Silicon Valley godmother Esther Wojcicki believes leaders are made, not born.
Courtesy of Esther Wojcicki

Esther Wojcicki's Secrets for Raising Great Leaders

If her own powerful brood—daughters Susan, Janet, and Anne—is any indication, her methods work.
April 19, 2019

Esther Wojcicki didn’t set out to raise CEOs. But she knew she wanted her children—and students—to have an upbringing vastly different from the one she had endured. “If I didn’t behave, I was beaten,” says the longtime educator and matriarch of one of the most well-known families in Silicon Valley. “My father’s philosophy was ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ ”

Wojcicki, or “Woj,” as she’s known to the 700 teenagers enrolled in her popular Media Arts Program at Palo Alto High School, came up with her own philosophy after many years of teaching and parenting. She lays out the secrets to cultivating effective and ethical leaders in a new book, How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. Her tried-and-tested formula? It all boils down to TRICK, a catchy acronym that stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness.

If Wojcicki’s offspring are any indication, her method works. Her firstborn, Susan Wojcicki, is the CEO of YouTube. Janet Wojcicki is a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco. And Anne Wojcicki, the baby of the family, is the founder and CEO of genetic testing company 23andMe. “Our parents taught us to believe in ourselves and our ability to make decisions,” the three write in the book’s foreword. “We don’t remember ever having our ideas or thoughts dismissed because we were children.”

Wojcicki’s guide to raising successful people weaves together stories of her own harsh childhood (in addition to being beaten by her father, she says, her formative years were defined by the loss of her baby brother, who died after accidentally swallowing a handful of pills) with actionable takeaways based on TRICK. One of her keys to instilling trust, for example, is to give teenagers a budget and let them shop for needed items on their own. Financial literacy skills can be taught early on, says Wojcicki. She showed her daughters a compound interest chart when they were still in grade school, and growing up, the three sisters sold so many lemons from their neighbor’s yard that they became known as the “lemon girls.”

Family ties (from left): Wojcicki sisters Anne, Susan, and Janet at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Douglas Friedman—Trunk Archive

The TRICK philosophy can be of value to employers too, says Wojcicki. In her book, she notes that CEOs like John Mackey of Whole Foods and other leaders known for “employee empowerment” are interested in her methods. “The ultimate goal of TRICK is creating self-responsible people in a self-responsible world,” she writes. “This is what we’re doing as parents, teachers, and employers—not just raising children or managing classrooms and boardrooms, but building the foundation of the future of humankind.”

While Wojcicki’s book may be the latest in a long list of literature focused on fostering success, rarely does this genre get written from the perspective of a mother. Fortune caught up with the 78-year-old matriarch in her Palo Alto home, where she sat surrounded by family photos, to talk about raising leaders, the recent college admissions scandal, and the thorny issue of technology’s dark side. That last point is a hot topic in the Wojcicki family, she says—no surprise given that two of her three daughters run sometimes-controversial tech companies. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Fortune: Why did you write the book and why now?

Esther Wojcicki: So many people were asking me what I did with my daughters and what I did with my students. I thought, Well, if everyone really wants to know how I did it, perhaps it would be easier if I just wrote a book. I’ve spent a lifetime collecting this information, and I thought I would share it with the world. This is my legacy—I’m trying to make sure that people understand the power of giving children control of their learning.

What can employers learn from TRICK?

If you treat employees the same way, if you believe in them and give them an opportunity to perform, then they believe in themselves. It is really crazy, but when someone believes in you, you’re willing to take more risks and willing to be more creative.

Just imagine if you have an employer who thinks poorly of you; the only way you’re going to be able to perform is by following their directions exactly. And where is the creativity in that? All these employers want people who are creative and willing to take a risk, and all the people coming out of college are trained not to take a risk. They’re trained to follow instructions. If you don’t follow instructions, you don’t get a good grade. We’re producing a nation of rule followers—a nation of sheep.

If you just look at Google [parent company of YouTube], the main thing they do is give their employees a sense of freedom by saying, if you want to work on a 20% project [a policy allowing employees to devote themselves to whatever they want for 20% of the time], you have the right to do that. Google turned out to be one of the most creative companies on the planet.

What does the college admissions scandal say about the state of education and parenting?

Students are not engaged enough, and their parents—who are a nation of “snowplow parents”—are clearing the way and giving students tutors who basically cheat for them. The parents were all going crazy trying to get kids to pass tests that are completely irrelevant to the real world. The work world is not a series of tests. The work world is a series of projects and people collaborating together. We are not training students the right way. The business world is complaining that they aren’t getting students who are properly prepared. But they need to realize that they should not use the SAT as a gauge for what makes a good employee.

Courtesy of Esther Wojcicki

Of the five TRICK principles, which is the hardest for employers to implement?

Trust. Employers don’t trust their employees, so they have a lot of mechanisms to make sure employees are actually doing the work that they’re supposed to do. I can understand why it’s hard because there are people out there who don’t do what they’re supposed to do. But I would suggest explaining the culture of the company and talking about how you’re giving people more trust and respect, and how you’re expecting people to honor that. If there are violations, then you do have to change the rules. But I would say that most people work really hard. The second hardest is kindness.

Why is kindness so hard?

Because we don’t have a word in the English language that expresses happiness when other people succeed—that we don’t have the word shows that we don’t even have the concept. When you have a profit motive in mind and somebody doesn’t meet your expectations, that profit motive becomes the most important thing, and kindness disappears.

How do you define success?

I would define success as people who have a place to live, a job, a passion of some kind, food to eat, and relationships. No. 1 is positive relationships. That is success as far as I’m concerned. The community is so important. In America we need that today more than ever.

Does technology help or hinder the implementation of TRICK values?

Technology is good because it empowers kids; it gives them the opportunity to find information themselves. The downside is we spread misbehavior. The question is how do we regulate that. Do we want to hide [information]? Suicides in high schools—if you cover the suicide and talk about it, statistics [show] there’s an upsurge of suicides that happen after. One thing we should do is promote media literacy and media education: how to use your phone ethically, how to use technology for information. The only thing we do now is confiscate kids’ phones, which is ridiculous. They don’t learn anything; they just learn that the phone is forbidden fruit.

A version of this article appears in the May 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Raising Superwomen.”