Adonis Diaries

Archive for September 22nd, 2015

Here we go again: Saudi Arabia ‘chosen to head key UN human rights panel’

No reprieve for further humiliation and heaping indignities on mankind? And shared by the UN?

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“The Saudis’ bid emerged shortly after it posted a job advertisement for 8 new executioners, to cope with what Amnesty International branded a “macabre spike” in the use of capital punishment, including beheadings, this year.

The HRC, the UN body responsible for promoting human rights around the world, has long been the subject of criticism for granting membership to countries with dubious human rights records.

As well as Saudi Arabia, current members include China, Qatar, Russia and Venezuela.”

Saudi Arabia is the country having “arguably the worst record in the world” …
(Who are these characters in the picture?)

The United Nations has been criticised for handing Saudi Arabia a key human rights role – despite the country having “arguably the worst record in the world” on freedoms for women, minorities and dissidents.

Critics, including the wife of imprisoned pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi – sentenced to 1,000 lashes for blogging about free speech – labelled the appointment “scandalous”, saying it meant “oil trumps human rights”.

Mr Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, who is leading an international campaign to free her husband, said on Facebook that handing the role to Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, was effectively “a green light to start flogging [him] again”.

UN Watch, an independent campaigning NGO, revealed Mr Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the UN in Geneva, was elected as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council.

Ensaf Haidar, wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images) 

Ensaf Haidar, wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
As head of a five-strong group of diplomats, the influential role would give Mr Trad the power to select applicants from around the world for scores of expert roles in countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights.

Such experts are often described as the ‘crown jewels’ of the HRC, according to UN Watch, which has obtained official UN documents, dated 17 September, confirming the appointment.

UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said the appointment, made in June but unreported until now, may have been a consolation prize for the Saudis after they withdrew their bid to head the 47-nation council following international condemnation of the kingdom’s human rights record.

Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’ on his liberal website 

Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’ on his liberal website

The Saudis’ bid emerged shortly after it posted a job advertisement for eight new executioners, to cope with what Amnesty International branded a “macabre spike” in the use of capital punishment, including beheadings, this year.

Mr Neuer described the appointment as “scandalous”.

“Saudi Arabia has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights, and continues to imprison the innocent blogger Raif Badawi,” he said.

READ MORE: Raif Badawi’s wife takes fight for Saudi blogger’s release to Washington DC
Saudi Arabia executes ‘a person every two days’ as rate of beheadings soars under King Salman
Saudi Arabia ‘seeking to head United Nations Human Rights Council’

“It’s a sad comment on our world that oil continues to trump basic human rights principles.

“It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia is a member of the council, but for the UN to go and name the regime as chair of a key panel only pours salt in the wounds for dissidents languishing in Saudi prisons.”

The UN, and the Saudi Arabian mission to the UN’s Office in Geneva (UNOG), had not responded to The Independent‘s requests for a comment at the time of writing.

Crucifixion of teenager in Saudi Arabia highlights Britain’s business deals with despots
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr is set to be beheaded and then crucified after appeal is denied.
International Business Times UK


Out of control? Online shaming spirals

In the early days of Twitter, it was like a place of radical de-shaming.

People would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say, “Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” Voiceless people realized that they had a voice, and it was powerful and eloquent.

If a newspaper ran some racist or homophobic column, we realized we could do something about it. We could get them.

We could hit them with a weapon that we understood but they didn’t — a social media shaming.

Advertisers would withdraw their advertising. When powerful people misused their privilege, we were going to get them.

This was like the democratization of justice. Hierarchies were being leveled out. We were going to do things better.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
Twitter gives a voice to the voiceless, a way to speak up and hit back at perceived injustice.
But sometimes, says Jon Ronson, things go too far.
In a jaw-dropping story of how one un-funny tweet ruined a woman’s life and career, Ronson shows…|By Jon Ronson

1:01 Soon after that, a disgraced pop science writer called Jonah Lehrer he’d been caught plagiarizing and faking quotes, and he was drenched in shame and regret, he told me. And he had the opportunity to publicly apologize at a foundation lunch.

