The true story of Elizabeth Holmes is so bizarre that if a Hollywood screenwriter had written it, no studio would have bought it on the grounds that it would never be believed. The documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, recently premiered on HBO, is a riveting account of the rise and fall of a highly ambitious young woman who became the CEO of a company once valued atfour billion dollars with an ingenious invention that was to radically alter the testing of blood and simplify the diagnosis of disease. Ms. Holmes’ story is one of arrogance, shamelessness, and the hollowness of the Silicon Valley ethos of “fake it until you make it.” This latest tale of malfeasance and fraud courtesy of Silicon Valley also begs the question: Did the gender of this so-called inventor contribute to the perpetuation of this fraud? If Ms. Holmes had been a male, would she have been able to have successfully fooled so many who should have known better? The film doesn’t say-and I am not saying-that the men of Silicon Valley aren’t capable of similar behavior-but there does seem to be a suggestion that her gender may have protected her from greater scrutiny and enabled her to achieve fame and huge monetary success with a product that never worked. Women are almost always held to a different, and higher standard than men. Elizabeth Holmes appears to be a rare exception to this rule. Is there something about the culture of Silicon Valley that failed to put the brakes on her shocking scam?
Silicon Valley is a place that’s not particularly hospitable to women. LIZA MUNDY wrote an excellent article for THE ATLANTIC where she documents the hostile environment that women are forced to navigate pursuing a career in the world of tech. Ironically, it was precisely this misogynistic environment that provided Holmes a layer of protection and initially allowed her to thrive. She was a rarity in that world: a female CEO of a startup company made her appear like an outlier, a visionary. It was believed that she would be the “female Steve Jobs.” Her ambition was nothing short of astounding: she wanted to revolutionize health care and claimed she had devised a method whereas blood-testing could be done using a small amount of blood from a prick of the finger. Lab testing hadn’t changed since the 1950s, and as the documentary points out, “she wanted to change that paradigm.” She presented herself to the public as a do-gooder who genuinely wanted to save lives by giving the public easier access to blood tests. Her marketing slogan was heartfelt and effective- “that less people have to say goodbye too soon to people they love.”
For a number of years, Ms. Holmes fooled the media, the public, and investors. She assembled a board of directors, boasting some of the most powerful men in the United States-including former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, as well as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis-knowing they could provide her influence she could not amass on her own. These particular men also provided her access to military contracts, which she likewise exploited. She had a strong appeal for men. Henry Kissinger described her as possessing an “ethereal quality.” George Schultz continued to profess belief in her even after it was apparent that her product was a sham. None of these men had a scientific background, but one would hope that their maturity and life experience would have given them a modicum of knowledge and common sense. Ultimately, it was a woman who was skeptical of Holmes, dating back to her undergraduate year at Stanford University. Dr. Phyllis Gardner, Holmes former professor at Stanford University, told the filmmakers that when Holmes discussed an early idea with her, she explained to Holmes why it was scientifically not possible. But Holmes rejected her concerns. In 2015, Dr. Gardner gave an interview with the WALL STREET JOURNAL where she said of Holmes, “She was a young kid with only rudimentary engineering training and no medical training. In 2019, Dr. Gardner spoke to LYDIA RAMSEY of BUSINESS INSIDER where she discussed why she refused to invite Holmes to speak with students about being the female founder of a company, “I support women. I always have. I’ve gotten in trouble for it. I’ve pushed hard. But I’m not going to support a fraud-I don’t care what your gender is.”
The filmmakers weren’t given an opportunity to speak with Holmes as she turned down their request for an interview. However, as questions were raised about the validity of her blood-testing product, she did grant an interview with Jim Cramer, host of the television show Mad Money. She stated, “This is what happens when you work to change things. First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then, all of a sudden, you change the world.” Did Holmes actually believe this? Had she deluded herself into thinking that she had actually succeeded in creating an invention that changed the world? She will have a chance to speak and tell her side of the story in the summer of 2020 when she stands trial for fraud in a federal court in California. If she decides to exercise her right to testify at trial, it will be fascinating, to say the least, what she will testify to in her defense.
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