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Feb 15, 2019

The Audacity of a Rich and Connected Narcissist: Elizabeth Holmes and her Monumental Fiasco called Theranos

Thank you John Carreyrou for an un-putdownable expose on one of Silicon Valley's greatest screw-ups.Also highly commendable are the brave ex-Theranos employees like Erika Cheung, Tyler Shultz, Ian Gibbons and others who risked their lives and careers for divulging the information they were privy to in order to protect the lives of ordinary Americans. 

The Silicon Valley startup Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes was willing to put millions of lives at risk with fake blood test results while lying through the teeth to federal agencies to make her scam company a success. John Carreyrou started following the scent of this sham of a start-up, first through the investigative pieces he wrote for his employer - The Wall Street Journal. But a scam of such monumental proportion could not be contained in a couple of articles and it became the book Bad Blood: Secret and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.

I remember the days when Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos founder and CEO, was everywhere - from NPR to Hillary Clinton fundraiser. Media loved her - a female founder of a highly successful Silicon valley startup, probably the only one of a startup of this stature. A girl (19 year old when she started the company) - rich, powerful, intelligent, blonde and beautiful - a girl who broke into the proverbial boy's club, what is not to like, right? She had the right credentials for a start-up CEO - she was a Stanford drop out, under thirty and hungry for success, plus she wore the black Steve Jobs turtle necks, to play the part from neck to the boot.

To me, reading the book, articles and her interviews, Elizabeth Holmes comes off as a rich and connected narcissist who thought she knew more than 99.99% of humanity and could con them with miniaturized blood tests (which she couldn’t miniaturize because there were reasons why the people with experience in the industry had not done it yet) because in her mind she was the once in a blue moon tech-entrepreneurial genius – along the lines of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And there were rich white men confirming her genius and expressing approval by contributing millions to her vaporware dream.

She was a charismatic charmer who had populated the board of Theranos with the aging American stalwarts ranging from George Shultz and James Mattis to Henry Kissinger who fell for her so-called new-found technology hook, line and sinker. Her investors included Larry Ellison, Kraft family, the Waltons, the DeVoses and Rupert Murdoch. With such big names backing her who would have the nerve say this company is perpetuating a sham which is nothing bigger than a middle school science project.

With billions in funding and billionaires backing her up, Elizabeth Holmes recruited the best and brightest in the industry but Theranos forever remained a revolving door. The brlliant minds enticed by the charisma and 'vision' of the CEO were found leaving after a few months or a year burnt by Holmes' outright lying and ruthlessness and the company's unethical practices. She was also aided in this process by her boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, twenty plus years her senior, but just as cunning and ruthless. The two kept their relationship secret from the board of the company for the longest possible time while Balwani continued being the President of the start-up.

Bad Blood is an excellent investigative revelation which documents the fall of a rich, powerful and a ruthless bully, lawyer-ed up to the gills that not a single person, unless you are a billionaire yourself with billions to spare, would ever dream of going against. If you like stories where the underdog (in this case the tortured employees and deceived patients) trounces Goliath in a story with a happy ending, this is it.

There are lots of videos on Youtube featuring Holmes and Theranos, if you are interested. There is also a film coming out soon based on the book starring Jennifer Lawrence as the controversial founder of Theranos.