This was going to be the most important speech of his life. Maybe it would win him some salvation. He knew before he arrived that the foundation was going to be live-streaming his event, but what he didn’t know until he turned up, was that they’d erected a giant screen Twitter feed right next to his head. (Laughter) Another one in a monitor screen in his eye line.

I don’t think the foundation did this because they were monstrous. I think they were clueless: I think this was a unique moment when the beautiful naivety of Twitter was hitting the increasingly horrific reality.

And here were some of the Tweets that were cascading into his eye line, as he was trying to apologize:

 “Jonah Lehrer, boring us into forgiving him.” (Laughter)

And, “Jonah Lehrer has not proven that he is capable of feeling shame.”

That one must have been written by the best psychiatrist ever, to know that about such a tiny figure behind a lectern.

And, “Jonah Lehrer is just a frigging sociopath.”

That last word is a very human thing to do, to dehumanize the people we hurt.

It’s because we want to destroy people but not feel bad about it.

Imagine if this was an actual court, and the accused was in the dark, begging for another chance, and the jury was yelling out, “Bored! Sociopath!”

You know, when we watch courtroom dramas, we tend to identify with the kind-hearted defense attorney, but give us the power, and we become like hanging judges.

Power shifts fast.

We were getting Jonah because he was perceived to have misused his privilege, but Jonah was on the floor then, and we were still kicking, and congratulating ourselves for punching up.

And it began to feel weird and empty when there wasn’t a powerful person who had misused their privilege that we could get. A day without a shaming began to feel like a day picking fingernails and treading water.

Let me tell you a story.

It’s about a woman called Justine Sacco.

She was a PR woman from New York with 170 Twitter followers, and she’d Tweet little acerbic jokes to them, like this one on a plane from New York to London: [Weird German Dude: You’re in first class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.”

-Inner monologue as inhale BO. Thank god for pharmaceuticals.]

So Justine chuckled to herself, and pressed send, and got no replies, and felt that sad feeling that we all feel when the Internet doesn’t congratulate us for being funny. (Laughter)

Black silence when the Internet doesn’t talk back. And then she got to Heathrow, and she had a little time to spare before her final leg, so she thought up another funny little acerbic joke:

[Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!]

And she chuckled to herself, pressed send, got on the plane, got no replies, turned off her phone, fell asleep, woke up 11 hours later, turned on her phone while the plane was taxiing on the runway, and straightaway there was a message from somebody that she hadn’t spoken to since high school, that said, “I am so sorry to see what’s happening to you.”

And then another message from a best friend, “You need to call me right now. You are the worldwide number one trending topic on Twitter.” (Laughter)

What had happened is that one of her 170 followers had sent the Tweet to a Gawker journalist, and he retweeted it to his 15,000 followers: [And now, a funny holiday joke from IAC’s PR boss] And then it was like a bolt of lightning.

A few weeks later, I talked to the Gawker journalist. I emailed him and asked him how it felt, and he said, “It felt delicious.” And then he said, “But I’m sure she’s fine.”

But she wasn’t fine, because while she slept, Twitter took control of her life and dismantled it piece by piece.

First there were the philanthropists: [If @JustineSacco’s unfortunate words … bother you, join me in supporting @CARE’s work in Africa.] [In light of … disgusting, racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today]

Then came the beyond horrified: [… no words for that horribly disgusting racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco. I am beyond horrified.]

Was anybody on Twitter that night? A few of you.

Did Justine’s joke overwhelm your Twitter feed the way it did mine? It did mine, and I thought what everybody thought that night, which was, “Wow, somebody’s screwed! Somebody’s life is about to get terrible!”

And I sat up in my bed, and I put the pillow behind my head, and then I thought, I’m not entirely sure that joke was intended to be racist.

