Patterico's Pontifications

4/10/2018

Elizabeth Holmes and the Politics of Feminist Entrepreneurialism [Update & Edit]

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:30 pm

[guest post by JVW]

UPDATE: Ugh, I started this post last month and let it fester, then finished it up today. In my haste to post it before I had to head out, I failed to notice that I repeated myself at one point. I’m going to make a post-publication edit, but I’m appending this note for transparency’s sake. The sentence that begins “The goal of the company. . .” originally mentioned the origin of the name “Theranos,” which was then repeated two sentences later. Damn, I’m senile. – JVW

News came down last month that Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the too-good-to-be-true company Theranos, had been charged by the SEC with massive fraud, raising money for their innovative startup by falsifying lab results and overstating patent claims in order to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in investment money. Ms. Holmes has agreed to step down as CEO of the company she founded 15 years ago, forfeit 18.9 million shares of stock that she holds (the company was valued at $9 billion in 2013, but the scandal has dropped it by a factor of eleven down to $800 million today), pay a $500,000 fine, and be ineligible to hold a leadership in a public company for the next ten years. As part of the deal, Ms. Holmes is pretty certain to avoid jail time, and she does not have to admit culpability for the scandal that set Silicon Valley tongues wagging for the past few years. Today, word came down that Theranos has laid off virtually all of its employees, save for a skeleton crew that will likely either quickly revamp and salvage the company’s work, or turn out the lights and lock the doors for good.

Elizabeth Holmes’s road to being a Silicon Valley superstar started when she left Stanford as a 19-year-old junior to start Theranos in April 2004. The goal of the company was to “democratize medicine,” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. Her credentials were strong: a whiz-kid Stanford student who talked her professors in to allowing her to do graduate-level research as a freshman, who filed and received her first patent before closing her teen years, who — like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Michael Dell — left college early in order to pursue her dream. Theranos, a combination of the words “therapy” and “diagnosis,” promised to perform a series of valuable medical tests from a mere drop of blood drawn by the tiniest of pin-pricks which could be conducted at your local pharmacy instead of at a medical office. The concept would have brought a fast and cheap method of diagnosing patients and would have indeed revolutionized the medical industry. The company used an avalanche of positive media coverage and the Silicon Valley gossip network to raise over $750 million in capital, leading to the $9 billion valuation at its peak.

And then, sadly, it all came crashing down. The testing procedure never worked as it should have, and the hundreds of diagnoses promised never materialized. Worse still, it became apparent that Ms. Holmes and other Theranos were actively misstating trial results to potential investors, leading the government to intervene and begin the investigation that brought the entire house of cards tumbling down.

Once upon a time, Elizabeth Holmes was the most celebrated businesswoman in America. Young, intelligent, and attractive, she served as a sharp rejoinder to the largely testosterone-driven world of Silicon Valley and proved that women could be entrepreneurs — and successful ones at that — just the same as the boys could. Moreover, she was running a company that had a bona fide altruistic mission that would save lives, not like those knuckleheads who were figuring out more inventive ways to stalk your ex-girlfriends or argue politics with strangers. Many feminists understandably rejoiced when she replaced Mark Zuckerberg as the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. Maybe her natural competitiveness and hubris would have led her astray regardless, but as we look back on the wreckage it’s only natural to wonder if this sort of status as a trailblazer and icon didn’t push Ms. Holmes towards recklessness out of a sense of duty to the sisterhood, and ultimately cause her to fly too close to the sun.

We can all admire the spirit of exploration and discovery that helped build our nation, and there is nothing wrong with wanting Americans from all walks of life to participate. But we do a real disservice when we add trendy social politics to an already intense and stressful business undertaking.

– JVW

22 Responses to “Elizabeth Holmes and the Politics of Feminist Entrepreneurialism [Update & Edit]”

  1. You know, in case you want to discuss something other than the President.

    JVW (42615e)

  2. speaking of nerdgirls, david hogg and his tiny tiny penis have decided not to pursue stem studies

    happyfeet (28a91b)

  3. It sounds to be like she was an intelligent Martin Shkreli. A con artist who avoided the direst consequences when her con was discovered.

    nk (dbc370)

  4. And I’m pondering whether “largely testosterone-driven world of Silicon Valley” is an oxymoron or merely an exaggeration.

    nk (dbc370)

  5. 1.You know, in case you want to discuss something other than the President.

    LOL Gee, wonder how Voyager is getting along these days…

    voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  6. @5. postscript- actually it is rather interesting– adds perspective.

    https://www.voyager.jpl.nasa.gov

    DCSCA (797bc0)

  7. If this woman knowingly perpetrated massive fraud to the tune of $700M, why is she getting off with the equivalent of a slap on the wrist? She’s basically giving up PART of her ill-gotten gains and not looking at a day of jail time.

    Seems wrong.

