Greed, vanity, and #GirlBosses; Jenn Gannon on the life and times of the fallen Silicon Valley entrepreneur
Last Wednesday a jury was finally sworn in for the trial of Elizabeth Holmes. It was an arduous task trying to find potential jurors that weren’t aware of the disgraced Theranos founder on some level. There have been an abundance of articles, books, documentaries, SNL skits and a predictable Hollywood production which is now in the works starring Mama Mia’s Amanda Seyfried.
The story of Holmes and the downfall of her blood testing tech company Theranos is fascinating. No wonder writers, journalists and filmmakers have all scrambled to have their own take on the Icarus-like descent of the tech architect. It reads like a modern day morality tale. The Theranos saga encapsulates the vanity and vacuity of the GirlBoss era, the mindless unchecked greed that Silicon Valley promotes, the dangerous American obsession with the maverick entrepreneur, the rise of the scammer, the commodification of healthcare and the unwavering belief in the American Dream – to succeed and thrive at any cost.
The young entrepreneur sold a fantastical yarn about how her groundbreaking technology could eradicate the painful blood drawing procedure,(no more nasty needles) and instead replace it with a tiny pinprick that through her magical Edison machine would test for hundreds of diseases. She weaved this seductive medical fairytale for a series of high profile investors (including Henry Kissanger, George Shultz and Rupert Murdoch) illustrious academics and the healthcare industry who wanted to believe in Holmes’ vision and bankrolled Theranos to the tune of $400 million dollars. By 2014 Theranos Wellness Centres (the location for these noninvasive tests) were to be opened throughout the pharmacy chain Walgreens.
In Elizabeth Holmes they had found their female biomedical guru with perfectly marketable feminist leanings. It was easy to be dazzled by the forthright former Stanford student. For someone who had quit her chemical engineering course she had an impressive track record; becoming fluent in Mandarin, brimming with ideas and boasting a steely determination to outrun her peers and become not only memorable, but iconic. Wowing her professors with her initiative and tenacity, she asked one, Channing Robertson, to start a company with her and soon abandoned her studies to concentrate on her burgeoning, all consuming idea that became Theranos.
Holmes peddled a cute story about her fear of needles preventing her from pursuing medicine as a career, and pulled at heartstrings detailing how she lost her beloved uncle to skin cancer, stating that with Theranos technology she would be putting the power of medical information into patients hands as they shipped off their blood drops to be tested for a menu of diseases like choosing a treatment at a luxury spa. She centred the idea of Theranos around the terror of the late diagnosis and how our own dislike of blood tests could potentially rob us of more time with our loved ones, time her uncle missed out on. She was a media sensation. A Ted Talk queen, ascending at the apex of Sheryl Sandberg’s fame, she seemed to be the embodiment of the COO’s strident ‘Lean In’ philosophy.
With her messy blonde chignon, the strange deep timbre of her voice and her unblinking eyes she soon stared out from Forbes and Time magazine covers in striking photos that were part Steve Jobs, part Meet the Beatles. These images were supposed to capture a portentous moment in time, the arrival of the millennial Marie Curie.
Presentation consumed Holmes. One potential juror said during the selection process that they only knew Holmes from her distinctive black polo neck, a signature look that aped her idol Jobs. Her desire to reproduce the streamlined look of Apple culminated in her poaching their product designer Ana Arriola who divulged about Jobs’ wardrobe of identical Issey Miyake jumpers that Holmes immediately adopted. It wasn’t just the subtle designer clothes that Holmes assumed but also his regimented diet, as she constantly guzzled expensive green juices, employing a personal chef who made her bland salads and vegetable drinks throughout the day. She quickly slipped into the role of a CEO, an enigmatic tech entrepreneur, travelling by private jets, staying in exclusive hotels, appearing at the best restaurants (pre-made juice in hand), she became comfortable playing this extravagant, mysterious character on the company dime as if attempting to live up to an image the media created of the eccentric inventor. Like most things related to Theranos it was another empty pose.
