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Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes Shows The Pitfalls Of “Faking It ‘Til You Make It”

By Jaimee Marshall··  11 min read
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As Elizabeth Holmes famously said, “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world.” And then you defraud investors for millions of dollars and jeopardize the health of at-risk patients, all based on a promised technology that doesn’t exist.

Well, I guess the last part was a little too honest for Elizabeth Holmes, a master manipulator who conned her way to the top as the world’s first self-made billionaire female entrepreneur. Silicon Valley, the media, investors, high-level government officials, even the vice president ate it all up. 

The promise? A revolutionary piece of technology that would transform the medical industry. Instead of scary, uncomfortable needles being inserted into your arm to draw large vials of blood, Holmes’ company Theranos claimed it could run hundreds of medical tests from a single finger prick. The implication was that this technology could eliminate the need for needles, large volumes of blood being drawn, lab analysis waiting periods, and costs by instantly producing results for hundreds of different medical tests ranging from diabetes to HIV to cancer. 

This information would empower you to be able to “prevent cancer before it happens.” You’d be able to go to your local drugstore, take a quick blood sample with a small finger prick, and instantly get pathology results for hundreds of different conditions at an affordable cost. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it was. However, this story isn’t merely about the disturbing lack of conscience it took to mislead the public and endanger patients – it’s how Elizabeth Holmes never had any demonstrable proof that her technology worked or even existed in the first place. Yet, no one challenged her. 

With ease, she was able to source high-profile government officials to back her company and join her as board members. She earned millions of dollars from the likes of investors such as Betsy Devos, Rupert Murdoch, and many others. She graced the cover of every successful magazine you’d expect the founder of the leading tech company in the world to be on. And all it really took was desperately mimicking Steve Jobs, putting on an artificial baritone voice, and unrelenting narcissism. Everyone else followed blindly. That is, until a few brave, independent thinking souls dared to start asking questions.

Pulling Off Fraud with a Female Steve Jobs Impersonation

Holmes was obsessed with Steve Jobs and took every opportunity to emulate him throughout her career. From wearing his signature black turtleneck and dropping out of college to faking a more masculine and authoritative voice, she was determined to market Theranos like Jobs had marketed Apple – and it worked. She was even able to recruit Jobs’ former head of software Avie Tevanian (who later quit after spotting red flags). She went on talk shows, news interviews, and was on the cover of every magazine claiming that her company had created technology that would eliminate the need to take vials of blood to test for diseases. 

She claimed her technology would make it as simple as a prick on the finger with instant scanning through an “Edison device” which was supposedly a little black box that could perform hundreds of pathology tests. She named the device after Thomas Edison, which is fitting, considering Edison stole most of his inventions from Nikola Tesla and Holmes’ so-called little black box not only didn’t work, but Theranos was secretly running most of their lab tests on traditional commercial blood analyzers (which require large vials of blood to produce accurate results) and diluting the blood samples with water.

Walgreens partnered with Theranos to deliver in-store blood tests without ever checking for accurate results.

In 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and Elizabeth Holmes had a net worth of $4.5 million, making her the youngest self-made female billionaire at 30 years old. She was able to raise $700 million from high-profile investors who believed in her charisma, motivation, and vision. Walgreens partnered with Theranos to deliver in-store blood tests without ever checking that the test results were accurate. Walgreens later cut ties with Theranos and sued them for $140 million for misleading them about their technology. However, this was after the drugstore retailer had carried the lab tests in over 40 stores and patients were given inaccurate blood test results for very serious conditions. 

A breast cancer survivor was given results indicating estrogen levels so high that she likely had a cancerous tumor growing when in fact she did not. Another woman who was pregnant testified in Holmes’ trial that she was told she had a miscarriage when she had a perfectly healthy baby. Another woman testified that she was given a false positive HIV result. To say that Theranos was less than perfect would be a gross understatement.

The Whistleblowers Who Blew the Lid Off Theranos

Whistleblowers Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz were integral in exposing the lies of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. Cheung was a lab assistant who, like many others, was blown away by Holmes’ ideas and charisma all while being delighted at the opportunity to hop aboard a revolutionary medical company that made exciting promises and to see a woman be so successful as the CEO of a tech company. 

Cheung’s enthusiasm quickly dissolved, as six months into working for Theranos she made some disturbing discoveries – Theranos was cherry-picking data points and deleting outlier results to pass quality control tests. After running tests on herself, she discovered incongruent results on Theranos’ Edison machine and traditional lab tests. 

She also discovered that most of the tests offered on their blood testing menu could not be performed on the Edison box and instead were being tested using commercially available blood analyzers or through a diagnostic company. This caused her to quit and notify federal agents of Theranos’ internal testing problems. As a result, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services launched a surprise inspection which caused Theranos to shut down their labs.

Another employee by the name of Tyler Shultz bravely dared to question Holmes’ claims, despite his family being closely connected to Holmes and his grandfather serving on the board of directors. Upon realizing that testing results were not accurate, that the majority of tests were being carried out on third-party machines with large vials of blood, and that Theranos was knowingly misleading and endangering patients, he decided to reach out to Holmes through email

Most of the tests offered on their blood testing menu couldn't be performed on the Edison box.

