Ancestry’s CEO on how women can get ahead even when the playing field isn’t level


On the most recent episode of Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast, co-hosts Alan Murray and Michal Lev-Ram speak with Ancestry CEO Deb Liu. She is the creator, amongst other things, of the wildly popular Facebook Marketplace, but she says she originally never planned to work in tech or become a CEO. That, of course, has all changed. Her conversation with Murray and Lev-Ram covers the factors and relationships that led her to change her path, the lessons she learned at Facebook, and her plans for Ancestry, which she calls a “40-year-old startup.”

The trio also discuss Liu’s book, Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work. The book guides women on ways to get around workplace obstacles on the way to getting ahead. Liu credits Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Meta and author of Lean In, for helping nudge her toward the career she has today. Does Liu think anything has changed for women in the workplace between the publication of Sandberg’s Lean In and her own book? It’s all in the podcast.

Listen to the episode or read the full transcript below.


Alan Murray: Leadership Next is powered by the folks at Deloitte who, like me, are exploring the changing rules of business leadership and how CEOs are navigating this change.

Welcome to Leadership Next, the podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. I’m Alan Murray.

Michal Lev-Ram: And I’m Michal Lev-Ram.

Murray: So Michal, today’s guest is someone that you suggested we invite on the show, Deb Liu, who became CEO of Ancestry in 2021. What is it about Deb that made you think she’d be a good guest for Leadership Next?

Lev-Ram: Well, I think Deb has always been a really thoughtful leader when she was at Facebook as well. And she’s someone who’s comfortable kind of talking about her own path. She’s really come into her own. And I think just a comfort with sort of telling her story and being vulnerable and not necessarily knowing all the answers. So…

Murray: Yeah.

Lev-Ram: …that was my reasoning.

Murray: Yeah, I love the fact that she came from Facebook. You know, everybody these days is trying to fix social networks or make social networks safe or create the new social network. And I’m attracted by the idea that family is a bond that can bring people together.

Lev-Ram: Yeah. And of course, now she heads up kind of the ultimate social network, which is based on families and genealogy, and she became CEO in 2021. I think a lot of people probably don’t realize that Ancestry is actually almost 40 years old. It has been around way, way, way before Facebook. I think Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even alive then. So it started as a publishing company focused on genealogy before morphing into the company we know today, which of course offers DNA testing and different options for building out your family tree, if that’s your thing.

Murray: Is it your thing, Michal? Did you use Ancestry to take your family?

Lev-Ram: You know, I’m not—I don’t have like, a whole family tree mapped out, but I did use it a few years back, just kind of out of curiosity. And it was super interesting, you know, seeing parts of my roots that I didn’t know a lot about and even migration patterns of people, you know. That said, I come from a very large extended family. I already have a lot of cousins and I’ve discovered I have more long-lost cousins. I don’t need more family. I’m good. But I found it very interesting and invaluable. Have you tried it, Alan?

Murray: I haven’t tried it. I did 23andMe a long, long time ago. But I haven’t checked in in a while. I’m kind of like you. I feel like I have enough family to, I think I told you I went to the Murray family reunion this summer. That was enough for me.

Lev-Ram: It’s a very vocal social network, families. So there is there is that.

Murray: So, one of the interesting things about Ancestry, Deb talked about this in our conversation, is that it’s been acquired by Blackstone, and she’s charged with continuing to expand the product offering. And of course, at some point, they’ll want to sell it for a lot of money. So it was interesting to see how she thinks she can build Ancestry into a big business.

Lev-Ram: Well, if anyone can create a product that speaks to you, Alan, it might be Deb. She seems to have a never-ending supply of energy like someone else I know. She also released a book last year, and she regularly publishes a newsletter on technology, project management, and motherhood. And she’s the founder and board chair of Silicon Valley’s Women In Product networking group. So she is a busy, busy person.

Murray: Yeah, well, motherhood is the ultimate project management task. Let’s dive in. Here’s our interview with the CEO of Ancestry, Deb Liu.