In the company offices one wall was covered in a quote attributed to Star Wars Jedi Master Yoda : ‘Do or Do Not, There Is No Try’ perhaps a nod to her nerdy days, a Zuckerberg-esque goofy pop culture pull that underlined her youth. Theranos was Don Draper’s wet dream, a place where only an idea was sold, a start-up of extreme delusion where genuine concerns about the innovative technology she was promoting could be papered over using a phrase from a puppet in a children’s sci-fi movie.
Holmes was obsessed with selling the sizzle but unfortunately the steak was still firmly attached to the cow as several employees warned her that the much vaunted Edison machine did not achieve anything like the amount of testing it purported to and most of the results were incorrect.
Her input in Theranos seemed less about the laborious job of actually getting the technology to work and more about how to present it, the easily digestible packaging of a concept that planned to turn diagnostics into something as sleek and functional as the Apple suite of products. It was about healthcare as conspicuous consumption, not about combating illness, although if Holmes was healing the world along the way and appearing like a benign cult leader rubbing shoulders with Oprah and the Clintons, then that was a beneficial by-product.
When everything eventually came crashing down and the world saw that there wasn’t even a joker behind the curtain, but just an empty chair, it was partly due to Wall Street Journal writer John Carreyrou’s dogged reporting. He repeatedly picked holes in Holmes’s story from the very beginning in 2014, which then culminated in his book 2018’s Bad Blood – Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up, a visceral, detailed account of the affair. Such was the ferocity of Carreyrou’s reporting that Holmes pleaded with Wall Street Journal owner (and Theranos investor) Rupert Murdoch to ‘kill’ the stories but Murdoch, ever the shark and perhaps sensing a righteous bloodbath, called upon the Journal editors to make their own decisions. Soon after Carreyrou’s book came the acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney’s take with his documentary The Inventor, which pieces together the tale featuring interviews with key employees and Theranos whistleblowers. The film also contains an unforgettable scene where Holmes, dressed in a puffy vest, in a room of sycophantic employees, awkwardly raises the roof to MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This in an oblivious celebratory mode which almost surpasses Kendall Roy’s impromptu rap in Succession in terms of corporate- culture cringeworthiness.
Although Carreyrou’s articles and book may be thorough and Gibney’s documentary may be a well put together narrative, there is nothing that details the Theranos story in the assiduous way that the ABC news podcast The Dropout does. The podcast has now returned in lockstep with Holmes’ trial,and will continue to document the case every Tuesday until a verdict has been reached. It is the O.J trial for the podcast generation.
Presented by Rebecca Jarvis, the first series detailed the rise and fall of Holmes and Theranos, the myth-making behind the scenes, the deification of the ‘unicorn’ entrepreneur, Holmes’ desire for notoriety and how this desire to be an ‘icon’ skewed her sense of responsibility. With access to former employees, mentors, college professors, Carreyrou himself and other journalists, it is an indispensable guide to the proceedings. With each episode lasting only 40 minutes or so it is a manageable, bite sized but comprehensive look at the Theranos story.
Series two will dissect the minutiae of the trial, what Holmes has been doing since her indictment for fraud (becoming pregnant, giving birth and getting married), and what her defence will be. There are rumours that she will controversially be laying the blame squarely at the feet of her ex-boyfriend and former Theranos executive Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, indicating that her GirlBoss feminist ideals disguised a woman under coercive control. This adds another layer to the impenetrable Holmes, one that has adapted the vernacular of an abuse survivor. Holmes and Theranos have already chipped away at the public confidence in medical professionals, in the veracity of female entrepreneurs (especially in the field of technology), one would hope that her defence does not bleed into the growing skepticism surrounding coercive control.
We may be enthralled by the modern scourge of the scammer from the postmodern performance art of Caroline Calloway to the faux New York socialite Anna Sorokin/Delvey. These tricksters are Bling Ring level consters, faking it until they make it, craving cheap thrills or the instantaneous fulfilment they think they deserve. Elizabeth Holmes was soaring on a different plane. For a brief, dizzying moment she flew too high and convinced us all that she could see the future of medicine in one drop of blood.