02.07.145:02 PM ET

In a Silicon Valley of Few Women, Susan Wojcicki Heads YouTube

Wojcicki appointed to lead one of Google’s crown jewels.

In an era when corporate icons like Pepsi, Kraft, General Motors, and IBM have female CEOs, Silicon Valley has been slow to make progress. When Twitter filed for its IPO, the social media leader had an all-male board of directors. Forty-nine percent of technology companies similarly report having no women on their boards,  compared with just 28 percent of consumer products companies. The women that do ascend to high-profile levels at tech companies, do so into difficult turnaround posts at long-suffering firms —take Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! It is rare for a woman to be handed the reins of a thriving operation in Silicon Valley.

But one was added to the ranks earlier this week. Susan Wojcicki  was named by Google to head YouTube, its immensely successful video-sharing platform that has emerged as a tech powerhouse.

Wojcicki, a Harvard graduate with an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles, is a longstanding Google employee. In fact, she was present at the company’s outset. In 1998, to help pay her mortgage, she rented her garage to two Stanford students—Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

She joined the company in 1999 (employee #16), when it was still in its relative infancy, as a marketing specialist, and has risen through the ranks to become senior vice president of advertising and commerce.

And she has done so without attracting all that much attention. In 2011, Silicon Valley’s hometown paper, The San Jose Mercury News, dubbed her “the most important Googler you’ve never heard of.” For years, Marissa Mayer, an engineering prodigy, served as Google’s public face. Susan Wojcicki was not even the most well-known woman named Wojcicki in the Googleplex. Her younger sister, Anne Wojcicki, was married for several years to Google co-founder Sergei Brin.

When Google acquired YouTube in 2006 for $1.6 billion, many analysts rubbed their foreheads in consternation. What would a company that thrived on its super-intelligent algorithms do with a video-sharing platform that catered to the lowest-common denominator? Why would blue-chip advertisers allocate valuable dollars to run against home movies—especially when many computers were still painfully slow when it came to playing videos? And why would Google pay $1.6 billion for a company that seemed to have only $15 million a year in revenues? 

Of course, that was a shortsighted view. As broadband, wi-fi-, smart phones and tablets rolled out, online-video-watching grew exponentially. Brand-name media entities—musical acts, professional sports leagues, and entertainment companies—flocked to YouTube as a vital new distribution channel. And advertisers followed suit.

Wojcicki anticipated this growth. In 2006, she was in charge of a struggling internal video effort, known as Google Video, and suggested that the company buy its competition rather than continue to fight against it.

Google doesn’t break out numbers, but YouTube is a juggernaut. In 2013, according to the research firm eMarketer, YouTube captured about 20 percent of all online video advertising. Its gross revenues were projected to be $5.6 billion in 2013, up around 50 percent from 2012.

YouTube is one of Google’s crown jewels. And it is rising in prominence in the broader media world. With traditional display advertising falling, video represents a high-margin high-growth way for digital media companies to reap a bigger share of ad dollars and take market share from cable and broadcast.

In an age of fierce competition for advertising budgets, that puts the 45-year-old mother of four (husband Dennis Troper is also a long-time Google employee) in charge of a booming network. Last year, Wojcicki was listed 36th in Vanity Fair’s annual ranking of the media New Establishment. Something tells me she’ll move up a few notches in next year’s rankings.