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Bennett Greenspan - FamilyTreeDNA.com

Bennett Greenspan

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Genealogist/entrepreneur Bennett Greenspan makes a return visit to our show. Since its founding in April 2000, FamilyTreeDNA has tested and added to its database more than 600,000 people. FamilyTreeDNA uses molecular biology to prove genetic relationships between two people. And, with the number of adoptions in America increasing at rapid rates, the company now offers a new test to find genetic relations among a different set of chromosomes that even proves half relations (half siblings, etc). It’s a global business and Greenspan could not have launched his business at a better time.

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Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com. It's guest time on the show and I'm very pleased to have with me Bennett Greenspan, Founder and CEO of Family Tree DNA; Bennett, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.

Bennett: Russ, thank you for having me.

Russ: You bet. Well tell us about Family Tree DNA.

Bennett: Family Tree DNA is a DNA testing company that works with the Genealogical and Anthropological community. Essentially, our services allow Genealogists to confirm a relationship between two people when the paper trail has run cold because of a fire or a flood and the paper's not available, we don't think that that's a reason sufficient enough that you shouldn't be able to find who you're actually related to.

Russ: And for full disclosure to our audience - Bennett has been on The BusinessMakers Show before back at the end of '08 or '09 (B: right), somewhere in there, and, uh, in fact the idea trigger to start this business is one of my favorite stories of all time, share that with our audience.

Bennett: Well I've been a Genealogist since I was a boy - since I was twelve years old - and I've picked up and put down my Genealogy and in 1999 I happened to find someone in a database who lived in Argentina with the same last name as my mother's mother's father. I tried to put those Genealogies together and I failed, but this was just about a years after the Thomas Jefferson study which showed that s Jefferson male had gotten one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves, Sally Hemmings, pregnant. And I said why can't I use the same technology to prove that these folks in Argentina are related to my cousin out in California?

So I called the folks at The University of Arizona and I asked them, would you do this DNA test? And they said no, we only do it for Anthropological purposes. I said that's fine, where can I go write a check cause I just want to get the answer? And the - the scientist said well I don't know of anybody who's offering this kind of test anywhere in the world, and then he said but somebody should start a company like this because I get phone calls from crazy Genealogists like you all the time. At which point I rushed him off the phone, found my wife and said honey, I think what my next business career's gonna be is doing DNA testing for the Genealogical community and she looked at me and she said - knowing me very well she said - just another one of your harebrained ideas but it'll probably work.

Russ: Well I love - I love the story. So that is what launched Family Tree DNA.

Bennett: That's exactly what launched Family Tree DNA and since that time, we have tested over six hundred thousand people (R: wow) from almost every country on the planet (R: wow) because Genealogy is a, so to speak, a Western European sport (R: right). Most of our customers are either from America, Canada, Australia or the British Isles, although we have significant numbers of customers who hail from France and Poland and Finland and Germany who have tested over the years, but primarily we're doing a lot of work with English, Irish, and Scottish families and in fact, we have six thousand surname projects encompassing twenty-five or twenty-six thousand variations of those six thousand names that have been testing with us for the past decade.

Russ: My goodness. Well, I wanna get into that in detail but, I wanna also even go back down a path you went before about what interested you in Genealogy and you tell this other incredible story about tw-being twelve years old, and your grandmother dying, and - and then you went to the funeral and carry it on from there.

Bennett: Well, I - I've been a Genealogist since I was a boy (R: yeah). When I was twelve years old my grandmother passed away and we went to the, uh, to the cemetery (R: yeah) and after the cemetery service - the graveside service (R: right) - my dad took my hand and my mother took my brother's hand and they went to different places in that cemetery and I grew up having no first cousins, one aunt in Omaha, Nebraska, but by the time the - the tour through the cemetery was over, I found out I had lots of relatives in Omaha, Nebraska and they were all residing in the same cemetery.

Russ: And so but that intrigued you much more than it did most twelve year olds.

Bennett: That fascinated me (R: okay) and in fact, that evening (R: yeah) at the house when all the relatives were coming over (R: right) to pay their condolences, I was walking around with a little piece of paper and a pencil, drawing a family tree and asking the relatives, tell me about your mother and tell me about your father and tell me about your brothers and sisters who left Omaha or who came from Europe to Nebraska (R: right) a couple of generations earlier and I just became hooked. I thought this was very interesting because, in effect Russ, it was the story of me and my family. And so it was very interesting and the more I learned about the family, the more interesting that became and so as a Genealogist, I picked up and put down and picked up and put down my Genealogy several times over the next few decades, but I always ran into a paper trail road block, just like I ran into in 1999. However, I got this idea that if I could use molecular biology in lieu of paper, that that would be just as good. And so I pursued that path and - and, uh, was able to convince the university of Arizona to go into business with me with them being the laboratory and me providing, you know, the pretty face on the front end so to speak (R: right) and we did that for a number of years and eventually we built our own lab right here in Houston, Texas. We've grown to the point that we have over forty employees, both in the IT Department and in the laboratory (R: right) and then of course Customer Service, and so we're a full service Genetic Genealogy company that grew up and resides right here in Houston.

