I’ve been obsessed with the Theranos saga since Vanity Fair’s September 2016 article “How Elizabeth Holmes’s House of Cards Came Tumbling Down.”
From there, I went on to read everything I could find about Theranos. Here was a trailblazing woman, the world’s first self-made billionaire. (On borrowed dollars.) Here was a product some of the smartest minds said couldn’t be made. (It can’t.) Here was the next Steve Jobs/Elon Musk/Mark Zuckerberg—but a woman—“disrupting” (a millennial’s most desired state of being) an industry and giving zero f*cks about bulldozing anyone who dared stand in her way.
(Except she wasn’t.)
In April of last year, I went to the Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Phoenix for work and the keynote speaker was John Carreyrou, a Wall Street journal reporter who had a book coming out—Bad Blood. He talked about researching the book, how threats had been made on his life. (I nervously glanced around the resort’s event space when he said that.) He talked about lawyers who bullied him and his sources, about pulling at threads that unraveled so spectacularly. He described a woman who had duped not only hundreds of investors—to be fair, I believe an angel gets its wings every time people like Betsy DeVos lose not-hard-earned dollars to shady investments—but entire mega-companies like Safeway and Walgreens.
They had given all of the conference attendees a book sample in the red AHCJ tote bags which I immediately took back to my hotel room and devoured. I can’t remember now which chapters were in the sample, but I do recall thinking—this shit goes so deep.
Bad Blood also goes deep. It’s a book that a coworker of mine called “overpopulated,” in that there are so many people mentioned and referenced that it’s hard to keep them all straight. Was that person a scientist in the lab or a lawyer? Wait, which one was the designer again? I get that Carreyrou was doing his due diligence but at times the story goes down rabbit holes with minor characters that are soon forgotten and never mentioned again. I know, they’re not characters, they’re sources, but this is where you have to suspend your expectations for this book. It’s not written linearly, necessarily, and it’s not written for your reading pleasure. This book was written to unearth a rat king of lies and it’s going to drag you through every putrid twist and turn. It must have been an ultramarathon of a book to research and write and the end result is that it’s a bit of an endurance sport to read, too.
So, I finished the book and—excellent timing—immediately started listening to ABC Radio’s The Dropout podcast. John Carreyrou did much of the heavy lifting in terms of finding sources willing to talk about what was really going down, so the podcast feels like an audio version of the book but one blessedly abridged. It’s helpful to hear the different voices and some of the podcast picks up where Carreyrou’s book left off last spring. Much has happened in the last six months, including ABC’s access to the testimony of Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani, her exboyfriend (ew) and COO of Theranos. Snippets of the recordings are shared throughout the podcast which illuminate little beyond the fact that it’s still completely unclear to many whether or not Holmes acknowledges to herself that she was peddling a massive lie. To the public, at least, she’s still standing firm. She sees herself as a victim.
And this is probably why I’m so obsessed with this whole story.
First, though: Holmes was only tangentially inspiring to me when I first heard about her. Sure, great, do your thing. Make your money. Show ’em who’s boss. But as the CEO of a biomedical company in Silicon Valley, her aspirations were so different from mine. So, I wasn’t one of the many who were existentially crushed by her downfall—and many were. Women who believed that because Holmes, a Stanford dropout, could “make it,” she’d break ceilings and blaze trails for other women in tech too.
I acknowledge that this is huge. While Holmes may not have irreversibly set back women in STEM—or any sector for that matter—she also certainly didn’t help. If Holmes had been selling a real product, if she’d truly changed the world the way she’d wanted to, the opportunities for her to practice some real life #shinetheory (snaps to Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman for birthing this brilliant concept) could have been groundbreaking. If the billions she’d made had been reinvested and reincarnated into creating opportunities for other women and minorities, if she had lifted them up within her own company and used her viewpoint at the top of the summit to advocate for others to join her up there—well, the ambiguous loss here is staggering.
Not that she would have necessarily done any of those things. Exhibit A: Her (totally incompetent) board of
But that’s not why I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. That’s not why I’m falling down Google rabbit holes digging up everything I can about this woman and her fraudulent company.
