How Ancestry.com’s CEO is making its services ‘more accessible for everyone’


Millions of Americans enjoy the benefits of Ancestry.com’s take-home DNA kit. They submit their spit sample, endure a wait, and log online to find a treasure trove of rich information about their origins.

But that doesn’t necessarily apply to people of color. Although Ancestry has plenty of data on people of Western European heritage, The company recognizes this collected fewer DNA samples from people on other continents. As a result, non-Western European users tend to receive less detailed accounts of their heritage.

In a recent episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” Ancestry CEO Deborah Liu noted that after joining the company, she embarked on a strategy called “Ancestry for All” to make origins “more accessible to the broader community.”

“We diversify our DNA to ensure we get samples from other places,” Liu noted. “In this way we can also achieve more loyalty among different ethnic communities. And so we get better every day.”

Attendees purchase DNA kits from Ancestry.com at the annual RootsTech 2019 genealogy event in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., February 28, 2019. REUTERS/George Frey

Attendees purchase DNA kits from Ancestry.com at the annual RootsTech 2019 genealogy event in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., February 28, 2019. REUTERS/George Frey

Today, Ancestry.com, headquartered in Lehi, Utah, has over 30 billion online records and over 22 million people on the world’s largest consumer DNA network. But the company’s history begins in 1983 when Ancestry Publishing was founded. Ancestry published over 40 genealogy reference books in family history journals before going online with the creation of Ancestry.com in 1996.

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Liu says Ancestry sourced its data primarily from western Europe and North America because both regions had particularly strong written records of human ancestry. Consequently, the company has a lack of data on people from other continents.

According to Ancestry, to track an individual’s ethnicity, Ancestry relies on DNA from reference panels, or groups of people whose DNA is characteristic of a particular location. Note that Ancestry’s reference panels have this 5,471 people are listed for France while there are only 347 from North Africa.

“We’ve worked with governments, we’ve scanned documents, we’ve collected the best collection of genealogical records you know of, public archives in the world, and a lot of them happen to be our roots, right?” Liu noted. We’ve worked with a lot of Western European governments, for example, and that’s where a lot of the best records come from.”

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Recently, Ancestry has expanded to include more information about non-white people. For example, she recently released information from the US Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency responsible for providing administrative assistance the transition of enslaved people to freedom after the US Civil War. The genealogy company also released records from Freedman’s Bank, which was founded in 1865 and collected personal information from formerly enslaved people, such as birth dates and places of residence.

Ancestry has also added features that consumers without Digital Family Records can use. The company recently partnered with media storage and archiving company Photomyne. Ancestry now uses Photomyne’s technology to scan old photo albums, making it easier for family members to digitize and share photos.

“We’re working on being able to tell more stories,” Liu said. “So, for example, if you don’t have records, and I didn’t have a lot of records because my parents and my in-laws immigrated to the United States, now we can tell our own story.”

Still, Liu concedes that the genealogy company still has work to do before it collects equal amounts of minority ancestry information.

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“We’ve done a lot of work to get us where we are now, but we still have a journey ahead of us that we must continue together,” she mused.

Ancestry has been criticized for being racially insensitive in the past. In 2019, before Liu became CEO, the company ran an ad of a slavery-era interracial couple, which some social media critics called romanticized slavery. The company issued a public apology and pulled the ad from YouTube.

The following year, after the murder of George Floyd, then-CEO of Ancestry Margo Georgiadis issued a statement acknowledging that the company had a “long, long way to go” to make its product more inclusive.

Anne Wojcicki, CEO of competitor 23andMe, also issued a statement at the time acknowledging the flaws in its product. “Our product is euro-centric but needs to be expanded to be inclusive and fair. We absolutely have the potential to get better,” she wrote. “Despite our efforts, I honestly have to say that we are also part of the problem.”

Dylan Croll is a reporter and researcher at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol.

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