    Dave (445e97)

  8. Good looks, good grooming, and good manners. Mainly, good manners. Not like that smirky twerp Shkreli.

    nk (dbc370)

  9. Now, if you want to see political correctness run amok, there’s a black Achilles on a new Netflix series about the Trojan War. Or so I’ve read.

    nk (dbc370)

  10. Yeah, Shkreli’s on my shank list as well.

    urbanleftbehind (6279b7)

  11. OT, but Bolton spooked none other than Publius Decimus Mus (Flight 93 Election) out of a job. http://www.yahoo.com/news/bolton-arrives-white-house-national-215432612.html

    urbanleftbehind (6279b7)

  12. OT, but Bolton spooked none other than Publius Decimus Mus (Flight 93 Election) out of a job.

    Fear the ‘stache.

    Dave (445e97)

  13. Good post, JVW. Honestly, I’m still stuck at the task of “democratiz[ing] medicine”. Wut?

    Dana (023079)

  14. Ugh, I started this post last month and let it fester, then finished it up today. In my haste to post it before I had to head out, I failed to notice that I mentioned the origins of the name “Theranos” twice. I’m going to make a post-publication edit, but I’ll append this as an update for transparency’s sake.

    JVW (42615e)

  15. And I’m pondering whether “largely testosterone-driven world of Silicon Valley” is an oxymoron or merely an exaggeration.

    You would be surprised. The tech world — especially where venture capitalists and some executives are concerned — is a world of dudebros and douchebags. Have you ever seen the HBO series Silicon Valley, the best show on television these days? It’s surprisingly accurate as to what those guys are like, at least from what I have seen. Lots of Erlich Bachmans and Russ Hannemans populate that crowd.

    JVW (42615e)

  16. WASHINGTON (CNN) — The National Transportation Safety Board found Tuesday that the April 1996 fatal crash of a small plane carrying 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff was probably caused by the pilot’s decision to take off in bad weather.

    All three people in the Cessna 177B were killed just after takeoff from a small airport in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As a pilot trainee, Jessica was trying to become the youngest person to complete a transcontinental flight. Her father and her flight instructor, Joe Reid, also died in the crash.

    Investigators believe that fatigue and media attention may have contributed to an “improper” decision to take off in bad weather. However, Jessica’s mother, Lisa Hathaway, said Reid had excellent judgment and wouldn’t have taken off under dangerous conditions. She said she felt it was more likely that a mechanical failure caused the fatal crash.

    The wreck touched off a debate about whether someone so young should be attempting to set a cross-country record. But NTSB investigator Malcolm Brenner said autopsy reports suggested that at the very least, Reid was assisting the girl in the takeoff sequence and likely had control of the wheel at the time of the crash.

    Daddy take the wheel CNN

    Pinandpuller (2d6b5f)

  17. Black Achilles didn’t get dipped in no gd river. Oh hail nah. Relaxer, maybe.

    Been watching The Last O.G.

    Pinandpuller (2d6b5f)

  18. I think the (light) implication that the problem here is that she got a pass for being a woman isn’t helpful. I don’t think in this particular case there is good evidence for it.

    I mean, there have been hundreds of scammy folks in Silicon Valley, some of them very smart. This isn’t a female problem or a liberal problem or a social justice problem, it’s a scammer problem. (Most of the tech stuff is legit, and I like techies myself, but anything with this much money attracts scammers.)

    Of course, “Woman who grew up at Stanford says super-expensive testing can be done for about nothing, makes it actually happen,” doesn’t sound real.

    I don’t think JVW is being sexist here, for clarity. But I think we should be very careful in blaming “trendy social justice,” for this sort of thing; plenty of trendy social justice scams are out there, and the vast majority of them are run by dudes.

    JRM (c80289)

  19. Truly a heartbreaking story in so many ways. I mean most of all, the tech didn’t work. It would have been a minor miracle if it had.

    Cassandra (c33ba9)

  20. Maybe the Theranos story is just a reminder that con artists come in all sizes, genders and political stripes.

    Rock Bottom (5a4596)

  21. I don’t think JVW is being sexist here, for clarity. But I think we should be very careful in blaming “trendy social justice,” for this sort of thing; plenty of trendy social justice scams are out there, and the vast majority of them are run by dudes.

    I didn’t want to infer that she “got a pass” for being a woman. She’s far from the first rich and famous person to cut a sweetheart deal with prosecutors. My contention is that the pressure of being a feminist pioneer might have driven her to the boundary of ethical behavior, and ultimately convinced her to step over that line. Had she not been such an icon, she may have been more careful and honest in how she reported the clinical trials. But we will never know for sure.

    JVW (42615e)

  22. JVW. I suspect being an icon would be all the more reason to want to avoid getting caught screwing the pooch. So either she didn’t think she’d get caught…or she didn’t do it and it didn’t happen.
    Icon status is not buttressed by skating on getting caught. Icons don’t do wrong in the first place or they don’t get caught.
    IOW, I don’t think the icon made me do it theory has much weight.
    However, once the possibility opened up, it may have been pulling her toward a golden future of money, success, fame, and possibly getting that test thing fixed so it really worked. Just….one….more…development….and it will be DONE! And the longer that development that will fix all took to appear, the further down the road she was. This presumes, of course, that she thought it might, actually, come to be. And the further…. Wonder how she slept, there at the last.

    Richard Aubrey (10ef71)


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