Russ: Really cool. Now I'm certain Bennett that there's somebody hearing your story for the first time and they're going man, I wanna know how to do this and it's a commercial establishment so I guess it's not that hard or expensive so let's say somebody says I wanna check out my DNA.

Bennett: Well essentially for a few hundred dollars - two or three hundred dollars - you can either look at your Y chromosome, which every man receives from his father (R: okay), or your mitochondria, which everyone receives from their mother (R: okay). The mitochondria is then passed down from a woman to all of her children (R: okay) and then the women in the next generation pass that on (R: okay); so if you're related to someone on your mom's mom's mom's side because your mother's mother's mother had a sister who had children (R: right), you could use the mitochondria (R: okay).

Conversely, if someone is related to you and typically would have the same last name or a slight (R: right) variation, uh, thereof, then you can get those two men to test on their male inherited Y chromosome and either they're going to match, which proves that there was a genetic relationship, or they're not going to match, which means it's name envy; they just happen to have the same (R: right) last name but they're not related (R: right). And we tend to make the assumption that if someone has the same last name as us (R: right) that they're related (R: right) to us. Except, if you have a name, uh, such as Lincolnshire, you may come from a, you know, a village or a village named Lincoln or a (R: right) lake and your - and you received that name or you received the name of the lord of the manor that your ancestors (R: right) worked (R: right) on in England five hundred years ago (R: right). If you have the name like Warsawski, it probably means your ancestors at one time or another lived in Warsaw (R: yeah). But that's not very specific (R: right) and we can't prove genealogy based on a wing and a prayer (R: right), we need evidence, and when the paper trail runs cold, the genetic evidence does a wonderful job (R: yeah) of - of proving that.

Russ: Well and then there's even instances where people, uh, men have taken on a name just because maybe they were running away from something too so they have that happen too, right?

Bennett: That's exactly right. And then we have another very interesting situation that's happening, uh, today; there are hundreds of thousands of adoptees (R: oh yeah, oh yeah) in America and there are millions of children of adoptees (R: yes) and those people, or the - or those children (R: right) of the adoptee really don't know anything about their ancestry (R: right) because the name certainly (R: sure) changed from what it would have been at birth (R: sure) until, you know, until now, and so we are now offering a - a new test that I'll describe (R: okay) shortly that actually allows people to find aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and - and half siblings within our system as Genealogists hunting, when the paper trail runs cold because, you know, in most states the records for an adoptee are sealed (R: right) and therefore the adoptee doesn't have an opportunity to find his (R: right) biological family even if both parties would now after twenty, thirty, forty years would like to meet (R: right) each other, they really don't have that opportunity (R: right).

So, our newest test called the Family Finder helps break through those walls, not using the Y chromosome and not using the mitochondria, but by using the other twenty-two chromosomes that are called the autosomal DNA which recombine in every generation. So I have some of the DNA of my dad and some of the DNA of my mom, and so if I take a first cousin or a second cousin on my mom's or dad's side, I can confirm that relationship by having them do a DNA test and having us do a DNA test. And what was so exciting about this is that someone contacted me a few weeks ago and said I just did a DNA test, I'm very excited, I have found a half sibling in the system and I've contacted him and indeed we have different mothers but both of our fathers came from a sperm donation, and so we don't know who Dad was, but we know that two of us in fact shared that same dad. And then she shared with me that her mother had told her that the - that she was the fourth person to request sperm from that particular donor who was a medical resident at the time. And so she says okay, we found one of my half siblings, now I'm looking for help (R: wow) in finding the other two.

Russ: Wow, wow. It must make kind of take your breath away some of the things that you work on.

Bennett: I'm really very privileged, I'm very lucky because I'm in a business that I love (R: yeah). I'm not getting up and going to work everyday and looking at the clock, other than to see how much more I can get done today (R: right) before there's gonna be dinner on the table.

Russ: Right, right. Well I sensed that three years ago, uh, talked about your passion for your business and it's going very well too, right?

