American Dreamers: Ancestry CEO Deb Liu Honors Family Ties And Redefines What Leadership Is Today

Tech Industry

American Dreamers is a series of conversations with leading Asian American entrepreneurs and business leaders in which they open up about everything from their startup stories and company building to confronting racism and making it in America.

I love doing this series because, not only do I meet incredible, smart, thoughtful leaders in tech, but because I get to see the variety of experiences other Asian Americans have had in their careers and in their lives as immigrants or children of immigrants. To me, that speaks to something this edition’s interviewee, Deb Liu, really embodies: the idea that leadership looks like a lot of different things. The “male genius” CEOs with outsized personalities have certainly made their mark on our industry and culture, but Deb gives voice to a different model.

In our conversation, which you’ll see below (excerpted and edited for length and clarity), Deb charts her journey from a studious, quiet kid growing up in South Carolina, with few other Asian Americans around, to the CEO of Ancestry. It wasn’t a path she ever thought she would take, but as she describes in our conversation, she’s determined to open doors for other people like her—not just women, not just people from immigrant backgrounds, but people of all backgrounds who don’t always see themselves in leadership roles.

Deb is also building Ancestry to help families from different origins better access their own histories. What shines through in this conversation is that, like me and all the other American Dreamers I’ve interviewed, for Deb, there’s nothing more important than family.

Tell us a little bit about your family’s immigrant experience. My parents immigrated from Hong Kong to America for college. They came with, in their words, “a couple of suitcases and a few hundred dollars.” I grew up with a lot of my relatives in Jackson Heights, which is an area in Queens, New York. I had an incredible childhood until age six. I was surrounded by family, and I spoke Cantonese almost exclusively other than at school. I didn’t even know this was considered “different”; it was just my home.

Have you ever experienced anti-Asian discrimination? My dad was the subject of discrimination at work in New York. His Indian American friend encouraged him to move to South Carolina and get a job at the naval shipyard there. As he said to my dad, “The government doesn’t discriminate.” We moved to South Carolina when I was six, and my sister and I were suddenly in a place where the population was less than one percent Asian. Nobody looked like me. People would come up to us in the streets and say, “Go back to where you came from.”

I found that if I just made myself smaller and took up less space—if I didn’t talk so much and draw so much attention—people would leave me alone. That really shaped my childhood. I resolved to get a scholarship to college so I could leave that world behind and never look back. I was very driven, worked incredibly hard, and got a scholarship to Duke University. My parents moved away when I graduated from high school, and I’ve never been back.

In retrospect, it was really interesting growing up in a place where you’re considered “the other” all the time, but my kids have a totally different experience. They have never seen my hometown. They’re growing up in California, in a community with a large Asian population. They love the richness of our history and language. They enjoy eating Asian food all the time without feeling self-conscious, and without others calling them out for being different. For them, it’s a celebration.

How did you get your start? When I was about to graduate from Stanford Business School, I saw a booth at the Stanford Graduate School of Business career fair for a startup called PayPal. I went up to the table and said, “I’m an eBay seller, and I love PayPal.” They asked me to come in for an interview. I originally planned to move back to North Carolina, but I didn’t—instead, I joined PayPal. For the last 20 years, I’ve been in the tech industry, all thanks to that one chance encounter. I spent five years at PayPal and two years at eBay, where I was in charge of the buyer experience. I went on to spend 11 years at Facebook, where I started as an individual contributor. By the time I left, I was on the leadership team of the company.

How was the transition from working at Facebook to being CEO of a large company? When you become a CEO, the skills you use are completely different. You’re not hands-on in the product. You’re leading a company, you’re leading a business, you’re interfacing with the customers in a completely different way. And some of the hardest decisions we make—HR decisions, location decisions, what we should do about returning to work—these are things I would never have weighed in on that much before. That has been a huge transition.

The thing I’ve had to learn is that you don’t have to be better at everything than everyone else on your team. You just have to lead in your own way. We tend to think that a great leader makes all the decisions, but actually, a great leader just ensures that the right decisions get made.

Is this a role that you’ve always aspired to? Definitely not. While others told me it was possible, I never saw it in myself. I had mentors and sponsors who encouraged me to explore a path to becoming CEO, and it was those same people who gave me the courage to make that jump when the time came.

What was it about the opportunity to lead Ancestry that was attractive to you? There’s something really special about the company. I love my family, and I’m very close to them. Ancestry is about capturing the story of your family, and how you came to be where you are and become who you are. Think about where you are today. Somebody made a decision to go across the world to a country where they likely knew almost no one, all to try to build a better life. Whether your family came to the U.S. in the 1700s or the 1900s, whether you came as a student or to work, these stories are so powerful and such an important part of what we do. I think that’s what attracted me to Ancestry: the idea of families gathering and collaborating around their family stories.

What are some of the unique challenges of being an Asian American leader? A lot of people immediately see me as a woman, as a minority. I remember going to a CEO summit and being the only woman of color in the room. I looked around and saw that less than 10 percent of the attendees were women. It often takes me a second to process the fact that no one looks like me.

I do think it’s true that you can’t be what you can’t see. For a long time, it didn’t even occur to me that being a CEO was possible. But as my leadership coach reminded me, “When you’re looking at them, they’re also looking at you.” I may be the first person like me to be in that room, but I won’t be the only one forever.