Maybe instead of gleefully flaunting her privilege, she was mocking the gleeful flaunting of privilege. There’s a comedy tradition of this, like South Park or Colbert or Randy Newman.

Maybe Justine Sacco’s crime was not being as good at it as Randy Newman. In fact, when I met Justine a couple of weeks later in a bar, she was just crushed, and I asked her to explain the joke, and she said, “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the Third World. I was making of fun of that bubble.”

You know, another woman on Twitter that night, a New Statesman writer Helen Lewis, she reviewed my book on public shaming and wrote that she Tweeted that night, “I’m not sure that her joke was intended to be racist,” and she said straightaway she got a fury of Tweets saying, “Well, you’re just a privileged bitch, too.” And so to her shame, she wrote, she shut up and watched as Justine’s life got torn apart.

6:56 It started to get darker: [Everyone go report this cunt @JustineSacco]

Then came the calls for her to be fired.

[Good luck with the job hunt in the new year. #GettingFired] Thousands of people around the world decided it was their duty to get her fired. [@JustineSacco last tweet of your career. #SorryNotSorry Corporations got involved, hoping to sell their products on the back of Justine’s annihilation: [Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight!] (Laughter)

A lot of companies were making good money that night. You know, Justine’s name was normally Googled 40 times a month. That month, between December the 20th and the end of December, her name was Googled 1,220,000 times.

And one Internet economist told me that that meant that Google made somewhere between 120,000 dollars and 468,000 dollars from Justine’s annihilation, whereas those of us doing the actual shaming — we got nothing. We were like unpaid shaming interns for Google. (Laughter)

And then came the trolls: [I’m actually kind of hoping Justine Sacco gets aids? lol] Somebody else on that wrote, “Somebody HIV-positive should rape this bitch and then we’ll find out if her skin color protects her from AIDS.”

And that person got a free pass. Nobody went after that person.

We were all so excited about destroying Justine, and our shaming brains are so simple-minded, that we couldn’t also handle destroying somebody who was inappropriately destroying Justine. Justine was really uniting a lot of disparate groups that night, from philanthropists to “rape the bitch.” [@JustineSacco I hope you get fired! You demented bitch… Just let the world know you’re planning to ride bare back while in Africa.]

Women always have it worse than men.

When a man gets shamed, it’s, “I’m going to get you fired.” When a woman gets shamed, it’s, “I’m going to get you fired and raped and cut out your uterus.”

9:00 And then Justine’s employers got involved: [IAC on @JustineSacco tweet: This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.] And that’s when the anger turned to excitement: [All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail. #fired] [Oh man, @justinesacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands.] [We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired.

In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.] What we had was a delightful narrative arc.

We knew something that Justine didn’t. Can you think of anything less judicial than this? Justine was asleep on a plane and unable to explain herself, and her inability was a huge part of the hilarity.

On Twitter that night, we were like toddlers crawling towards a gun. Somebody worked out exactly which plane she was on, so they linked to a flight tracker website. [British Airways Flight 43 On-time – arrives in 1 hour 34 minutes] A hashtag began trending worldwide: # hasJustineLandedYet? [It is kinda wild to see someone self-destruct without them even being aware of it. #hasJustineLandedYet]

[Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave.] [#HasJustineLandedYet may be the best thing to happen to my Friday night.]

[Is no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, twitter! I’d like pictures] And guess what? Yes there was. [@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town international. And if you want to know what it looks like to discover that you’ve just been torn to shreds because of a misconstrued liberal joke, not by trolls, but by nice people like us, this is what it looks like: [… She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.]

So why did we do it?

I think some people were genuinely upset, but I think for other people, it’s because Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling. And if somebody gets in the way, we screen them out.

And do you know what that’s the opposite of? It’s the opposite of democracy.

We wanted to show that we cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. Our desire to be seen to be compassionate is what led us to commit this profoundly un-compassionate act.

As Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote in the Boston Review, “This isn’t social justice. It’s a cathartic alternative.”

