Benjamin Vedrenne Cloquet in conversation with Esther Wojcicki

CEO of EdTechX Holdings and Partner at IBIS Capital - Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet interviews Esther Wojcicki, 'The Godmother of Silicon Valley' - leading an engaging conversation about her formative years, her inspirations and the importance of education for bettering the lives of young people.

The mother of three incredibly successful daughters - as highlighted in her book 'How to Raise Happy & Successful Children' - Esther explains the role her TRICK principles played in achieving this and how her TRACT programme is now being used to empower a new generation of young learners.

Watch their interview below and stay tuned for future EdTechX Stories to be released very soon! 


Note: EdTechX Stories are produced as video podcasts and are designed to be watched and heard. The following is a transcription of the audio recording generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers which, in some cases, may be incomplete or inaccurate. Please check the corresponding video audio before quoting in print.

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Short weekly interactions with CEOs, founders, investors, and innovators, shaping and making the future of education and work.

Benjamin Vedrenne-Cloquet in Conversation with Esther Wojcicki

Esther Hello. My name is Esther Wojcicki. I am very happy to be here. My nickname is WOJ - W-O-J. It's something that my students invented for me. Oh, my God. It must have been 40 years ago. It's true. And I was born in New York City in 1940. Can you believe that? Oh, my God. That's like another world. Well, it was! And I am a teacher. I'm an author. I'm a mother. I'm a grandmother. Oh, and I'm an entrepreneur for sure. And today I live in Silicon Valley, sort of the headquarters of entrepreneurship. It was infectious. And so, I caught the infection. And so, I'm very excited to be here and to tell you a little bit about my story.

Benjamin Esther. Hello. How are you? Welcome to our EdTechX Innovator Stories. You're a writer, a journalist, and also one of the most influential and renowned educators in America. I've read that you've been teaching for more than 36 years in Palo Alto. You've also be named the Godmother of Silicon Valley. I'm not even sure there is even a Godfather of Silicon Valley. So, well done. And the reason you've been named Godmother of Silicon Valley is because you have mentored so many kids who have turned out to be high achievers, including your own kids. And I guess my first question to you is where did you go to school? And is there a defining moment in your education or defining someone that inspired you to become the great educator you are today? 

Esther So, I went to school in Los Angeles at an elementary school called Sunland Elementary School and then a high school called Verdugo Hills High School. And they're not very exciting. It's just a Los Angeles public school. And there was a defining moment that happened when I was ten years old that really made me question everything that was happening and question what was going on with my education. And it's explained in detail in my book how to Raise Successful People.

But it was a tragedy that happened that took the life of my youngest brother, who was 18 months old at the time. And what happened was that I realized at that point that no matter who you are and no matter how many titles you have after your name, that you need to be questioned because people don't know as much as they think they or say that they know. And if they know it, they might not be using that information to help you at that point. So, if you yourself aren't able to think through things, you risk having a lot of bad things happen to you in life. So, I realized that education was the most important thing you could do for yourself.

And then, as I grew up, I realized that I wanted to help other people also realize the importance of education in their lives, for helping them live better lives.

Benjamin Thank you for sharing this story. And I guess that's maybe the reason as well why you've been a journalist as well, asking questions and being inquisitive. Another question I have for you, Esther, is - the press talks a lot about you being a super mother. You've raised three daughters, and the three of them are off the charts successful tech entrepreneurs and scientists. Suzanne is the CEO of YouTube. Janet is a professor at UC San Francisco, and an anthropologist as well. Anne is the CEO of 23andMe. So, you had a lot of success raising and parenting. I guess you could have launched your own cereal brand, but instead, you wrote a book, as you said, ‘How to raise successful kids’ to share your education and parenting principles. And that's what you call ‘TRICK’. So, can you share this TRICK with us? And can you give us your T, your R, your I, your C, and your K around parenting and education?

Esther So, yes, the secret that I explain in my book, the secret to my parenting and to my teaching that has been very successful is TRICK. And it's an acronym that I came up with to try to help people remember what I consider important. And TRICK stands for Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. And just a teeny bit more in detail, it's basically you trust and respect your children, respect their ideas, no matter how wacky they are. Give them a lot of independence, collaborate with them, don't dictate and treat them with kindness all the time. And that goes for being in a school, as a teacher, and also for being a parent. When you trust and respect your kids, they trust and respect themselves. And they also feel empowered so that they're willing to collaborate with you. And they don't just force their own ideas or do things that make no sense. They actually talk to you. And the most important thing as they become teenagers is for you to maintain open communication, because the last thing you want them to do is do things that are problematic and not feel that they can talk to you about it.

So that's why TRICK works really effectively for my students, for my children, actually for my life, for my partner, for my husband, for everybody. Everyone wants to be trusted and respected.

Benjamin Okay. And did you apply at the time, those principles when you were raising Susan, Janet, and Anne, or did you find out after the fact that was the reason why you've been, I guess, empowering and successful in parenting?

Esther Those are the principles I used. I didn't create the acronym at that point. I didn't really know. I didn't have a way of describing what I was doing to anybody. I actually spent a lot of time trying to come up with this when I was writing my book. But my very first thing when my children were born was I wanted to teach them to think for themselves and to be independent. And it's kind of crazy. But I started when they were just little kids, one year old, two years old, teaching them to do things, little bits at a time. And one thing I realized that I'm really good at, and I guess I didn't realize it for many years, is that I'm very good at breaking down an action or a thought process or an activity into little parts and then teaching people those little parts that then add up to a bigger, more substantial activity. So, I was able to teach kids, my children, for example, how to swim at ages that people never thought children could learn to swim because I was able to break down the whole swimming process. So, they were swimming when they were like 12 to 14 months old.

