Meet Marissa Mayer
What would you do if you had $100 million?
Would you buy a penthouse above the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, visit world capitals, invest in a bakery you like called I Dream of Cake, and indulge your passion for Oscar de la Renta fashions and Dale Chihuly glass art?
You might. But would you also buy a house close to work, spend fifteen hours a day on the job, and eat in the corporate cafeteria?
You would if you were Marissa Ann Mayer, one of the workaholic overachievers who has made Google a worldwide success. (It’s pronounced My-er, not May-er.) Competitive and beautiful, the tall (5′ 8″), blue-eyed blonde talks very fast and has a distinctive laugh that can be heard on YouTube. She was smart enough to impress Stanford Ph.D. candidates Sergey Brin and Larry Page when their company consisted of seven employees and had just moved out of a garage into a rented office. First, they had to impress her. She had ten solid offers, including a teaching position at Carnegie Mellon, and would not have talked to them at all except that she had just spent nine months in Zurich solving the problem they were working on. They succeeded in piquing her interest and Google’s first employee, Craig Silverstein, thought she could help the team. When Larry and Sergey had to leave in the middle of the interview, 23-year-old Marissa’s willingness to come back the next day signaled that she was intrigued, too.
Marissa joined the company June 23, 1999 after receiving her master’s degree in computer science from Stanford. Her undergraduate degree was in symbolic systems, and she was interested in artificial intelligence. She performed in the Nutcracker ballet, taught in her junior and senior years, participated in parliamentary debate, volunteered at the children’s hospital, and helped bring computer-science education to schools in Bermuda. Pursuing her master’s degree, she worked at Stanford Research Institute, which led to a programming project at Ubilab in Zurich, Switzerland.
She was born, raised, and overachieved in high school in Wausau, Wisconsin, a town of about 40,000 people, three hours northwest of Milwaukee. She was a top debater, president of the Spanish club (in Wisconsin!), and an officer of the Kiwanis Key Club. The setting of the movie Fargo is similar to the climate in northern Wisconsin in the winter. Marissa studied piano, participated in the Math Club and Junior Achievement, and took babysitting lessons in order to be better than the other babysitters. She was not a cheerleader, contrary to reports, but she was on the dance team. Her father, Michael, was an environmental waste water engineer and her mother, Margaret, was an art teacher and just Mom. She has an older and a younger brother, Matthew and Mason, but no sisters.
Marissa applied to ten colleges and was accepted by all of them. She chose Stanford University and admits she felt nervous about moving 2,000 miles from home. California must have been a shock–no snow, people from a non-Scandinavian background, and a sudden lack of pressure to overachieve. Both Wisconsin and California promote their dairy industries, so she had that connection to hold on to, and Wisconsin isn’t entirely Scandinavian descendants, but still–Palo Alto has little in common with Milwaukee. She kept the pressure on herself at Stanford, earning her bachelor’s degree with honors and moving right into postgraduate work. Looking back, she says that her best decisions surrounded her with smart people and forced her to move before she thought she was ready, taking her out of her comfort zone.
She had learned that Ph.D. candidates forget to bathe and don’t say sorry when they bump into you, so she spent some time considering apparently better offers before deciding on Google. The company planned to organize all the information on the web, and googol was a very large number (one followed by a hundred zeros), so the company name was a misspelling. Larry and Sergey couldn’t be bothered to consult a dictionary; typical Ph.D. candidate behavior. But they were in the same “space” as her work in Zurich–using information about search behavior to improve search–and Sergey and Larry and the others were very smart.
Marissa was Google’s first female engineer. Everything was very hectic; no one knows for sure what employee number Marissa was, but it is no higher than twenty. A low employee number at a well-known public company is Silicon Valley code for “very rich.” Sergey and Larry are now worth billions of dollars, and Marissa’s net worth is in nine figures. They worked long hours, the company grew exponentially, and Marissa’s latent talent and discipline in the area of user experience led to her responsibility for the minimalist front page and other customer-facing projects such as Google News, Orkut, and Gmail. She is rumored to have dated Larry Page for a while and quiet grumblings about her unstructured management style in those days persist.
By the time Google went public in August 2004, Marissa had risen above day-to-day management and she began doing more or less what she does now–advising on, criticizing, and green lighting projects that others code and manage. By 2006, she was a highly visible spokesperson for Google, responding to criticism of her projects such as Google Book Search and speaking on the company’s behalf at one conference after another. She thinks search will evolve, sooner rather than later, beyond just keywords, toward the realm of natural language questions.