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What advice do you have for Asian Americans in tech who want to rise to these C-level positions? Something like 30 percent of the workforce in tech is Asian. But if you look at the executives, it’s less than 10 percent. That disparity is real, and, in my mind, there are three possible reasons. One is that objectively, Asian Americans are worse at their jobs than everybody else and should not get promoted. That seems unlikely. The second option is that there are things we’re doing that are keeping us from being successful—and that’s part of it. I grew up being taught to, as my dad said, “Put your head down and do the work.” He felt that great work would be automatically recognized, when that’s not always the case. The third option is that leadership looks like many different things, and companies need to change the way they promote and hire to create opportunities for people with different backgrounds, even if they are not what most leaders today look like.

Those latter two reasons are what I hope we can all work on together. This is part of why I wrote my book, Take Back Your Power, focused on women in the workplace. The playing field is not level, so what can we do about it in the meantime? What are the skills we need to learn and hone? How do we help companies see the value of people who might not look like the leaders of today, but could be the leaders of tomorrow? Are we giving them the support they need? Are we giving them the coaching necessary to get there? Diversity is objectively good for business. You have more voices, more ideas being born, more people who are different from each other and are pushing each other to be better. So companies that want to succeed should seek that out.

If you had advice for your younger self, what would that be? What would you have done differently in your career? If you’re always learning, and treating everything as a skill you can learn, you’re going to surpass someone who’s the expert now, because you’re constantly growing a little every day. However, there are also some people who are just going to be better than you at something. But life is not like school, where there’s a single top person in the class. There are different dimensions you can excel in.

I have been really intentional about choosing projects. Every year I set New Year’s resolutions, things I want to learn and ways I can challenge myself to grow. Those resolutions led me to write a book, start a newsletter, and start working out every day. I’m always learning something new; I didn’t know how to do any of these things when I started. I wouldn’t have even said I was a very good writer, if you had asked me before I started writing my book. But I had a story that I wanted to tell, and there were experiences I wanted to share, and that was the way to do it.

I’m also extremely introverted. I had to learn not just how to survive, but thrive in a society and a field that rewards extroversion. I wrote about this in my newsletter. American society has a strong bias favoring people who can process information and speak quickly. Tech has that bias too. But what about the rest of us? What if you are introverted, or English is not your first language, or you communicate in a different way?

But there are ways to address the problem, and this is what I would tell my younger self. I had someone who’s an incredible product leader, but she said, “I’m a processor. By the time I figure out what I want to say, the conversation has moved on.” How is that fair to somebody who needs time to think before they speak? It’s not, but if you treat it as a skill you can learn, you can get more comfortable. Force yourself to speak up once or twice in every meeting. Set a goal for contributing to every conversation, even if it’s just in a small way. Slowly but surely, it will get easier. These are the kinds of exercises that are really transformative over the long arc of your career.

How has your experience as a child of immigrants influenced what you’re doing in your position at Ancestry? Ancestry has traditionally helped people discover their roots through the relationship we’ve had with governments, which have records we can scan, document, index, and make available. If you’re a more recent immigrant to this country, are not from Western Europe (where our record base is the strongest), or know little about your family, it can be really hard for you to trace your roots using the system that we currently have.

We are currently working on an initiative we call Ancestry for All. We are increasing our record coverage globally. We are also increasing our investment in more social and collaboration tools so you and your family can craft your family story together. One of the reasons I joined this company was to help everybody who cares about their family discover and document their family history.

What do your parents think about what you do? My father passed away about ten years ago, and when he was in hospice, one of the last things he said to me was, “Thank you.” I am not sure he understood what I did, but he knew that my work in tech helped make his final days more comfortable. My mother lives with us now as she is managing her cancer. She is unsure what I do, but she did mention I spend a lot of time on calls in my son’s bedroom, which we’ve partly converted to my office during the day.

My parents’ American dream was a quiet life in a small town in the South. For them, having a successful life meant having security and the ability to raise a family. They left everything they knew to seek that out in America. It’s very different from the aspirations that my husband and I have, and my children’s will probably be really different too.

What are your dreams now? I talked about this in my book. The last chapter is about making your mark—what’s your legacy? What do you want to leave behind? Every single day you interact with people. Are you leaving them better off for having met you? What is it that you’re giving the world? I’ve reached a level of material success, sufficient to not have to worry about that so much. So for me, the dream is to help the next generation of people have access to the kinds of opportunities I’ve had.

What is it that you love about America? When they say America is a land of opportunity, I absolutely believe that. There’s so much here—the ideas, the people, the capital—and all of it comes together beautifully. My husband and I have talked about this. We live in a time, in a generation, where the things that we bring to the table, the country we’re in, the environment we’re in, and the industries we work in all line up. We came to them at the right moment. And I wish that were possible for more people.

I love that this is a country of second chances. I love that you can fail one startup and start a new one and still get funding. I love that when one job doesn’t work out, you can find another that’s a better fit. That is something that’s difficult in another country, where opportunity is all about who you know or whether you’re well-connected enough to find access. Here, there are so many possibilities that you can create out of nothing, and I truly love that about America.

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