Lev-Ram: Deb, thank you so much for joining us. I want to start by looking backwards. You’ve spent over 20 years in the tech industry, and I’m curious for you to just tell us a little bit about your journey to this role that you’re in today.

Deb Liu: Yeah, you know, I absolutely stumbled into tech. I had come out here to go to Stanford for business school over 20 years ago at this point, and I just fell in love and I stayed. I joined a startup called PayPal, which had a few hundred people at the time and now is a big company. And then I went to eBay and ended up at another startup with a few hundred people: Facebook, which is now Meta. And I’ve just had such an incredible opportunity over the years to have a career in a field that’s been fast moving and having an impact on people’s lives. A couple of years ago, I actually got a call around coming to a 40-year-old startup, Ancestry, which was the leader in family history and genomics. I didn’t know that much about it and I just fell in love. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the product. And here I am today. And it’s been an incredible journey.

Murray: So, Deb, a follow up on that a little bit. I mean, we know PayPal, we know eBay, we know Facebook and their tech roots. But tell us a little bit about what about Ancestry got you excited.

Murray: And by the way, I’m also curious to know, Deb, is it a tech company? Do you consider it a tech company?

Liu: Absolutely. So 40 years ago, actually, Ancestry started in Provo, Utah, and it was really focused on publishing genealogy books and documents and helping people find their roots. And it started there, but then it started to evolve. It started publishing more. It went online early with floppy disks and CDs, and then it actually built one of the first subscription products online ever, which is basically they allowed their community to get a lot of their content on a subscription. And it is absolutely a tech company. It is actually a network where we’re allowing people to build their family trees, to document their family’s story, to upload their family photos. And now with over 40 billion records, we make that available to anybody who joins our ecosystem. And we added on to that over ten years ago, the AncestryDNA test and over 25 million people have taken that test and the technology it takes to actually help people understand their geographic origins, their ethnicity, and actually be able to match with people all over the world is so incredible. And so we absolutely consider ourselves a tech company, because the technology underlies all of this. It’s not just scanning records and making them available, but it’s actually indexing them, it’s [inaudible] them. It’s actually discovering those things and saying, Hey, these two family trees, these are the same people. How do we actually help them connect with each other as well?

Murray: And, Deb, the genetic testing piece to this is increasingly moving into the medical world, right? It’s going to become a standard part of medical practice. How does that affect your business model, if at all?

Liu: Well, we are really focused on ethnicity, helping people discover their roots, helping people to discover where they’re from, and to be able to connect with one another. So the member, you know, member to member matches and community, that’s really where our heart is, and that’s where we started. And we’re continuing to add really interesting things like traits. You know, DNA testing can take many, many different forms and ours is really to help people find their family and document their family history.

Lev-Ram: So can you talk a little bit about just taking on a CEO job, and why you wanted to do it and why now? And we’ll get to Meta and Facebook a little bit later on, but talk to us about why now, and why you felt that Ancestry was the right fit as a CEO gig.

Liu: Yeah, you know, early in the pandemic, actually, right before the pandemic hit, I was called for a public company CEO position to ask if I wanted to interview. And I just, it didn’t occur to me that was something that was possible. And so I went through that process, thanks to Jim Citrin [of Spencer Stuart’s CEO Practice]. And I remember sitting down at dinner and I said, “Well, why me? Like, why would you ask me?” And he said, “Well, why not you?” And he opened the door to a lot of possibilities, of maybe this is the next step for me. And so, you know, over the next year I took many calls that, you know, some were interesting, some weren’t. But when the opportunity came to interview for Ancestry, it was really the right fit. It was the right product. It was something I was really passionate about, and it really kind of brought me to a place where I was really excited about the future and writing the next chapter of this really storied company.

Murray: And Ancestry is now owned by Blackstone, right?

Liu: That’s correct.

