Millions of Americans enjoy the benefits of Ancestry.com's take-home DNA kit. They submit their spit sample, endure a waiting period, and log online to find a trove of rich information about their heritage.
But that hasn't necessarily been true for people of color. Though Ancestry has plentiful data on people with Western European heritage, the company acknowledges that it has collected fewer DNA samples from people on other continents. As a result, users of color receive less detailed reports about their heritage.
On a recent episode of "Influencers with Andy Serwer," Ancestry CEO Deborah Liu noted that once she joined the company, it embarked on a strategy called Ancestry for All to make ancestry more accessible to" the broader population.
“We're diversifying our DNA to make sure that we're getting samples from other places,” Liu remarked. “So, we can get more fidelity around different ethnic communities as well. And so, we're getting better every day.”
Today, Ancestry.com, which is headquartered in Lehi, Utah, has over 30 billion records online and over 22 million people in the world’s largest consumer DNA network. But the company's story begins in 1983, when Ancestry Publishing was founded. Ancestry published over 40 magazines and genealogy reference books before moving online in 1996.
Along the way, Liu says Ancestry sourced its data primarily from Western Europe and North America because both regions had especially strong written records of peoples' ancestry. Consequently, the company has a dearth of data on people from other continents.
To trace someone's ethnicity, Ancestry says it relies on DNA from reference panels or sets of people whose DNA is characteristic of a certain place. Consider that Ancestry's reference panels have 5,471 people listed for France while it has merely 347 from Northern Africa.
“We have worked with governments, we have scanned documents, we have collected the best collection of you know, genealogy records, public records archives in the world, and a lot of them happens to be our roots, right?" Liu remarked. "We worked with a lot of Western European governments, for example, and that's where a lot of the best records come from.”
Ancestry recently expanded to include more information on people of non-white descent. For instance, it recently released information from the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency that was responsible for helping manage enslaved people's transition to freedom after the U.S. Civil War. The genealogy company also released records from the Freedman’s Bank, which was established in 1865 and collected formerly enslaved people's personal information such as their date of birth and place of residence.
Ancestry has also added features that consumers without digital family records can enjoy. The company recently partnered with media preservation 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 are working on being able to do more storytelling,” Liu said. “So, if you don't have records, for example, and I didn't have a ton of records, because my parents and my in-laws immigrated to the US, now we can tell our own story.”
Still, Liu concedes that the genealogy company has a ways to go before it has collated equal amounts of information on minorities' lineage.
“We have a lot of work that we've done to actually bring us to where we are, but we still have a journey that we need to go on together,” she reflected.
Ancestry has faced criticism for racial insensitivity in the past. In 2019, before Liu was CEO, the company released an advertisement of a slavery-era interracial couple that some social media critics argued romanticized slavery. The company publicly apologized and pulled the advertisement from YouTube.
The following year, then-Ancestry CEO Margo Georgiadis put out a statement in the wake of George Floyd's murder acknowledging the company had a "long, long way to go" to make its product more inclusive.
Anne Wojcicki, CEO of competitor 23andMe, also put out a statement at the time acknowledging the flaws in its product. "Our product is euro-centric but must expand to be inclusive and equitable. We absolutely have the potential to be better," she wrote. "Despite our efforts, I have to honestly 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.