He was met with hostility by COO and president of Theranos Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, who Tyler says responded, “That I was arrogant, ignorant, patronizing, reckless – and I was lacking the basic understanding of math, science, and statistics that if I had any other last name, that I would have already been held accountable to the strongest extent.” This intimidation didn’t discourage him, though. He ultimately quit and attempted to show his grandfather the truth, but he refused to believe him. 

George Shultz continued to serve as a board member for Theranos, and Holmes remained a regular guest at family get-togethers. He served as former U.S. Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan but was yet another successful figure duped by Holmes due to his lack of knowledge in pathology. Tyler teamed up with Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, who was looking for sources to write a piece challenging the claims made by Theranos and its founder. Thanks to Shultz’s inside information, Carreyrou wrote two scathing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal that ultimately led to Theranos’ downfall. He then wrote the book Bad Blood, and the rights to a film adaptation have been purchased by Adam McKay.

When Faking It ‘Til You Make It Becomes Delusional

The whole “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy of entrepreneurship isn’t new to Silicon Valley, nor is over-promising what your product or technology can do and hoping to play catch up. The problem is, this is the medical field we’re talking about. There are real human lives at stake. When the testing results of the Edison machine were coming back as wildly inaccurate, Theranos continued to process patients, never came forward with the information, and tried to silence anyone who dared to raise questions about the ethics of gambling with patients’ blood results. 

Many people suspect that Elizabeth Holmes, who is facing fraud charges and 20 years in prison, is a sociopath. It’s not hard to understand why – considering her fake voice which she thought would make others take her more seriously, her piercing stare which is lacking an appropriate blinking rate, and her willingness to lie on behalf of her company despite the consequences. 

However, I’m not so sure that’s what’s happened here, and that’s even more concerning. While Holmes seems to be somewhat of a narcissist, as she saw herself, a 19-year-old college drop-out with no medical education and little engineering experience, revolutionizing medicine by creating a technology that she had no idea how to create and no basis on which to create it – I think Holmes got swept away by this notion that if you will something into being, it’ll simply manifest itself. After all, isn’t that what most successful billionaire CEOs do? 

They change the world by having a delusional belief in their own capabilities and dedication to their ideas. Holmes likely believed that if she played the role of a female Steve Jobs and captured the attention of the world, she’d be able to recruit the right people to make this technology come to life. However, the difference between actually doing that and going down with the ship is her commitment to selling herself as the product. 

Visualization isn’t magic, and it certainly can’t invent a revolutionary technology out of thin air.

Like the cult of personalities that came before her, Holmes wouldn’t accept that her technology didn’t work, which led her to bury data and threaten anyone who dared to come forward. She wasn’t going to let anything throw a wrench in her storyline that Theranos was the new Apple of medicine – and this was precisely why so many people were swindled. Think about the timing of Theranos’ rise to success. It was right around the creation of Facebook. People were amped up to find the next big thing to invest in. What made Theranos even more appealing was Holmes’ uniqueness as a young female entrepreneur in male-dominated Silicon Valley. 

She was quickly able to convince famous and influential investors to prop up her company with millions of dollars, which became a domino effect, making it easier to get the support of the next investor. No one stopped to ask what was going on or for proof that the technology worked. Everyone was focused on Holmes being the next Steve Jobs rather than the technology itself, and Holmes was busy playing a persona that she created. While many aspects of Holmes’ personality do appear sociopathic, it’s difficult to tell how much of this is a character and how much is authentic.

Avie Tevanian described the situation in an interview, saying, “We had a situation here that created what's called FOMO, fear of missing out. Everybody before you has bet on this…and then you combine that with this incredibly compelling story. You've got this really smart female CEO…who's going to make herself super-rich and who's going to do a wonderful thing for the world. Right? It is a great story. You want it to work. We all want that to work."

Closing Thoughts

The downfall of Theranos is a product of hype culture being taken to its most extreme. No one wanted to miss out on the next Facebook, Apple, or Twitter, which led to the entire media being swept away by the charismatic ideas of the company’s founder without looking deeper for any real proof. Once enough people buy into an idea, it becomes all the more difficult to realize the emperor has no clothes – that it is, in all aspects of the word, a cult.

Athletes, businessmen, and other successful figures often use the principles of visualization or so-called manifestation to bring their ideas of success to fruition. It can be a useful tool in making your brain identify goals as more attainable if you believe they are and imagine that they’re already happening. 

Studies have shown that visualizing has been just as useful at improving performance on a skill such as playing sports or an instrument than physically practicing. As a gymnast, I know all too well the importance of the mind-body connection. If I can’t visualize and feel myself doing a flip in my mind, there’s no way in hell I’m going to attempt it.

However, what visualization isn’t is magic and it certainly can’t invent a revolutionary technology out of thin air without any expertise. Holmes could have been transparent about her technology lagging behind her ideas and saved herself, her investors, and innocent patients a world of trouble. Instead, she let her ego get the best of her. This culture of “faking it ‘til you make it” can quickly border into the realm of unethical. When you “fake it ‘til you make it” with people’s medical results, you’re gambling with their lives. 

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