For the past 3 years, I’ve been going around the world meeting people like Justine Sacco — and believe me, there’s a lot of people like Justine Sacco. There’s more every day.

And we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled. They talked to me about depression, and anxiety and insomnia and suicidal thoughts.

One woman I talked to, who also told a joke that landed badly, she stayed home for a year and a half. Before that, she worked with adults with learning difficulties, and was apparently really good at her job.

Justine was fired, of course, because social media demanded it. But it was worse than that. She was losing herself. She was waking up in the middle of the night, forgetting who she was. She was got because she was perceived to have misused her privilege.

And of course, that’s a much better thing to get people for than the things we used to get people for, like having children out of wedlock. But the phrase “misuse of privilege” is becoming a free pass to tear apart pretty much anybody we choose to. It’s becoming a devalued term, and it’s making us lose our capacity for empathy and for distinguishing between serious and unserious transgressions.

Justine had 170 Twitter followers, and so to make it work, she had to be fictionalized. Word got around that she was the daughter the mining billionaire Desmond Sacco. [Let us not be fooled by #JustineSacco her father is a SA mining billionaire. She’s not sorry. And neither is her father.] I thought that was true about Justine, until I met her at a bar, and I asked her about her billionaire father, and she said, “My father sells carpets.”

12:58 And I think back on the early days of Twitter, when people would admit shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say, “Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.”

These days, the hunt is on for people’s shameful secrets. You can lead a good, ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet can overwhelm it all, become a clue to your secret inner evil.

Maybe there’s two types of people in the world:

those people who favor humans over ideology, and those people who favor ideology over humans.

I favor humans over ideology, but right now, the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas where everybody’s either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain, even though we know that’s not true about our fellow humans.

What’s true is that we are clever and stupid; what’s true is that we’re grey areas.

The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.

Bruno Giussani: Don’t go away. What strikes me about Justine’s story is also the fact that if you Google her name today, this story covers the first 100 pages of Google results there is nothing else about her.

In your book, you mention another story of another victim who actually got taken on by a reputation management firm, and by creating blogs and posting nice, innocuous stories about her love for cats and holidays and stuff, managed to get the story off the first couple pages of Google results, but it didn’t last long. A couple of weeks later, they started creeping back up to the top result. Is this a totally lost battle?

Jon Ronson: You know, I think the very best thing we can do, if you see a kind of unfair or an ambiguous shaming, is to speak up, because I think the worst thing that happened to Justine was that nobody supported her — like, everyone was against her, and that is profoundly traumatizing, to be told by tens of thousands of people that you need to get out.

But if a shaming happens and there’s a babble of voices, like in a democracy, where people are discussing it, I think that’s much less damaging. So I think that’s the way forward, but it’s hard, because if you do stand up for somebody, it’s incredibly unpleasant.

BG: So let’s talk about your experience, because you stood up by writing this book. By the way, it’s mandatory reading for everybody, okay? You stood up because the book actually puts the spotlight on shamers. And I assume you didn’t only have friendly reactions on Twitter.

JR: It didn’t go down that well with some people. (Laughter) I mean, you don’t want to just concentrate — because lots of people understood, and were really nice about the book.

But yeah, for 30 years I’ve been writing stories about abuses of power, and when I say the powerful people over there in the military, or in the pharmaceutical industry, everybody applauds me. As soon as I say, “We are the powerful people abusing our power now,” I get people saying, “Well you must be a racist too.”

BG: So the other night — yesterday — we were at dinner, and there were two discussions going on. On one side you were talking with people around the table — and that was a nice, constructive discussion. On the other, every time you turned to your phone, there is this deluge of insults.

 JR: Yeah. This happened last night. We had like a TED dinner last night. We were chatting and it was lovely and nice, and I decided to check Twitter. Somebody said, “You are a white supremacist.”

And then I went back and had a nice conversation with somebody, and then I went back to Twitter, somebody said my very existence made the world a worse place.