“Marissa was hired for a programming job,” Craig Silverstein, Google’s first employee, told San Francisco magazine. “Now you look at her, and she’s the one deciding what we do.”
She told a BayCHI meeting at Xerox PARC in 2005 that she sees Google as a Swiss army knife: ”Clean, simple—the tool you want to take everywhere.”
As Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, Marissa manages 150 product managers who direct some 2,000 software engineers. Her days start at 9:00 and she often doesn’t leave until 11:00 or midnight. She only needs four hour’s sleep. From 9:00 to 6:00 each day, she told Digg founder Kevin Rose, she holds meetings. Vogue described her job as one of sitting with scruffy men and “making lots of decisions in Manolos and beaded Carolina Herrera separates.” If she is not meeting friends for the evening, she usually has dinner at the Google cafeteria around 7:00 before heading to her office for the real work of the day.
“She’s a geek, but her clothes match,” a former employee told Business Week.
In 2007, first Sergey, then Larry, married scientists. In 2008, gossips whispered that Marissa was seeing Zachary Bogue, a fellow with an environmental degree from Harvard and a law degree from Georgetown. One year younger, Bogue is tall, good-looking, and cares about education, as well as the environment. And he likes to cook.
“There are people who grill and there are people who cook,” Bogue told Vogue. “We like to cook.” [I just wanted to write "Bogue told Vogue"--Io.] Spotted holding hands at dinner, gossips noted that Marissa paid the check. Wags said that Marissa really was superb at search because she managed to find a handsome, single, straight man with a job in San Francisco.Marissa throws parties for hundreds of guests. A recent Christmas party featured a hunky, shirtless Santa, and her backyard birthday party in 2010 drew multiple visits by the Palo Alto police. She told Vogue about an Oscar de la Renta cashmere cardigan sweater she likes. Sak’s Fifth Avenue lists them at $1,450 each. Marissa owns four and has bought twenty more as gifts. She wears an 18k gold Omega DeVille watch she bought herself in Zurich in 2002. Her penthouse is home to original Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, and Roy Lichtenstein works as well as a commissioned Chihuly that features four hundred pieces of glass depicting sea flora and fauna. Her dog, Rover, is a Sony robot.
She was speaking at the “Le Web” conference in Paris in December 2008 when Zach unexpectedly appeared and proposed marriage, according to rumors. They were married a year later, during a three-day party staged by Robert Fountain. First, the invitations were heavy, velvet-covered boxes. Vogue was given an exclusive, and guests were asked not to take photographs and to keep an RFID badge with them during the weekend. The party danced to The Killers at Bimbo’s 365 in San Francisco. The ceremony was held on Treasure Island, a man-made island between San Francisco and Oakland. The bride wore a gown by Naeem Khan, designer of First Lady Michelle Obama’s first state dinner dress. Vogue said the dress included “a bodice crocheted and embroidered in snowflake lace” paired with “a floor-length bridal coat.” Her veil was by Carolina Herrera and her shoes were Mary Jane by Stuart Wietzman “with a blue crystal design on the instep.” The groom wore a Broni tuxedo, and the bridesmaids wore jewel-tone dresses by Reem Acra.
Marissa, who collected Jackie Kennedy dolls as a child, wore an ivory-colored “going-away number” based on the design Jackie wore when touring India. Marissa’s mother wore Vicky Tiel to the wedding.
The ceremony concluded with a custom fireworks display, followed by a reception at the Four Seasons. Lobster and beef tenderloin by renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and cake by New York baker Rob Ben-Israel. It appears that she will still be Marissa Mayer, not Bogue, publicly.
The Illinois Institute of Technology gave Marissa an honorary doctorate in 2009. She has been interviewed by Charlie Rose and appeared in Business Week and Fast Company magazines. She was the youngest ever to make Fortune’s list of the “top 50 most powerful women in the world” in 2008. Newsweek named her one of “10 Tech Leaders of the Future,” she is one of “15 Women to Watch,” according to Red Herring magazine, part of a “Silicon Valley Dream Team” (Business 2.0) and Glamour magazine named her one of its 2009 Women of the Year.
Last month, Marissa turned 35.