Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was Google’s first female engineer—only because she tried to delete a recruiter email and accidentally opened it instead

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Marissa Mayer is most well-known for her stint as CEO of Yahoo, but before she took the helm of the tech giant, she took a serendipitous dive into the unknown by joining a then little-known startup called Google.

Although she would later become Google’s 20th employee and first female engineer, as a graduating computer-science major at Stanford during the height of the tech bubble in 1999, Mayer found herself with 14 job offers to major companies. Unsure of which to choose, Mayer took stock of all the good decisions she had made up until that time, according to an interview at Fortune’s MPW conference in 2011, which included picking Stanford, pivoting away from a major in medicine, and working in Switzerland for a summer.

When she analyzed what made those choices great, she saw a common theme: Mayer thrived in the unknown.

“I always did something I felt a little unready to do,” she told Fortune.

In the end, it was a fluke that led her to considering Google as a career option. With a flurry of recruiter emails in her inbox, Mayer went to delete one, and because of a wrong keystroke, opened it instead, according to Business Insider. When she opened the Google recruiter email she remembered that her mentor, Stanford professor Eric Roberts, had told her she should meet the founders, Stanford Ph.d. students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Instead of deleting the email, Mayer asked for an interview.

Despite the happenstance of her applying to Google, Mayer was willing to take a chance on the fledgling startup looking to revolutionize search, even if at the time it had fewer than two dozen employees. 

“When you do something you’re not ready to do, that’s when you push yourself and when you grow,” she said. 

Another important factor when choosing her job was the people she would work with. One of Mayer’s closest friends was working at Google, and she said she was already “really impressed” with Page and Brin.

“I always surrounded myself with the smartest people I could find,” Mayer said. “Because I think that when you’re surrounded by smart people, they challenge you and they make you think about things you know, harder and and just rise to another level.”

All of those factors made Mayer’s decision easy. Mayer stayed at Google for more than a decade until she was offered the top job at Yahoo. Although Mayer was often criticized during her time there, she still tripled the company’s stock price and navigated it through a sale to Verizon in 2017. Mayer now runs an AI startup called Sunshine, which raised $20 million in 2020 “to simplify and learn from people’s digital address books,” Fortune reported.

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