It was only a few years ago that Forbes named 31-year-old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes the youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America. Her medical technology company Theranos—which she’d founded when she was only 19—was valued at $9 billion. Today, Holmes’ net worth has dropped to zero dollars and her company is defunct. Fortune even named her one of the “World’s Most Disappointing Leaders”. Talk about a fall from grace.
There is already a podcast (ABC News’ The Dropout), a feature length documentary (HBO’s The Inventor), and a book (John Carryrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup) laying out the entire story from her original vision to her arrest and fraud charges. Jennifer Lawrence has been tapped to play Holmes in an upcoming film adaptation of Bad Blood and now Kate McKinnon has signed on to play Holmes in a Hulu miniseries. Obviously, Holmes has made an impact—and not in the way she intended.
After founding Theranos in 2004, Holmes started to attract a lot of attention in not only the tech world but also from mainstream media. She appeared on the cover of The New York Times Style Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, and Inc. She talked a huge game and made big promises about revolutionizing healthcare. Seeing a young woman like Holmes have the confidence and vision to run a company like Theranos was inspiring to a lot of women. She was making history after all as one of very few female CEOs in Silicon Valley.
The idea behind Theranos was to create a device that could test for hundreds of different diseases using only a pinprick of blood. It is a good idea—and clearly a lot of people were excited about it—but as one of Holmes’ Stanford professors tried to tell her, it wasn’t actually scientifically possible. Holmes had no intention of letting science hold her back, though. Like many other Silicon Valley startup founders before her, she took the fake-it-til-you-make-it approach. But she took it too far. Especially considering her product was affecting real people and the decisions they were making about their health.
Holmes was able to convince many smart, wealthy people that her vision was possible. Her lack of transparency about how her invention actually worked was explained away citing “trade secrets” so she was able to keep buying time with her investors’ money hoping that eventually, her “team” would figure out how to make it work. But they never did, and eventually her own employees—people who believed in her at first—started turning on her.
Holmes and her COO Sunny Balwani (who she was also in a secret romantic relationship with) have both been charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for distributing falsified results to consumers. Even though Theranos devices never worked how they were supposed to, they were still being used on real patients, often delivering devastating results such as falsely indicating they people had illnesses as serious as cancer.
Holmes had ambitions of changing the world, being the next Steve Jobs, only female. Her story would have been compelling if she succeeded. It probably would have sparked a book, maybe a documentary. But the fact that she failed so spectacularly has led to to even more coverage. She has been called “sociopathic”, “delusional”, and a “pathological liar”. She may be more infamous now than she would have been if she actually did something good. Why? Because obviously, people love a good train wreck. Just look at Fyre Festival.
We’ve all come across people who are so absurdly ambitious that they become completely unrealistic. But most of those people don’t take it as far as Holmes. She raised millions of dollars in capital and convinced some of the most successful investors that her vision was truly the future of health care. She used her personal connections and carefully concocted anecdotes to sell an idea—not an actual product. She was basically selling science fiction.
For anyone who has ever had a crazy idea, Elizabeth Holmes could have been a role model. But instead she’s nothing more than a meme and a cautionary tale of what happens when you let your ambition get away from you. She may have been a bit eccentric with her affinity for Steve Jobs-esque turtlenecks, abnormally deep voice and over-wrought hair and makeup, but when someone is considered a pioneer, a little eccentricity is expected.
According to Holmes: “This is what happens when you work to change things. First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then all of a sudden you change the world.” Unfortunately for her, that quotable sound bite won’t go down in history next to her accomplishments in healthcare innovation. Instead, her legacy will be nothing more than a butchered “at first they’ll think you’re crazy” quote accompanied by a screen grab of her bug-eyed stare.