Murray: You’ve been doing it since 2020. What’s the end game? How much do you plan to grow it? When do they plan to exit it? How are you thinking about those things?

Liu: Well, as with everything in private equity, you know, it is really on the timeline of the investment that they have, but they’ve really invested a lot and continue to grow our ecosystem, help us build out product led growth, really innovate. You know, one of the things that I came in to do was the vision around ancestry for all. How do we make it, you know, the work that we do more accessible to people of different backgrounds who haven’t been part of the ecosystem? They also invested in our strategy around “me to we.” How do we take something which was a solo activity for people who are really discovering things for themselves to make it a family activity, a community activity, and that evolution has been what we’ve been working on over the last couple of years.

Lev-Ram: So I have certainly discovered that I have long lost cousins I never knew about by using the service. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, more about the origins of the company. What was the initial intent? Because it is such a fascinating history.

Liu: Yeah, you know, before Ancestry came along, family history research was really in books, in records and in physical places. You know, finding a document could take months. You had to travel places. Ancestry published a lot of this, to, to make it possible for people to get access to it. But it was very physical. But then through a lot of the work over the next 20 years, actually, they digitized a lot of these records, made them available where you could get it online. And once you can get it online, you can now start searching. You can actually look at dates and birth marriage records. The family history researcher could actually find things much more quickly, but it was still a local copy. And so, or kind of the online experience that you see, came about after that, where now people could do family history research together. They could make their trees public. They could collaborate. And so adding all of those things, it brought us to where we are today. You know, in addition, we added AncestryDNA in 2012, and now you can actually find parts of you that you might not have known anything about. You know, rather than just looking up, you know, the name of an ancestor, you can actually now see where their descendants live as well. You can connect with them, you can message. And so all of that has come together to building the family history experience that we have today.

[music starts]

Murray: I’m here with Jason Girzadas, the CEO of Deloitte US, who had the good sense to sponsor this podcast. Jason, thank you very much for joining me.

Jason Girzadas: Thank you, Alan. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Murray: Jason, the majority of Fortune 500 companies have made commitments to reach net zero, to address climate, but it’s still unclear how they actually get there. What’s the role of technology in meeting those ambitious goals?

Girzadas: There’s a broad recognition that the cost of climate change is far greater than the cost of not investing in it. Organizations will continue to utilize technology to move on the journey towards a decarbonized future and a more circular economy. We’re already seeing the benefit of technology through an increase in alternative energy sources. The advances in battery and storage technology are evident. You’re seeing the growth and increase performance of EVs at lower price points. So, the impact and value of technology is being felt already, and that’s only going to continue. It’s pretty clear that climate change requires innovations that don’t exist today. But we do think that there will be new opportunities for innovation to be further accelerated through the development of ecosystems around emerging technologies.

Murray: There’s clearly a lot to do on this front. You talk to a lot of CEOs about this. Do you feel there’s a real sense of urgency on meeting these commitments?

Girzadas: The urgency is there. The call to action around climate change and the path to sustainability is there, and the impact of climate change is real. I think the narrative is shifting. One from it being a cost and an inconvenience to decarbonize our economy to one where it’s actually an opportunity. The client organizations that we serve are in their own way charting a path to a sustainable future.

Murray: Jason, thanks for your perspective and thanks for sponsoring Leadership Next.

Girzadas: Thank you.

[music ends]

Murray: Deb, I want to take you back to the Facebook days, if you don’t mind. We don’t want to do too much ancient history here, but Facebook has been such an interesting and critical part of the technology infrastructure. It’s had its ups and downs in terms of public perception. What did you learn at Facebook that is going to help you make Ancestry successful?

