For years, all tech executive Deborah Liu wanted to do was leave behind her past growing up in South Carolina. But fate would have it, last year she became president and CEO of the $4.7 billion company Ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogy service provider specializing in connecting people at their roots.
The daughter of immigrants from China, Liu grew up in the south where she was constantly bullied because of her Asian background. “Being told you were different, being told you were the other, being told you don’t belong, that you should go out – it was very alienating as a kid,” he said. she explained to Know Your Value. “It was rocket fuel that made me say you know what, I’m going to get a scholarship, I’m going to college, and I’ll never look back.”
She rose through the ranks at PayPal, Ebay and started Facebook Marketplace as VP of Product Development. She also co-founded the non-profit organization Women in Product, dedicated to empowering women in product management roles while advocating for equal representation in the male-dominated field.
But despite her many accomplishments, the tech veteran realized she would never completely let go of the painful memories of her upbringing without reconciling them first. “Now it’s about finding that level of forgiveness about what the past has been for me,” she said. “It’s been a process.”
One she shares honestly and openly in her first book published this month, “Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Working Women.” Part memoir, part career guide, Liu shares her triumphs and challenges as a woman of color who rose through the corporate ladder from South Carolina to Silicon Valley.
The mother-of-three recently spoke to Know Your Value about her rise in tech, as well as her top tips for women to stand up for themselves at work, in their relationships and in their communities.
Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Know your worth: what inspired you to write this book?
Liu: For the past eight years I’ve coached women one on one, where someone would just bring me a problem and I’d go with them. I noticed that there were a lot of commonalities between these women: blocking issues, having a bad manager, feeling like they weren’t being heard. I felt that if I had a book, I could send it to them to read first and then have a richer conversation.
I was also inspired by Jeffrey Pfeffer’s “7 Rules of Power” but found that to be overkill for many women. Instead, it prompted me to write a book aimed at women.
Know your worth: What would be your most important lessons to take from the book?
Liu: That would be the one that a lot of people don’t realize: that the most important career decision you can make is who you marry. It is absolutely true. Your family life affects your professional life. For me, that makes the biggest difference. When you’re 20, you don’t know it, but when you’re 40 and you’re driving the kids, running the house, and walking the dogs, it’s all up to you.
Looking back, I met my husband when I was 18 and never thought about any of these things. How many times have you filled out roommate surveys that are more comprehensive than the surveys you do – if any – before you got married? We prepare so much for marriage, but we don’t prepare for our marriage or our long-term partnership, and that balance affects what happens at work.
And for young women, it’s about charting your own course. When you enter the job market, some people say, “Where is the roadmap? There are so many options and you always feel like someone is in front of you. Charting your course means maybe you should do your own thing, set your own milestones rather than live with someone else’s idea of success.
Know your worth: What advice would you give to women who have had to leave the workforce or take a career step aside during the pandemic?
Liu: In times like these, your allies are your best resource. It’s this network, the people you trust, your old team, that will find you your next role or help you negotiate your next offer. We are afraid to sometimes ask for what we want.
That’s what made a huge difference in my career – having a manager who supports me. When I came back [from maternity leave with my third child], my dad was in hospice and the baby had colic and I thought I just couldn’t do it. When I considered picking up, he pointed to the executives above us, and they all had wives who stayed home or had part-time jobs. He said, “They don’t do it alone, why do you expect to do it?”
If I hadn’t had him as my manager, I probably wouldn’t be here today. Eventually he gave me his job when he left, then I took over as manager and became the first non-developer to run the platform. If you can find that manager or that company, that’s how you go up. When your manager supports you, you feel it.
Know Your Worth: How do you help retain and advance other women and parents in the industry?
Liu: I founded a non-profit organization, Women in Product, and it has 30,000 members. I started because… when I got to Facebook there were less than 10% women [in product management]. I found out it was because Google ended up requiring a computer science degree for its product managers and typically 20% of those degrees are earned by women.
So all of a sudden, women who have successful careers in this field couldn’t enter Facebook as a product manager. I spent years investigating and then realized that this requirement…was eliminating people who might be future leaders. [At Facebook] we started advocating for dropping the degree requirement, then the technical interview, then we changed the interview process to be fairer – over time we were able to change the figures.
I explain this because there was no conspiracy to discriminate against women, it was just a choice made by a company that permeated the industry. We lost a whole generation of women [this way]so we advocated changing that through the nonprofit.
Also, since the pandemic, the remote work policy has become a priority for women. [at Ancestry]. Before I started, the company decided to do three days a week in the office. But after his announcement, employees said their lives had changed…and that wasn’t what they wanted. Only 5% wanted to return to the office. So I said, why not just let people choose? After that, so many women came to me and said thank you.
Although this change was not made specifically to support women, it shows that flexibility is generally more valued by the person who has to manage the household. [It] allows those who manage the household to progress in their careers and allows women to stay longer in the labor market. It is this inflexibility that is at the root of the wage gap between men and women.
Know Your Worth: In the book, you talk about being bullied as a child because of your Asian heritage. How did you develop your resilience and how has this experience shaped your journey?
Liu: Being a kid and being different is really hard – when no one is like you, when people have no idea… [my community] was less than 1 percent Asian. You think about what you mean to someone else. People would say go back where you came from – imagine someone saying that to a 6 year old!
I tried to be calm and unassuming, thinking that if no one noticed me, then maybe the kids would stop talking about me. Other people build their confidence by destroying others – that’s exactly what growing up was like. I learned to deal with it, but it was very difficult [and] It took me a long time to find forgiveness, honestly.
… The reason I was so drawn to Ancestry was because I believe we have more in common than we have differences.
My parents came from a country they never left and came to America, a place they had never been. How many hundreds of thousands of stories are there of people who have just retired, because of starvation, because of schooling, because of so many reasons?
The immigrant story is one of resilience and that is what makes America amazing. I hope that’s what we keep remembering, that we all come from somewhere and we’re all here. And we are all connected in a special way.
Know Your Worth: What have you learned since leading Ancestry during the pandemic?
Liu: This is an unprecedented time in our economy and in the world. Leaders are expected to step in and becoming CEO has given me perspective on many of these issues.
I walked in not knowing how it was going to be; I hadn’t met anyone from the company before I arrived. I waited several months before meeting someone. But we are evolving and changing faster in our society than we ever have before. What I learned is that humans are very adaptable and we rise to the occasion when asked.