My friend Adam Curtis says that maybe the Internet is like a John Carpenter movie from the 1980s, when eventually everyone will start screaming at each other and shooting each other, and then eventually everybody would flee to somewhere safer, and I’m starting to think of that as a really nice option.

3 out of 1,000 of Lebanese Own 50% of Lebanon

We wish this ration came closer to the 1% of Occupy Wall Street statistics.

How that ratio is different from the USA? From Sweden. From Saudi Arabia. From the Gulf Emirates?

The main problem is that the middle-class has almost vanished and 80% are under poverty level

Those who can make it are the class of “citizens” sharing the crumbs of the militia leaders supporters who were appointed by Syria, Saudi Arabia and the USA to control Lebanon after the civil war.

February 18, 2015

0.3% of Lebanese Own 50% of Lebanon

Lebanon isn’t a country where population studies are omnipresent.

However, given the data that the country has, Credit Suisse, in their yearly report on Global Wealth, has managed to paint a picture on how things in this country actually are.

The report dates back to October 2014, and frankly I am surprised that these numbers did not cause a stir and were not discussed. The report, at 160 pages, can be found here.

Perhaps no one noticed the info, so here they are:

At an estimated population of 4.37 million, Lebanon’s wealth is estimated at $91 billion. That actually constitutes 0% of global wealth. How anticlimactic.

When it comes to the Middle East, and despite the reputation we get of being oil-rich, things are similar:

Saudi Arabia has an estimated wealth of $653 billion, which ends up as roughly 0.2% of global wealth.

Qatar, and all our shoukrans, has $200 billion, which is 0.1% of global wealth.

The UAE is at $461 billion, and 0.2%.

Meanwhile, Israel has an estimated wealth of $843 billion, translating to 0.3% of global wealth.

All of these numbers look flimsy compared to the United States’ $8,3708 billion, constituting 31.6% of world wealth.

Keep in mind that – with the exception of Israel and the United States – Credit Suisse considers the data for Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries to be poor in quality.

However, I highly doubt that any estimations are overly erroneous in any way or that the margin of error they are admitting to will change the findings considerably.

But this isn’t the story. We all know the country has money.

Recent leaks out of Switzerland placed the country at #11 in total customers at their banks and #12 in total deposits within the few months whose data was actually leaked. We’re 10452 km2. That’s a lot (link).

The story is in how that money is actually divided on the 4.3 million Lebanese living here.

Out of all those $91 billion, 0.3% or approximately 8000 people of the estimated workforce according the study own about half (48% to be exact), which is approximately $44.6 billion.

Meanwhile, 99.7% of Lebanese own slightly more than half at $46.4 billion.

To put those numbers in perspective, Credit Suisse employed a criteria called the Gini score. The score, according to Wikipedia, is essentially a “measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income distribution of a nation’s residents, and is the most commonly used measure of inequality.”

Lebanon’s Gini score is 85.6. a score of 85.6 places Lebanon 6th worldwide in terms of wealth inequality behind Ukraine, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Seychelles and Russia.

The story doesn’t end here.

Even among those 0.3%, there are disparities. That 0.3% basically any Lebanese who has an estimated wealth above $1million. But who actually owns most of the country? The answer is two families: The Hariri clan and the Miqatis.

Forbes Lebanese Billionaires Miqati Hariri


Not to mention the females in the Hariri clan.

According to the Forbes latest list of billionaires, there are 6 Lebanese on the list whose ranking ranges from 530 worldwide to 1478.

Two of those 6 are the Miqati brothers. The other 4 are the Hariri brothers, including former PM Saad Hariri. Their cumulative wealth is estimated, according to Forbes, at $12.6 billion. This is 30% of the total wealth owned by those 0.3% of Lebanese – except it’s owned by just 6 men.

This isn’t to say that the Hariris and Miqatis do not deserve their wealth. The Miqatis started and ran a telecom empire. The Hariris started and ran a major contracting company in Saudi Arabia. Good for them.