And I taught them a lot of things that people, I guess, don't expect little children to do early. And it was successful since I was so successful at teaching them, I just kept doing it. And so by the time they were five or Susan was five years old, when we moved to Switzerland, and she was not the slightest bit hesitant to learn another language, which she did, and felt very comfortable interacting with other kids, speaking French after just about three months. So, I did that in my classroom because I also felt that it was really important to give kids the opportunity to believe in themselves. And believing in yourself and not being irrational about it, being able to explain why you think the way you do is a gift for anybody. And so that's what happened in my classes. I think I asked my students, why are you taking my class? Why not take some other class? Because there's a lot of other classes out there. They sound pretty interesting to me. And they all told me that the reason they were taking my class is they heard from other kids and their friends that I trusted them and gave them a lot of freedom.

And there is nothing like freedom that attracts a kid. They all want to be trusted and respected and given some independence. And I'll tell you, it worked like a charm. So, my program at Palo Alto High School is the largest media program in the United States. Now it has over 700 kids taking Learning how to write. Can you imagine kids, teenagers, signing up for a class where the main focus is teaching you how to write? Most kids run the other way, but here they all run into the class and they love being part of it, and it's because they get to work with their friends and have a lot of control. So that's the main reason.

Benjamin Thank you, Esther. When you and I last met, I remember it was in Beijing in December 2019 before the world got crazy. And at the time, you told me that you were working on launching your own company, a new education technology company called Tract. Right? And by the way, you're the only grandmother I know - and I forget how many grandchildren you have - nine or ten, right?

Esther I have ten grandchildren.

Benjamin Okay. You're the only grandmother of ten grandchildren I know. We're starting a new career as a tech entrepreneur. How did you go from, I guess, your TRICK to Tract? And can you tell us what it is and who is behind this?

Esther So I'll tell you a little bit about Tract. Tract is a company that I co founded with a former student named Ari Memar. He graduated from Palo Alto High School in 2006 and then from UCLA in chemical engineering four years later. And what we did with Tract is try to empower kids, try to take the sense of empowerment from my program to the web to give kids an opportunity to be creators and to be learning things that they care about. And so Tract is a program or it's a platform on the Web by kids. It is kids that are creating it. They're between the ages of 16 and 20, for kids between the ages of 8 and 14. So they create learning paths or what they're calling learning pass. But really, they're activities that are gamified, that are fun, that embed what I call the four C's. Four C's being creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. Those four C's are embedded in the activity, and they're fun, they're exciting, and they're all created by teenagers. And so far, it's going really well. There are eight full time people and about 30 creators. And the creators are the ones that are creating these learning paths.

And they're amazing, absolutely amazing kids that are doing it. And this month, in the month of May, no, February 2021, what we're doing is celebrating Black History Month and helping try to raise awareness for all groups that might not be appreciated the way they should be. And then next month we're going to do something on mental health because there's a mental health crisis in the world as a result of COVID. And then the month after that, we're going to do climate issues. Now, who came up with these ideas? Not me. It was the kids. So what we want to do is give them the opportunity to do things that they care about in a creative way and give them control. And it's for kids that are younger. There's nothing more exciting for a younger kid than be influenced by an older kid. So that's part of what we're doing. And it's Tract (, and it's available everywhere, worldwide. Well, right now it's just in English, but we're hoping to go into Spanish sometime later this year and then eventually go into more languages because this is something needed all over the world, not just in the US but everywhere. It's really important.

Benjamin Well, maybe I'll help you to bring it to the UK or France or Europe. It sounds very interesting and I've looked at it and it's great. It's an app, and you call it "Where kids find their calling" and an app "to master the subjects that are not taught in school" which I really like.

Thank you, Esther. We're going to move now to the random quickfire questions. Okay? So, I'll give you 1 second of both. So I'm going to ask you A or B and you're going to have to answer with your heart. Okay. Are you ready?

Esther Ready. Yes. Very excited.

 Benjamin Public school or private school?

Esther Public school

Benjamin Teacher or Technology?

Esther Teacher

Benjamin Grit or grades?

Esther Great

Benjamin Tiger mom or Panda mom?

Esther Panda mom

 Benjamin Esther, we are at the end of this interview and my last question for you is who would you like to nominate to be part of our next EdTechX innovator stories and can you tell us who and why.

Esther So I'd like to nominate my friend Larry Rosenstock. Larry is absolutely an amazing person. He follows the same philosophy I do about empowering kids, project based learning, peer to peer. He started a charter school system in San Diego, California called High Tech High and it's incredible. This same methodology that I use, he uses and so you can see in his programs exactly the same outcomes. Outstanding students, who otherwise would have probably failed out of the public school system, that are trusted and respected. It's the same TRICK model and it's amazing to see. So I'd like to nominate Larry and I'm sure he would be a fantastic interviewee for you.

Benjamin Okay, Larry, here we come. Esther, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for pioneering our EdTechX innovator stories. Merci beaucoup and à bientôt!

Esther A bientôt!