Until last week, Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, appeared to be well on their way to becoming Generation X’s Bill and Melinda Gates. The billionaire tech titan and his biologist were a Silicon Valley power couple who, like the Gateses, looked set to make their mark in philanthropy, using their enormous wealth to tackle illnesses and social problems.
Now their marriage appears to be on the rocks, with the Brins embroiled in a somewhat bloodless, but still rather embarrassing, love triangle involving an employee 13 years his junior and one of his most senior colleagues.
The split could not be more personal for Google. Wojcicki has known the billionaire search guru since before Google was a verb. Her elder sister, Susan, rented Brin and Google co-founder Larry Page the garage where the search engine got its start and it was she who introduced Wojcicki to Brin. Susan was Google’s 16th employee and is now the company’s senior vice-president of product management and engineering.
She helped develop Google’s famous doodles and was in on the acquisition of YouTube and AdSense, the company that places Google advertising on other websites, catapulting the search firm into the big time. The San Jose Mercury News called her “the most important Googler you’ve never heard of“. To add to the complications, Brin’s new love reportedly had a previous relationship with one of the company’s most senior executives who is now, coincidentally, leaving the company for a rival.
Richard Brandt, author of The Google Guys, said he was initially surprised by the news but that in a company such as Google, situations like this were almost inevitable. “They all work so closely together. The company is set up so that people practically live there. You can get all your meals, do your laundry â€“ they even have places to take a nap. It’s very intense.”
Unsurprisingly, the company is not commenting on the personal affairs of its employees and in the long term the split is unlikely to have much impact on Google as a company. But it’s an embarrassing distraction at a time of transition and challenge for Google.
Brin and Wojcicki, both 40, were married in 2007 on a private island in the Bahamas. The bride and groom wore swimsuits for a small ceremony that took place on a sandbar they and their guests had reached by swimming.
They seemed the perfect couple â€“ super-smart and down-to-earth by billionaire standards and with similar backgrounds. Wojcicki’s parents, like Brin’s, are academics. Her father, Stanley, was the chairman of the physics department at Stanford University, Brin’s alma mater. Her mother, Esther, is a journalism teacher deeply involved in the ties between technology and education. Brin’s father, Michael, is a mathematics professor who emigrated from Russia with his wife Eugenia when their son was six, forced out, he has claimed, by antisemitism. Eugenia is a Nasa researcher.
Last year, Wojcicki seemed happy in her marriage, according to an interview with the Inc.com blog. “I spend a lot of my spare time with my family. My sisters, parents and in-laws all live nearby. My perfect weekend is going for a walk with my family in the park. IÂ don’t think there’s anything better. It’s funny; everyone talks about a bucket list, but I don’t really have one,” she said.
According to the tech blog AllThingsD, which first reported the split, the couple, who have two small children, have been living apart for several months. A spokesperson told the blog they “remain good friends andÂ partners”.
Brin’s rumoured new girlfriend is 27-year-old Amanda Rosenberg, a Google Glass marketing manager and Leeds University graduate. Google Glass is the tech firm’s still experimental foray into wearable technology, hi-tech spectacle-like devices the firm hopes will one day seamlessly add all the wonders of the web to our everyday lives. Brin has rarely been seen without a pair in recent months â€“ even getting snapped wearing Glass riding the New York subway incognito. There is no suggestion that the pair became an item before Brin’s separation from his wife.
Before Brin, Rosenberg was reportedly in a relationship with another senior Google executive, Hugo Barra, the search giant’s vice-president of Android product management. Barra was one of Google’s rising stars. Again, there is no suggestion that these relationships overlapped.
Barra announced last week that he is leaving Google for the Chinese phone manufacturer Xiaomi. His exit is not thought to be related to any romantic entanglements. As love triangles go, this one lacks the sharp angles of a real scandal. Nor is it likely to have any real impact on Google outside of the personal pain and public embarrassment it has already caused.
Brin’s personal fortune looks likely to remain intact. In March, Forbes estimated Brin was worth $22.8bn (Â£15bn) â€“ almost all of it in Google shares. A prenuptial agreement reportedly protects his control of the company.
Office romances are hardly news â€“ certainly not at Google. Larry Page dated former Google high flyer turned Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in the early 2000s. But that’s not to say that Google is unaware of the dangers office romances can present. “If a romantic relationship does create an actual or apparent conflict, it may require changes to work arrangements or even the termination of employment of either or both individuals involved,” runs Google’s code of conduct.
“When faced with a potential conflict of interest, ask yourself: would this activity harm my reputation, negatively impact my ability to do my job at Google or potentially harm Google? Would this activity embarrass Google or me if it showed up on the front page of a newspaper or a blog? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, the relationship or situation is likely to create a conflict of interest and you should avoid it.”
Senior executives have lost their jobs after affairs with subordinates. Such an issue is extremely unlikely to occur at Google but nevertheless this awkward entanglement is an unwanted distraction for all concerned. And how much more so for Wojcicki, her own company and the couple’s considerable philanthropic ventures.
Wojcicki is CEO and co-founder of 23andMe, a company that sells DNA test kits and whose mission is to be “the world’s trusted source of personal genetic information”. The company has raised more than $100m from backers, including Google, Google Ventures and Brin himself.
Perhaps more importantly, Brin and Wojcicki have donated huge sums to charity, much of it via their own Brin Wojcicki Foundation, which supports organisations including the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s parent organisation), the Tipping Point Community (which tackles poverty in San Francisco’s Bay Area) and the Parkinson’s Institute.
The pair have also given tens of millions to the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In 2012 alone, the couple gave approximately $222.9m to charity, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Brandt says that Brin has the personality to manage any issues that could arise from an awkward split. But he thinks there has been tension within the company. “But if anyone can make this amicable, it’s him,” he says of Brin. “Sergey comes from a small, close family. Family is important to him. At the same time, he’s very independent. He has a very strong personality, a very strong ego.” The Google boss, adds Brandt, would strive to make sure that all parties are as happy as can be expected in this difficult situation.
Nor does Brandt expect Brin to take a step back from his philanthropy even if Brin Wojcicki Foundation board meetings look set to be a little tense in the near term. “Don’t forget he was born in the Soviet Union and his family went through a lot of hardship. His parents are left-leaning academics and they raised him with a set of values that mean it’s important for him to do good things for the world.”
In the Valley gossip is less kind. Poking fun at the all too human problems of the Valley’s elite is irresistible. Popular tech blog Valleywag wondered what the odds were of a “grotesquely 21st-century sex tape”, given Brin and Rosenberg’s fondness for Google Glass.
For others, speaking privately for fear of offending powerful people, if the marriage fails, Brin is losing something more than face.
“She is the last person he’ll ever have a relationship with who really knew him before he was ‘billionaire tech titan Sergey Brin’. That’s something to lose,” said one Valley exec. Then he paused. “Well, I guess he’ll always have Larry.”