Some parents might fumble when their children ask where they came from. Curious adults can really drill down into their ethnic and racial make-up—sometimes with surprising results—through advances in DNA technology.
23andMe offers a range of related services, from an “ancestry and traits” rundown to a package that includes genetic health risk information, including more than sixty personalized health reports and features, and a subscription to nearly a dozen additional genetic reports.
That’s quite a lot of personal data—and it’s the reason 23andMe is so focused on maintaining its customers’ privacy. “A constant internal tagline has been ‘Privacy is in our DNA at 23andMe.’ Our customer relationships are based on trusting that we’ll provide a safe and private place to explore this information,” says Jacquie Haggarty, 23andMe’s vice president, deputy general counsel, and privacy officer. “Every data point represents a human being. It’s important to unlock the potential of the human genome, but we must also keep each individual in mind.
“Some tech companies offer services for free, but then monetize your personal information,” she adds. “We simply don’t do that.”
Haggarty’s interest in law grew from her fundamental sense of justice and advocacy. She holds a minor in public policy from the University of California–Berkeley, a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a JD from Georgetown University Law Center. “Going into law school, my intent was to impact policy through legal practice,” she said.
Following terms at Latham & Watkins LLP and Genomic Health, she joined 23andMe in 2015. “Now I work to enable our customers to be their own best health advocates,” she says. “No one cares about your health more than you do; having access to that genetic data empowers you to be your best advocate.
“Every data point represents a human being. It’s important to unlock the potential of the human genome, but we must also keep each individual in mind.”
“I’ve heard that 50 percent of Americans don’t know that there’s a genetic component to their health,” she adds. “But such data can inform you about predispositions to certain medical conditions, or illnesses you have or may develop, or that you might pass along to your children.”
Additionally, customers can choose to participate in 23andMe’s research program, which includes studies targeted to serious medical conditions. These studies rely on de-identified, aggregate information, and informed consent is required before any customer information is used for research.
Haggarty’s responsibilities cut across all aspects of the business. “It’s an extremely diverse organization from a business operations standpoint,” she says, “and I work to ensure that we’re in compliance with our legal and contractual obligations—especially privacy, of course. I also advise on government affairs, business development, compliance, and other matters. It keeps things lively!”
Naturally, security is paramount at 23andMe. “We have physical, technical, and administrative measures in place to guard information, and my privacy team works closely with the security team to prevent unauthorized access or disclosure and to maintain data integrity,” she affirms. “We’ve invested heavily in security and have ISO certifications against three different privacy and security standards. It’s one of the ways we hold ourselves accountable.”
A key challenge is the fact that there is no comprehensive federal privacy law, so 23andMe, like other companies, must comply with a patchwork of state regulations across the country. “And it can be even more complex because customers are mobile—they move to a new state, or may regularly move between states,” she says. “Which set of rules applies, and when?” Compliance with international laws, including the European Union’s GDPR, adds another layer of complexity.
“No one cares about your health more than you do; having access to your genetic data empowers you to be your best advocate.”
Haggarty heads a “small but mighty” team of fifteen. “They come from varied professional backgrounds,” she says, “about half of them are attorneys. I work closely with them as they interact with our internal business partners across various subject areas—intellectual property, marketing, data protection, corporate governance, tax, human resources and many others.”
Her approach to leadership is simple: lead by example, empower from behind. “I enjoy working behind the scenes with my team members,” she explains. “It’s rewarding to push their professional growth and development, as my own managers and mentors did for me.
“It’s important to support team members in presenting their work product and let them be recognized for their work,” she adds. “That aspect is often overlooked.”
Haggarty offers some essential advice for those in positions like hers. “Keep an open mind and listen to different perspectives. Remember to maintain the highest standards for your work product and your reputation and keep growing your network—they’ll be real assets when doors of opportunity open. And be prepared to catch curveballs; I’ve never had a day that unfolded exactly as planned,” she said.
That flexible attitude carries over to her home life as well. With three daughters (nine, twelve, and fifteen years old) at home full-time during the pandemic, most activities have been put on the back burner. “But we’re still quite busy at home,” she says. “I’ve come to rely on the ‘mute’ and ‘video off’ buttons at times during remote meetings—as have my colleagues—and 23andMe has embraced that sense of flexibility to support its employees. It’s been challenging for all of us, but I also recognize we are extremely fortunate and so are focused on the silver linings.”