In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.
For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley.
I watched the documentary about Elizabeth Holmes on HBO when it came out and I was astonished by it all. I later got to know about this book but never got the chance to read it before. But I’ve been on a bit of a binge of non fiction recently and this showed up in my next to read recommendations as soon as I finished Empire of Pain and I thought why not. And this was riveting as hell.
The last investigative reporting book that read like a thriller novel was Ronan Farrow’s brilliant Catch and Kill and this one is written very closely in that vein. Similar to Ronan, the author John is the main catalyst behind bringing the truth about Holmes and Theranos in the open and this gives us a deep inside look into the company and the people involved. The author gives us a great account of the kind of person she was growing up and her privileged upbringing, her dream of being an entrepreneur and changing the world, the many brilliant scientists and engineers and executives she managed to recruit for her company and the kind of bullying and revolving door culture that she and her boyfriend Sunny Balwani built at Theranos. It’s a thoroughly engaging book, especially the beginning and the last third – the middle can get slightly repetitive because it’s about the many employees who arrived at Theranos excited to work on something innovative and ultimately felt disillusioned, couldn’t handle the stress of all the lying that they could see happening in all aspects of their work, and ultimately left but not without being incessantly bullied and threatened with legal actions for any disclosures – even though their stories are similar and we might be bored reading the same things happening over and over, it clearly shows how many numerous employees could see the scam happening, couldn’t continue to be a part of it, but also couldn’t speak out because money and lawyers have all the power in corporate America.
I had many different takeaways from this book and it might become a long review but I just feel like venting today.
- Silicon Valley culture is all about talking of innovation and disruption and changing the world but ultimately it’s all empty words and everyone is in it for the money, have grandiose ideas about how great they are which are not in touch with reality, and usually give a backseat to ethics and morality because who cares about the means if the end result is a lot of money for the investors. Capitalism has created a world where earnings and profits matter and if people are harmed in the process, it’s all acceptable collateral damage.
- Another point which probably reflects on corporate America’s culture, but this whole idea that employees have to be loyal to their companies and be available 24×7 to work because they are changing the world is complete bullsh*t. One can be loyal to the work they do, be honest when talking about it, and have big dreams – but pledging undying loyalty to companies and CEOs who will ensure it forcefully with ironclad non disclosure agreements is just another way that the billionaire and corporate class makes sure that the people who work for them know their place.
- White privilege really opens doors that are forever closed to many POC aspiring entrepreneurs, even if they have degrees from the Ivies unlike Holmes who is a Stanford dropout. I really can’t even dream of a Black or Brown woman ever being able to head a company that was at one time valued at almost $10 billion without ever producing a working end product. If you are a blonde blue eyed charming young woman with an interesting life story and access to an elite network, apparently it’s not that hard to convince old white men who happen to be former senators and cabinet secretaries and company CEOs and elite venture capitalists and even someone like General Mattis to believe in you, never ask for proof of what you have developed, be your board members or invest millions. Reading this felt like I was being asked to suspend disbelief even more than any SFF novel. But it’s also not that surprising that this is the world we live in.
- As in Ronan’s book, this story also brings to light how the rich use their high priced lawyers to intimidate and bully the normal people and employees and journalists to shut them up and cover up their own wrong doing. David Boies is a repeat figure and after the way he threatened and surveilled journalists and victims during the Harvey Weinstein reporting, seeing him use the exact same tactics here made me very angry. It’s the constitutional right for everyone to have legal representation but seeing these so-called “prolific” lawyers always take the side of billionaires and oppress the ones who can hardly stand up to them definitely makes them feel reprehensible in my eyes.
I think I’ve gone on for long, so I’ll just stop here. If you want to read a thrilling real life story about a sociopathic narcissistic entrepreneur, her idea of changing the world, the cheating and lies and grand self-delusions that became a part of the company’s culture, and the brave people who decided to do something to stop the company before lives were destroyed, do checkout this book. Elizabeth Holmes said many times and probably believed that she was creating one of the most important things for humanity and maybe even creating her own religion, and I hope this book is an eye opener and maybe will help people recognize such cult like figures before they go very far.