The problem with these numbers is the other side that they portray. About two thirds of the Lebanese population (64.6%) have an estimated wealth of less than $10,000.

Such numbers indicate massive poverty in the country, and yet I was unable to find substantial studies apart from one that was recently done by the UN about Tripoli.

In numbers, (link) the UN found that 57% of Tripoli’s families struggle to reach an acceptable standard of living, while 26% are considered extremely deprived. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that things are similar in other regions beyond Beirut.

To the background of this massive poverty is the 0.3% who owns 50% of the country’s wealth, and those 0.3% happen to include most (if not all) of our politicians. Aoun is in it. Geagea is in it. Our MPs and ministers are probably part of those 8000 people too. There are no estimates of the wealths of Lebanese politicians if their last name isn’t Hariri or Miqati, but one assumes they are not middle class folk who are going by paycheck to paycheck.

Of course, it only makes sense that money brings influence, and then influence brings power. A politician’s job in Lebanon isn’t only to legislate but to “provide” for the voters. This is how democracy works here.

The problem with those 0.3% (not all of them obviously) being those running the country is that the country’s policies over the years have not served to close the gap or make those 64.6% with little to no wealth slightly better off. The Gini coefficient clearly shows as much.

The country’s policies have not aimed at improving education, providing economic opportunities (for instance, a 1 million m2 zone in Tripoli to bring in international technology has been on hold over sectarian causes for the past 6 years) or making living standards better.

Those 0.3% do not get how things are for the 64.6%, the people they’re in contact with once every 4 years for that pre-electoral paycheck. And honestly, there’s no reason for them to get it. And yet our MPs and ministers wanted to increase their salaries?

Meanwhile, the Lebanese population who happens to be of the third that has wealth above $10,000 is pre-occupied with selfies, porn stars, bananas and Kardashian-like reality TV shows because those are what matters.

Not Even the Feds Could Stop it: Company set out to change the genetics game

By filling a plastic vial with saliva and mailing it to 23andMe, customers could decode the DNA embedded in their 23 chromosomes

Not long ago, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki was watching her daughter compete in a swim meet near their home in Palo Alto, California, when she realized her mother, Esther, whom she’d expected to see there, was nowhere in the crowd. Worried, she phoned. “Mom, why aren’t you at the swim meet?” she demanded. “I’m in Amsterdam,” her mother crowed. “They want me to change education!”

Najat Rizk shared this link

Mouna does it ring a bell?

Anne Wojcicki set out to change the genetics game, until the FDA got in the way.

Wojcicki tells this story to explain something most people don’t typically grasp. Yes, until a few months ago, she was married to Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and one of the icons of Silicon Valley. But when it comes to locating the wellspring of her entrepreneurial drive, her ex comes in a distant second to the woman known to generations of students as Woj.

“My mom is totally insane in the best possible way,” Wojcicki (pronounced Wo-JIT-skee) says, dressed in running shorts and hoodie at her company’s Mountain View offices.

The elder Wojcicki is hardly a technologist; she’s a longtime Palo Alto high school journalism teacher who wired her three daughters (a brood that also includes YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki) with what Anne describes as irrational optimism.

“Without a doubt, the number one thing that’s influenced me is her saying, ‘Just get it done. It’s all within your control,’” she says.

“Zuckerberg and Elon and Sergey and Larry are like her in that way–that free spirit, enthusiasm, get-stuff-done thing.” Growing up in the shadow of Woj, Baby Woj (as she’s known to her mother’s acolytes) internalized her greatest teaching: “The worst thing you can do in life is whine about what you can’t change.”

That guiding philosophy–there are no obstacles, only unexpected gifts–has been essential for the leader of a company whose path has been anything but smooth and straight. Wojcicki co-founded 23andMe in 2006.