Liu: You know, I think part of what makes Facebook really special is that it really believed in actually building products and having product-led growth. And I think that that’s really important. What do people tell us they want to do and how can we help enable that? I worked on Facebook Marketplace. I guess that’s what I’m most known for for my 11 years there. And, you know, it started with seeing mom groups actually organize in these groups and buy and sell with each other. In fact, I had bought and sold so many things. When I pitched to the company, they said, Well, who’s buying things on Facebook? And I realized I could see these communities thriving and yet someone else with a totally different experience couldn’t see that. And eventually we built Facebook Marketplace, which actually connected entire communities together. So you can buy and sell, whether it’s moms. We sold our car on Facebook marketplace, we bought a refrigerator. And you know, you can actually see so much that was led by the community, the community saying there’s a demand here. And a lot of the products were actually created out of the demand that people actually created on the site itself. I see that so much of what we’re trying to do at Ancestry as well, which is the me to we. We hear these stories of people who said, you know, every holiday season somebody will bring out, you know, the computer and turn it around to show us all her discoveries. And I said, well, what if we make that a year round experience? What if you could actually, people could see those discoveries. People can actually explore her tree as opposed to just something static where she has a print out or she has to turn her computer around. She can actually show those discoveries every single day and actually make it a family activity. And so a lot of what we do today is actually saying how do we make our product evolve with the ways that our customers tell us they want it to evolve? What are the things that they care about and what are they engaging in and what are they trying to do that we can enable more?

Murray: And people are using the platform in that way to connect with families, to share family stories, to share family mementos, etc.?

Liu: Yeah, over the last couple of years, we’ve added ways to add family stories. We’ve added a lot of work around user-generated content, including the ability to upload photos. And then not only do you upload a photo, you can actually tell the story behind the date. We do color correction. We actually have a partnership that helps you scan photos so you can easily do that and add it to your tree. We are adding more me to we where you can invite people to your tree and collaborate around the tree itself as well as the user-generated content. All of those things are things that people told us that they wanted to do, but there wasn’t an easy way to do it. And now we’re bringing that to the forefront. So if you want to have a solo experience, that’s still there, but we also want to make it so it’s engaging and interactive and that you can build with the community itself.

Lev-Ram: I’ve got another question on Facebook. Your last few years there at Facebook, at the company, there was growing scrutiny on some of the negative byproducts of social media and social networks. You know, when it comes to misinformation and some other things that were going on. How does it feel, you know, now you’re at the helm of Ancestry, I am guessing a little bit less scrutiny and criticism. You know, a similar mission in a lot of ways. But how does it feel as a leader going from Facebook to your role today? And just in terms of the public perception and the public profile that you can have today? Does it feel different?

Liu: Well, one of the things that’s really important as we build products here, as I said, we’re building more groups and communities. Something which Facebook was known for is that we also learn the lessons of what actually are some of the challenges we need to inoculate against. You know, what are the things that we need to put into place ahead of time before something happens? And so that is an important part of what we do and I think those lessons will carry forward. It is, you know, wonderful to build and in a community that, you know, the genealogy community, a community of people who are passionate about family history, it’s wonderful to build with that community, just like I had built with previous community, such as moms and other groups, and really listening to their needs and really understanding what are some of the challenges they’re facing as well. And so that is part and parcel of what I do today. But I’ve learned a lot of lessons of what we should do right. And what were some of the challenges that we had faced as well that we can carry forward here?

Murray: Hey, Deb, I’d love to talk a little bit about your book that came out last year, Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work. Why did you write it? You were clearly trying to change something.

Liu: You know, it’s funny, I have been speaking at a Stanford class for, I guess at this point nine years. And every year, you know, the professor, Professor Pfeffer, who’s a friend…

Murray: Oh yeah, Jeff.

