When Jim Citrin — a noted expert on leadership, executive success and CEO succession — reached out to Deb Liu about interviewing for the role of CEO at a public company, Liu asked, “Why me?” — immediately recoiling from the idea. But all she had to do was look at her family tree to find the insight she needed to answer that question for herself.
The child of two Chinese immigrants, Liu grew up in Hanahan, South Carolina, and had always been inspired by her parents. “They came to the U.S. in the ’60s with a couple of suitcases and a couple hundred dollars and built their life here,” she says. The tremendous courage she saw in them she was also able to find in herself.
In March 2021, as a mother of three, Liu was named CEO of Ancestry — the world’s largest consumer DNA network, which is based in Lehi, Utah. Ancestry now employs more than 1,400 people, earns more than $1 billion in annual revenue and has collected more than 13 billion ancestral profiles for its users to find and learn more about their heritage. For Liu, who had found so much wisdom in the stories of those in her family who came before her, the mission of the company felt like a perfect fit.
Now, as she marks one year in the position, Liu looks back on what she’s learned about those who came before her, diversity in the workforce and opportunities available to women — and looks ahead to making a better world for the next generation of business leaders.
As told to Lauren Steele
When I asked Jim Citrin “Why me?” his response was, “Why not? This is your chance.” And he was right.
When I first doubted myself and said “no,” I was contributing to the problem of keeping diverse leadership out of the room. A sense of belonging is so important, but it’s harder as a woman or minority. And I get that. The system and a lot of things are not fair, but at the same time, when you do have the opportunity, you have to embrace it.
My leadership coach recently told me something that really stuck with me. She said, “When you’re in that room and you’re looking around and no one looks like you, you should take every advantage of that. Show up and get the job done.” She was right. You don’t get every opportunity, but you have to take every opportunity you do get.
That’s something that I think about for my daughters.
My eldest, when she was about 10, came to visit my office in Lehi, and looked around and said very matter of fact, “You mostly work with boys.”
It’s something that hasn’t changed since I was a student. I went to Duke to study engineering. My dad was an engineer. My sister was studying engineering at Georgia Tech. It seemed like a natural thing for me to study. But when I showed up to my first class, I was in for a shock. I was like, where are all the girls? One class had 70 men and only four women. And I remember walking down the ramp into the lecture hall thinking, “Oh my, this is really uncomfortable.”
Recently, a former colleague brought his daughter with him to a meeting of all the managers at the company. Before the meeting started as everyone was seated, she asked him, “Is this meeting only for boys?” She was only four at the time. And he had to tell her, “No, it’s not, but we can do better.”
And he’s right. She was, too. This is what the playing field looks like to the perspective of a 4-year-old. These inequalities don’t go unnoticed by our children. They have observations that turn into impactful experiences.
And that translates into many people making a decision early on that will affect the rest of their life, just based on a sense of belonging they’ve gathered. And those observations continue to reinforce themselves throughout adulthood and at the office.
For example, we were thinking about acquiring a company and had a big meeting with that company. The CEO starts talking to one of my teammates that I manage. And the CEO only talks to that man on my team — I am cut out of the conversation. At some point, my teammate gestures to me and very calmly says, “You know, she decides whether we buy your company or not.” And the CEO was horrified, just beet red.
But the inequality isn’t just experienced, it’s documented. There are studies that say men are seen as leaders if they’re competent, but women have to be competent and warm.
Another study showed that in the office, women are expected to stay late with their team with no reward. But if men stay late, they’re rewarded. There are so many of these studies that show there are different expectations that we have of men and women in the workplace. A lot of it is just ingrained in us. Is it fair to have an extra requirement of women that men don’t have? It’s absolutely not fair. But I want to identify those barriers and the things that we can do to change them.
The question becomes, what are you gonna do about it? The playing field is uneven and there are a lot of things playing against you, so you’ve got to take the raw materials you have and turn them into fuel to get to where you want to go. Even if it’s hard to imagine getting there.
If you close your eyes and imagine what a leader looks like, I think we kind of have the fixed idea that a leader is a person at the front — but actually, a great leader is at the back, making sure no one falls behind.
This goes beyond diversity that is just a checkbox for workplaces. I’m not just talking about pure representation. I’m talking about seeing people in action and seeing those differences actually become strengths. And if you take every chance you have to help other people and rise together, you can get much further than you thought you could.
If that CEO of that company we were contemplating acquiring was just playing the odds of who he thought was in charge of our company, the chances were that he probably would’ve been right, probability-wise. More executives, business leaders and CEOs in this country are men and are white. And at the end of the day, we have a lot of stereotypes that are easy to play into. When you walk into a room, you defer to the most powerful person — and who that person may be is often identified only by making assumptions. Currently, we don’t automatically default to the person who’s a woman or someone of color, because the odds say that the leader is probably going to be white and a man. I hope to change those odds someday.
I hope that by the time my daughters and son get to the workplace they think all these barriers and inequalities are crazy things of the past and it never happens to them. But you know, there are a lot of women I’ve talked to that thought that by the time they got into the workplace and rose to the top, this would no longer be a problem. And yet, here we are.
I have a lot of hope for the future, but I also am realistic about some of the challenges that we face. And that means that we have to be more cognizant of the challenges we do have, but also take every opportunity we can to make a positive change.
Deborah Liu’s upcoming book, “Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work,” will be published in August 2022.