This is why: the term “imposter syndrome” is regularly thrown around among my female peers. We doubt or downplay our accomplishments and feel like scammers when we apply for jobs we believe we’re only 60% qualified for. Our resumes are thrown into proprietary algorithms and we’re weeded out for jobs before we even have a chance to walk in the door. We are regularly told that our male coworkers are probably making more than us but, thanks to embedded salary shrouding practices, we can’t always point to a specific gap. We are vaguely aware that we are always having to work just a little bit harder, be just a little bit louder (but not too loud), worry about how we are “coming off,” and pay careful attention to what we sign up for in the workplace because we’re much likelier to be handed non-promotable tasks. We worry that our emails and Slack messages and questions in meetings aren’t giving off the “right tone.” We make sure we put enough—but not too many—exclamation points in our correspondence. We juggle “I” and “we,” constantly trying to make sure we give credit where it’s due without eroding our own credibility. It’s exhausting.
For however far we have come in 2019, the workplace continues to feel like an arbitrary game of chess for women. As soon as we’ve figured out one move, there’s another we failed to anticipate. This doesn’t even include the mountain of added complications and nuances for women of color or who are trans or queer or disabled or any other supposedly protected class.
All of this to say: it is completely, totally, and utterly incomprehensible to me that Elizabeth Holmes was able to con so many people out of so much money, out of so much of their lives, out of precious career years, and on and on. And by “able,” I mean both her ability to do so and her consciousness of it. For those of us who have ever worried about the tone of an email, the idea to start a fraudulent empire that spans over a decade and blows through $400 million of borrowed money is fairly inconceivable.
Everyone is asking this question in different ways. Many wonder if she is some sort of sociopath, someone who can bend reality any which way so that it aligns with her ego-driven perspective of the world. Perhaps she was just “a passionate dreamer” who got in over her head and tangled in a web of red tape and government regulation. (This is the kind of patronizing, belittling rhetoric I’m sure many members of her original board reach for whenever they think of their Elizabeth behind bars.) She’s been called the “millennial Madoff,” intimating that she knew exactly what she was doing. Maybe she really did believe the technology could exist—after all, her few semesters at Stanford may not have given her enough of a biomedical background to fully understand what she was asking for. Maybe she’s actually some kind of weird super-feminist and knew it was all a sham and decided she was going to be the first female self-made billionaire anyway. Screw all these white men with their bulging pockets, she may have thought. I’m going to clean them out and I don’t care what it takes to do that.
Whatever the reason, Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos “house of cards” are subjects of such intense scrutiny that a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence is being penned. It will be interesting to see what creative choices the writers and cast are forced to make in the vacuum of information coming from Holmes herself. What angle will J-Law play? Will we sympathize with Holmes on the screen in ways we cannot in current public opinion? Will we gain some understanding of her motives, her tactics, her overall end game? I’m having a hard time imagining how writing this script will go given that Holmes herself is still sitting on her own story hoping to get a book deal out of it.
I’m not gonna lie—I will probably read that book.
I will definitely watch this movie.
At a time where we’ve embraced power posing and actually have to remind ourselves not to add any qualifiers to our speech like “I’m not sure,” or “I’m sorry, but”, perhaps it’s not the worst thing to contemplate a drop of Holmes’s blood. Let’s not go scamming billionaires into handing over millions of dollars and let’s not perform bogus medical experiments on humans and let’s especially not attempt to evade government regulations BUT maybe if we walked into a board room with even a degree of Holmes’s swagger we might get a bit more done around here. Maybe if we believed in ourselves with 1/1,000th of the ardor with which Holmes seems to have believed in herself, we’d apply for that dream job for which we’re only technically 60% qualified. And if we carried a single drop of Holmes’s bad blood with us into the interview, maybe we’d drop the qualifiers and ask for the higher salary and more vacation time. And maybe we’d get it, and maybe we’d thrive with the challenge.
If there is any silver lining here at all, it could very well be acknowledging the fact that most of us are far more qualified, talented, and egalitarian in our careers than the world’s first female self-made billionaire—and we should leverage the shit out of that.