Counting Chromosomes
A blog of random musings on genealogy, genetics, science, and history

'Woj' is the nickname coined by her students decades ago, but monikers others have given her include 'The Godmother of Silicon Valley' and 'the Real Mother of Dragons'

Esther Wojcicki
Esther Wojcicki, the mother other mothers are reading to see how to raise remarkable children

With eternal gratitude, a very happy Mother's Day wish to all the mothers out there. Because, after all, without you we wouldn't have any mitochondrial DNA...and, well, we wouldn't be here at all.

This short post, though, is about a mother I've never met, but wish I had. And, yes, there's a genetic genealogy connection beyond mtDNA donation.

Esther Wojcicki (pronounced, roughly, wuu-CHIT-skee), the eldest of three children, was born Esther Denise Hochman in New York City. The family moved to California after her birth, and Esther received baccalaureates in both English and Political Science from UC Berkeley, and from the same school secondary teaching credentials and an M.A. in Journalism. She also holds an advanced degree in French and French History from the Sorbonne, Paris, and an M.A. in Educational Technology from San Jose State University.

She says that journalism has always been in her blood, but the reason she became a teacher was because it was too far for her to drive from her home—with husband Stanley Wojcicki, professor of physics at Stanford University, and her three children—in Palo Alto to San Francisco to be a reporter. Esther thought, "If I can't be a journalist, why not just teach journalism?"

She began teaching at Palo Alto High School in 1984, where she founded the Media Arts programs at Palo Alto High School, taught and mentored many of Silicon Valley's brightest including Steve Jobs' daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, and helped launch the Google Teachers Academy. The journalism program at Palo Alto High has grown to become one of the largest such high school programs in America. In 1990, Esther was named Northern California Journalism teacher of the year, and in 2002 was named California Teacher of the Year.

Wojcicki family
An idyllic portrait of the Wojcicki family

She was awarded the Gold Key by Columbia Scholastic Press Association in 2009; she's on the Board of Trustees of the Developmental Studies Center and on the Board of Governors of the Alliance for Excellent Education; she is Chairman of the Board of Learning Matters; she's Chief Learning Officer for Explore Planet3, an exploration based science platform for middle school students. She is on the board of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. and the Freedom Forum; is the founder of the Journalistic Learning Initiative at the University of Oregon; is the founder of the Moonshots in Education Movement; and she has an honorary doctorate from Palo Alto University.

That's an impressive resume. But none of it is what Esther is known for best. What she's best known for is being a mother. Esther has three daughters. They are, alas, a brood of disappointing underachievers, but you may have heard of them anyway:

  • Susan Wojcicki has been the CEO of YouTube since 2014; she was involved in the founding of Google, becoming Google's first marketing manager in 1999. She started her first business at age 11, selling "spice ropes" door-to-door.
  • Janet Wojcicki, PhD, MPH, is a Fulbright-winning anthropologist, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and researcher at the University of California School of Medicine. She has over 60 peer-reviewed research publication credits.
  • Anne Wojcicki is the co-founder and CEO of personal genomics company 23andMe; her alma mater is Yale University and she was a researcher in molecular biology at the National Institutes of Health and the University of California, San Diego (and an irresistible bit of Anne trivia: she was a competitive ice skater and played on the Yale varsity women's ice hockey team).

How to Raise Successful People
How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 7 May 2019, ISBN 978-1328974860

Ergo one of Esther's nicknames being "the Real Mother of Dragons."

This is also a reason why, when Esther Wojcicki talks about parenting, the world listens. And for Mother's Day 2019 Esther has released her latest book: How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results.

In a time of increased anxiety and helicopter parenting, Wojcicki's advice on helping your child lead seems to speak for itself. A must-read for parents of children of all ages.
     —Library Journal, Starred review

The foreword to the book is alone worth the price of admission. A collaboration by all three of her remarkable daughters, it offers a very personal glimpse of what it was like to grow up with Esther as a mother, where key themes were "independence, financial responsibility, open-mindedness, fearlessness, and an appreciation for life." Where "at every age, our parents listened and acted like it was a two-way street for learning. We learned to advocate for ourselves, to listen, and to realize we might be wrong."

We three sisters are the original output of our mom's philosophy, but after us came many thousands of students in her journalism program. All around the world we meet people who stop us to say, 'You know, your mom really changed my life. She believed in me.' She doesn't just influence people while they are in her class. She influences them for life.
     —Susan, Janet, and Anne Wojcicki

Happy Mother's Day!