTube. Wojcicki joined Dean Judy Olian for the most recent installment of the Dean’s Distinguished Speakers Series.
Wojcicki had just graduated from Anderson when she relocated back to the Bay Area. “I was thinking, okay, so I have student loans, houses are expensive, so I should be a good entrepreneur and rent out part of my house,” Wojcicki said. “Initially, I rented out my garage to (then Stanford Ph.D. students) Sergey Brin and Larry Page purely for the additional income. Little did I know that renting to these two entrepreneurs would turn out to be quite savvy.” This decision was the turning point in Wojcicki’s career, as the humble beginnings of a search giant emerged from Wojcicki’s garage and she later joined the company as its sixteenth employee.
“Join a company where you believe in the product,” Wojcicki said. At the time of Google’s start, it was one of many search engines on the market. However, when the service was down for one day, Wojcicki quickly realized how Google had transformed her life. “I couldn’t get my work done without it.” A strong product will have a differentiator. For Google, that was the company’s focus on a really relevant search product.
In order to succeed in tech, said Wojcicki, “Have insights about the future, and carefully watch for the clues that the world is changing.” Google at one time had a Google Videos platform when user-generated content was a relatively new concept. However, the platform quickly grew, with people all over the globe uploading videos. (The first viral hit on the platform, contrary to all expectations, turned out to be a low production video of two college kids in a Chinese dorm room singing along to the Backstreet Boys’ hit “I Want It That Way,” with their unsuspecting roommate doing homework in the background.) Soon after, a disruptive startup named YouTube started surpassing Google Video, and Wojcicki immediately caught on. “I knew it was going to be really big — but that it would come with a bunch of liabilities. Though, she added,“not everyone agreed with this purchase,” referencing Mark Cuban’s sweeping statement in 2006 that “only a moron would buy YouTube.” This moronic investment is now valued at a whopping $70 billion for Google.
After the purchase of YouTube, Wojcicki didn’t immediately transition over. She was busy building the advertising component of the company, Google AdWords. Google’s advertising division ballooned from $5 billion to $50 billion. “Think about building a long-term business. These relationships with people who buy ad space have to be a win-win for both parties. Focus on your revenue with a long-term perspective,” Wojcicki advised.
Wojcicki now brings the same perspective as CEO of YouTube, looking ahead to focus on the long-term goals. “Important changes are often revolutionary, not evolutionary. Video is a huge market and it is being remade. There are two things — VR and emerging markets — that we are keeping our eyes on. We can’t be ready the day these two mature, we need to be prepared in advance. ‘Just in time’ doesn’t work with technology.” Wojcicki also mentioned the challenges that come with use of the Internet in emerging markets, as not everyone will use the Internet the same way. YouTube is working on changing the experience so viewers can access content in an affordable way offline.
Wojcicki, who has five children, also took the opportunity to discuss an issue she is extremely passionate about: gender equality in the tech space. “Tech just doesn’t have enough women in it. This is an issue for society. We need to look at the overall technical influences and offer computer science at the middle school level,” she said. Wojcicki wrote a powerful op-ed in 2014 about the benefits of paid maternity leave for businesses. Computer literacy, she believes, is an important skill in today’s changing world, and learning these skills during high school is just too late.