Liu: So he wrote a book on power. Jeff. And every year, you know, I had read his book. I give his book to tons of people. But a lot of the women will ask, well, you know, can we do all of these things? And I said, Not in the same way as a man can do. And so I wrote the companion book, as I joked with Jeff, which was, you know, how do we how do we do it our way? You know, how do we take back our power in a way that’s authentic to us? And so this book is in a lot of ways, you know, what I learned from talking to students for this many years and some of the challenges that they face. And, you know, we don’t teach our students the right way. We teach them, you know, there’s objective truth. You know, you have a GMAT score or you have an SAT score, you have a ranking where everything is quantified. And that truth is the truth of school. But when you get out into the real world, things are about dimensions. There are there’s a lot of shades of gray. There’s a lot, people are going to be better at certain things than others, you know. And so you’re always not you’re not going to be at the top of the class all the time. And the soft skills, the ability to persuade and influence has so much more than just having the facts at your fingertips. And so this book is really about persuasion, about connection, about relationships, and about the soft skills that make someone successful in the workplace.

Murray: So give us a couple of examples. How is the exercise of power different for women than for men?

Liu: I’ll give you an example that’s in the book. There was a study that was published in the Harvard Business Review that said men are considered leaders if they’re competent, and women are considered leaders if they’re competent and warm. And in the two-by-two matrix of men and women being warm and not warm and competent and not competent. Look there’s just an extra criteria for women. If you do not have the base warmth for people who feel like they can connect with you, you will struggle as a woman leader. And that’s the truth of and I’m sure you’ve seen this and a lot of the leaders that you’ve met over the years. And so you get to decide what to do. You get to say, you know what, that’s not fair. And absolutely, I agree that’s not fair. And then you get to decide, what do I do next? Do I put this information aside? But what if you’re just somebody who like me? I just was not a very warm person. I was really hard to connect to. I got tons of feedback about it and I really struggled for a long time. And then I decided I need to understand what it means to be warm and I need to figure out how to connect with people. And, you know, I always tell people like, do you think it’s fair that there’s an extra criteria? Absolutely not. If I told you you had to learn Spanish to be effective at your job, you would go learn Spanish. And so I cultivated it, understood, and I treated it as a skill how to connect with people, how to build relationships, how to influence, and how to build a level of warmth so that people want to talk to me, want to connect with me, want to hear what I have to say. And I don’t think it’s it’s for everybody. But at the same time, I feel like if you don’t choose, it’s chosen for you. And so I ask that women really confront these facts and really say, you know what, This is the intentional choice I’m going to make, and I’m going to understand that that is where I’m going to go forward.

Lev-Ram: Deb, it’s been 10 years, I think, since Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In. And I know she was a bit of a mentor for you at Meta, at Facebook. I’m just wondering, in light of your book and everything you just said, what do you think has changed and what hasn’t changed since Lean In came out for women in the workplace?

Liu: Well, I think that since Lean In came out, it was a battle cry for a lot of women who felt like they didn’t know. And by the way, when I was interviewing for Facebook, she gave me the lean in talk. This is 2009, many years before her book had come out. And she really changed…

Lev-Ram: She workshopped it on you.

Liu: She workshopped it on me, and she absolutely convinced me to join Facebook, and I had an incredible career because of her. And I do want to say that it really changed me. I was one of the people she talked about in the book. I had had a baby and, you know, when I joined, I was still nursing a newborn, and I had a toddler at home. I was kind of bored at my job. I was thinking about leaving tech, and she got to me at the right time. She gave me the talk. And by the way, I’m only here today because of her book and because of her talk. And so I do want to give credit to so much that she she brought me out of my complacency and brought me to the career I have today. But, you now, the playing field is still not fair. It’s still not level to this day, 10 years later. And I think us acknowledging that and saying, hey, we still have a lot of work to do. And I think she got unfair criticism saying that, you know, she should fix the system. But my the reason and I wrote this in my book, you know, yes, if I had a magic wand, we would fix the system. But what do we do in the meantime? You know what if it takes ten, 20 years for us to get there? My daughters are 14 and 12 now. What if it’s 20 years before they, you know, the system is fair? What do they do? What is the answer then? And I think sometimes we think that, yes, we wish for what is possible, but it’s going to be a long time while a lot of women are coming of age and coming into the system, how do we help them succeed? How do we actually build more bridges so that they can get across the water as well?