A decade working on Wall Street as a health care analyst had convinced her that the American way of treating illness and inventing new drugs had to change. “It just felt like there was this massive amount of waste,” she says, referring to the billions of dollars the pharma industry annually plunges into drug discovery, with diminishing results.

A chance dinner party conversation with Markus Stoffel, a molecular biologist, left her thinking the solution lay in aggregating the world’s genetic data and teasing out the patterns to prevent and combat diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Wojcicki, who studied biology, had a handy template in her then husband’s company, which more or less did for the internet what she was proposing to do for the genome.

By filling a plastic vial with saliva and mailing it to 23andMe, customers could decode the DNA embedded in their 23 chromosomes.

That meant discovering everything from the existence of long-lost relatives to whether they were at risk for inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis, or genetic traits, like lactose intolerance.

As 23andMe was able to drive down the price of its tests, from $999 to $399 in 2008 to $99 in 2012, the company signed up hundreds of thousands of customers and expanded to Canada and Europe.

Customers seeking the secrets in their own genes also contribute DNA and personal information to the company’s growing database. Wojcicki believes correlating genotypes to diseases could ultimately lead to efficient, targeted drug breakthroughs.

Message in a Vial
In 2013, the FDA put a halt to the startup’s first effort to decode clients’ chromosomes as a predictor of future health.

But in November 2013, just as Wojcicki’s company was gaining momentum, she hit a brick wall in the U.S.

The Food and Drug Administration ordered 23andMe to stop marketing its tests for health purposes, deeming them unregulated medical devices.

Having your most compelling product yanked off the market is the kind of blow that could easily kill a startup. Rather than panic, Wojcicki reverted to her Wall Street analyst self, gathering vast amounts of information, certain a solution was hiding in plain sight.

She held endless conference calls with lawyers, regulatory experts, pharma CEOs, anyone who might have useful insight. “That first week was like ‘Data, data, data–I need data!’” Wojcicki recalls.

The outcome of those frantic conversations was a tactical retreat and a strategic regrouping.

Conceding to the FDA’s demands, 23andMe immediately began working closely with the agency to hash out what it would take to resume selling its tests.

Meanwhile, it orchestrated deals with Genentech and Pfizer, giving them access to parts of its DNA database in exchange for upfront payments and a cut of revenue from new drugs developed using it.

The company announced plans to make its own therapeutics, hiring a former top Genentech scientist to lead the effort. In February, the FDA agreed to allow 23andMe and its competitors to resume marketing tests for autosomal-recessive diseases, which result when both parents carry an abnormal gene.

The decision stopped well short of full regulatory sign-off, but it was a promising enough omen that 23andMe was able to raise a reported $79 million funding round in July that pushed the company’s valuation above $1 billion.

As a first-time entrepreneur, Wojcicki admits she’s learned the hard way not to tackle all the pieces of a complex undertaking simultaneously. “When I look back, pacing wasn’t our strength,” she says. “I have a much better sense now of how long it takes to build things.”

Meanwhile, the challenges facing 23andMe have changed as it has grown.

Initially, the mere idea of using home DNA kits as diagnostic tools was a tough sell for many in the medical community. “The whole direct-to-consumer thing was not, how shall we say, widely applauded,” recalls board member Esther Dyson.

These days, the real question is whether 23andMe can monetize the revolution it has helped usher in. Doing so, says Gartner biotech analyst Stephen Davies, will require forging still closer ties to big pharma firms–the lumbering giants whose inefficiency spurred Wojcicki to action in the first place.

But Wojcicki’s not worried about turning into them–after all, she is her mother’s daughter. Medicine has already changed for good, she says, flashing the fitness trackers she wears religiously on her wrists.

Turns out, it was the heart-rate data from one of them, not a lab test ordered by a physician, that recently helped Wojcicki, who elliptical-bikes to work most days, figure out she was anemic and not out of shape.

“Your health care is no longer about the episodic visit to your doctor, where you have this once-a-year assessment of random vitals,” she says. “It’s about the continuous stream of you.”




September 2015

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