Bennett: Really, I would say that business is going great. You know, the country is in a recession, Houston may be doing, um, well (R: right) in comparison to the rest of the country (R: yeah, right), but we are a company that sells DNA kits not in the United States (R: right), not just in North (R: right) America, but the entire world. And so when there's a flu worldwide (R: right) from an economic standpoint, you know, it certainly is going to affect a company like (R: right) ours. But the products that we sell are so intellectually stimulating and so and are able to answer questions about yourself that you can't answer on your own (R: right) - even by looking in a mirror - that - that we're very fortunate that the, uh, that the customer base worldwide has been very, uh, accepting of our product and actually I think that we're probably up twenty-five or thirty percent this year over last year.

Russ: So somebody's tuned in and they really want to do this for themselves; they go to FamilyTreeDNA.com?

Bennett: That's correct (R: okay) and when they're there they'll be able to enter their name in a search engine which allows them to see what surname projects or what geographical projects would allow them to join because it's always nice to be in a community of people with the same surname. Certainly you're going to match some of them, you're not gonna match some of them though; maybe there's some interesting anecdotes. We also have geographical projects that people, uh, can join; uh, we have several projects that are sponsored by city and state genealogical societies.

And so you can - on our page - find the answers to most, if not all, of your questions, but if there are questions people just send us an email at info@familytreedna.com. We receive approximately four hundred phone calls a week and approximately twelve hundred emails a week (R: okay). We have six people who do nothing (R: okay) but answer phones and answer emails all day long; we get a little blocked up on Monday because we're not working on (R: right, right) Saturday and Sunday. Well, I mean, I'm working on Saturday (R: right) and Sunday typically but most of the staff is not so it may take a day or two to get your email question answered but if there's ever a question you should ask that question of us, we'll guide you in the right direction and we'll make sure that if you really can use molecular biology to answer your Genealogical or Anthropological question, we'll make sure that you're asking the right questions and you're ordering the right test. Because I would rather have someone not order anything from me than order it incorrectly and waste their money.

Russ: Okay now, these - these sort of projects - based on your name or geography that you referred to - those are things that you would do after you've done the appropriate test and you sort of submit your results to that group and discover people that are related to you?

Bennett: Well that's - that's correct although you can join a project as you order a test. And if you order a test just straight from the website, the price is a little bit higher than if you order a test through a project (R: oh wow) because we're trying to encourage people to go into the surname projects because we think they get a lot more value out of the DNA test by associating themselves with people of a common geographical origin or of a common surname.

Russ: Okay. And a test is it still what it was three years ago? It's mainly just a - a swath inside you mouth and

Bennett: That's correct (R: okay). We use - we use what's called a - in the business (R: okay) - a buckle scrape (R: okay) and it looks like a q-tip swab (R: okay). You scrape the inside of your mouth (R: yeah), that collects cells that are gonna fall off in the next several hours anyway (R: right). You then eject the tip of our scraper into a vial (R: oaky). You mail that off to us, we take it, we extract the DNA and then we run whatever particular test you're interested in and about four weeks later you get your results. You'll get an email from us telling you that the results are back. You come to your personal page, logging in with your user ID and password (R: okay) and then you'll be able to see all the people that you match.

We'll provide you their names and their email addresses (R: my goodness) so you can reach out and communicate with them. And in addition we'll tell a man or a woman which branch of the tree, for either the Y chromosome or the mitochondria, that they descend some - descend from. So you might learn things about your male inherited Y chromosome that you didn't know. For example, if you are English or Irish, you're presuming that you've always been English or Irish (R: right), but if your Y chromosome is typical of Sweden, I have to tell you that you're a descendent of a Viking. And, uh, and - and we find that - that quite common (R: wow), so if it - if an individual thinks that his or hers mother's mother's mother's mother was Native American (R: right), they can do a DNA test, they'll be matched up with other people who share the same DNA and we'll tell you which branch of the tree of mankind your from and (R: right) if you're from one of those Native American branches or a Sub-Saharan African branch, that means that on your mom's side you're African or you're Native American no matter what you think of yourself as, no matter what you look like in the mirror, the DNA doesn't hide the secret, it reveals the secret and that's because your entire genetic history is written into your DNA. And only in the last fifteen or twenty years has molecular science learned how to read that book that's written into your cells.

Russ: That is so cool. Bennett, I really appreciate you coming back in and sharing the story of FamilyTreeDNA. It - it's so cool to see somebody so passionate and successful at the same time so thanks a lot.

Bennett: Thank you for having me.

Russ: You bet. That's Bennett Greenspan, Founder and CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.

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