Murray: Have your daughters read the book?

Liu: They have. They have. My younger one didn’t get it. My older one did.

Murray: Gets it. Yeah. Yeah. It’s really important. Can you talk a little bit about your experience growing up? I mean, you have an interesting background. You were born in Queens, but then moved to South Carolina at a very early age. How did you get from there to this position of power?

Liu: You know, it’s interesting. You know, my parents immigrated to New York. They they went to school here in America. They lived in New York. And then my dad faced a lot of discrimination at work. And his friend—turns out the Indian family in the town, we were the Chinese family in the town—said, Why don’t you come move to South Carolina? And you know, they don’t discriminate here in the government. And so my dad picked up his entire family and he moved to the South. And it was so different to be in a town where no one looked like us. And it was really, really hard. And I remember just wanting to be smaller, quieter, less. I wanted, you know, if people just didn’t comment every day. People thought I was strange. They would, you know, ask a difficult questions. You know, I was made fun of a lot. And I just I became quieter and quieter and smaller.

And in so many ways, the story of the book that I talk about was really coming out of that shell and being able to succeed despite that. And I say in the book, you know, you get to be the victim or beneficiary of your own history. And for a long time, I just felt like a victim. I felt like it was not fair. Why did my parents do this? It was really hard growing up in a place where there’s the amount of racial bullying, crank calls, the, you know, people egging our house, broke our windows, things like that. And my parents took it with a lot of aplomb and with a lot of grace. And I did not. And I realize something, though, is that I had so much fight in me. I was so upset and angry at how I grew up that it was actually bleeding into my relationships at work. And in fact, I talk about how at one point I was I gave a presentation about a product that was finally succeeding, was making, you know, we were on a path to a billion-dollar business. And Sheryl pulls me aside after the meeting and she said, You can stop fighting now. You’ve won. And she could see that fight was burning me up. She could see that the reaction to how I grew up, how I wanted to win at all costs was actually hurting everything I was hoping to achieve. And she’s not talking about not fighting for equal rights or not fighting for somebody who was in the same situation. She was talking about how that fight was actually alienating people, the fight for feeling like I had to win every argument. And it really shaped me in so many different ways. And it actually brought me back when she said that I had to take a step back and say, You know what, she’s right. And so much of this was unpacking all of those things and now to going from a victim to the beneficiary of my history and actually taking those things, processing them, and then helping me to look forward.

Lev-Ram: Deb, thanks so much for sharing that. And I love what you said about being the beneficiary or the victim of your background, your upbringing. I wonder if you could give us a recommendation, a book that you’ve been reading or that you’ve read recently that that you would recommend that really impacted you that’s not the one you wrote?

Liu: I absolutely loved the book, The Conversation, from Dr. Robert Livingston. It is a book that’s really hard to read, honestly, because you know somebody who’s been a minority in America for a long time who’s been a woman. And I really I look at that book and I see so much that I missed as well that we don’t have these conversations. We don’t confront some of the truths that are in the workplace. And we actually brought him in and had a chance to spend some time with him and just really confronting some of the challenges that we have in this country around, you know, the inequity that we have in so many different ways. It was confronting for me to read the book and then to speak to him about some of the challenges that we continue to face as a country. I just think everyone should read it and just internalize that, you know, look, it’s not about the facts. The facts are numbers, but it’s really people’s lives being impacted every single day. And so I hope everyone reads his book and it’s been incredible just getting to know him as well.

Murray: I just added it to my reading list.

Liu: All right.

Lev-Ram: Deb, thank you so much.

Murray: Great conversation. Really appreciate it.

Liu: Absolutely. Thank you.

Murray: Leadership Next is edited by Nicole Vergalla.

Lev-Ram: Our executive producer is Megan Arnold.

Murray: Our theme is by Jason Snell.

Lev-Ram: Leadership Next is a production of Fortune Media.

Murray: Leadership Next episodes are produced by Fortune’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel. Nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.

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