Mirrors don’t know what they look like.
Hulu’s The Dropout is a docudrama about Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos. So many people, including Holmes’s mother, are afraid of needles when their blood is drawn; so, so much blood. Barbaric. Theranos’s revolutionary, portable devices would allow to perform hundreds of rapid blood tests, using just one drop taken from the fingertip. When? Oh, soon, very soon. In 2011. Actually more like 2012. Make it 2013. Also maybe it would be a few drops of blood and sometimes there would be needles. There would be no FDA approvals or lab inspections, though. And sometimes the results would be incorrect, including HIV test results and cancer markers, sending people to the emergency room and (because America) costing them thousands of dollars.
In 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion. In 2015, soon after Forbes named Holmes the youngest ever self-made female billionaire in America, The Wall Street Journal exposed Theranos for what it was: a fraud. (The article’s publication coincided with Holmes attending a meeting of the Harvard’s Medical School Board of Fellows, of which she was now a member.) Forbes soon revised its estimate of Holmes’s net worth to zero. But the story took much longer to end.
The Dropout portrays the relentless pursuit of one’s dream, sexism in business and science, greedy lying journalists, glass ceilings, selflessly devoting time and money (other people’s) to making the world a better place, and gradual loss of integrity.
I mean, I guess, it could be about all those things. Or maybe some. I don’t remember exactly. I– I don’t recall that. I don’t remember. This was many years ago. I wouldn’t be able… no, I don’t specifically…
Holmes pitched her first big idea to her Stanford professor of medicine, Dr. Gardner. Gardner explained why it was impossible, which was not what Elizabeth came for. Confronted with Master Yoda himself – “do or do not, there is no try” – the irritated Dr. Gardner replied that science was about trying and failing and trying and failing until you got a bit closer to success. She didn’t understand that Elizabeth had a world to change, and nothing was impossible with three things: 1) time, 2) money, and 3) a vision. Time and money were related, and the tuition money Elizabeth would “save” by dropping out wouldn’t last her long.
Visionaries are always misunderstood. Steve Jobs was told that his ideas would never work, they could never be mass produced, too expensive, too niche, and they simply had to fail. Of course Dr. Gardner wouldn’t get it – she wasn’t the next Steve Jobs, Holmes was. (Or, as Henry Kissinger would say later during Elizabeth’s 30th birthday party, Jobs would be an earlier version of her.) “Do or do not, there is no try,” would become the first thing Theranos visitors would see upon entering the building. Poor, limited Dr. Gardner.
Holmes was brave. She was there to disrupt the status quo. She’d (eventually) dress in black turtlenecks and speak in a baritone. She’d hire Apple’s industrial designers to make the Theranos device look special and Chiat/Day to advertise it. Her face and the brand would become synonymous. She’d divide and conquer, blow hot and cold, praise and threaten – exactly like Steve. Some engineers would be able to tell which chapter of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs she was reading based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating.
“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,” Holmes would eventually say once the Wall Street Journal exposed two crucial differences between Theranos and Apple. First, Apple delivered. Second, iPhones could and did change people’s lives, but not by putting them at risk.
When the very first prototype delivered the very first result – an engineer tested negative for sepsis, which could have been correct or not, as most people in the world do not experience asymptomatic sepsis – Holmes set up a meeting with Novartis. As it turned out, after the one successful reading all the machine continued to produce was a message stating “ERROR/ERROR.” After a sleepless night filled with frustration, broken cartridges, and blood smeared all over the hotel bed sheets, Elizabeth solved the problem. Novartis would see a reproduction of that one successful (maybe) reading.
She didn’t cheat. Even if she did, it didn’t matter. It was, actually, the right thing to do. Visionaries needed time and money to change the world. Novartis was helping… no, scratch that, Holmes was letting them help. Novartis should be thankful.
It was the last time Elizabeth permitted herself to feel bad about lying. Drunk, she vomited behind rubbish bins, then shared the truth with Sunny Balwani, who would become her unofficial lover and official Chief Operating Officer of the company. “Don’t tell it to anyone else,” he instructed. As they drove away in his Lamborghini, Holmes stuck her head out of the window, yelling “I’m going to change the world!” She didn’t throw her integrity away. She threw it up.
This is an inspiring step forward, she’d later repeat to herself, staring intently into a mirror, after a fight with controlling Balwani.
The machine Elizabeth named “Edison” still didn’t work when Pfizer financed a trial on terminal cancer patients. The patients knew it was just a trial. Pfizer knew it was a trial. Trials often didn’t work – even Dr. Gardner would confirm that. It was science done right. It wasn’t unethical at all. It was fine, it was all fine, when Elizabeth held a dying woman’s hand and smiled shyly as the woman told her she was doing the right thing. She was dying anyway. Edison, once it worked, was the future she permitted Pfizer to finance.
When Dr Richard Fuisz, smart enough to patent something Theranos would eventually need, offered to license it to them for sweet $4 million, he was immediately sued. As part of his defence strategy Fuisz demanded a deposition from Ian Gibbons, the chief scientist of Theranos. Gibbons’s NDA meant that he’d either have to lie in court, or get sued by Theranos for revealing the truth. When he took an overdose the night before his testimony was supposed to take place, Elizabeth was stunned. “This is good news, right?” she asked Balwani in disbelief. “Now he won’t testify, they have to throw away the lawsuit?”
They threw away the lawsuit.
Fuisz settled. Theranos acknowledged Gibbons’s legacy and importance by sending people to retrieve his laptop and notes from his house as his wife sobbed. Elizabeth didn’t hand him the pills and the alcohol, he was a grown-up who made his own choices. His death contributed to making the future better for everyone. And the courage and stoicism with which Holmes handled the death of a man who supported her from the start, believed in her vision, and thought of her as a close friend could only be admired.
This is an inspiring step forward.
More steps forward had to be taken, and fast, because the company kept growing.
Every investor who dismissed Facebook and Twitter was afraid of missing out on the Next Big Thing. Theranos looked like it could be one. Careful timing of meetings with executives from big companies and Holmes’s blunt admission she was not courting any of them exclusively made it clear – the money people had to hurry up if they wanted to participate in the future. When Walgreens secured the first “Wellness Centres,” they actually were grateful.
As money kept flowing and Theranos’s board of directors grew, it became clear the Next Big Thing has arrived. Walgreens financed it. With a Stanford professor as a board member, clearly George Shultz, an ex-U.S. Secretary of State could trust Holmes. With Shultz on board, why would Henry Kissinger have doubts? With Kissinger on board, why…
The snowball was an avalanche now, a single drop – a waterfall. It wasn’t just Elizabeth who was convinced her vision would come true anymore. All of them wanted the bright future. Those were rich and powerful people. The sort of people who always got what they wanted.
The only minor problem was that it remained impossible.
How did Holmes do it? How did a college dropout convince so many people for so long that she “devised a way to perform up to 70 different blood tests using just 25 to 50 microliters of blood” with nothing to show as proof? So she had audacity, a black turtleneck, acting talent, no scruples, lied, cheated. Big deal. She was neither the first nor the last. How charming a liar and charismatic a cheat does a person have to be to see her company valued at nine billion dollars? Who has this much integrity to lose?
During a photo session, Elizabeth is asked some innocent questions, just so she could relax. “Tell us a secret.” – “I, uh, don’t have many secrets.” “How would a friend describe you?” – Holmes, who has no friends, blanks in panic. “You’re about to turn 30, has your life turned out the way you thought it would?” She needs a break.
“You are not real!” Balwani would eventually cry. “I invented you inside my head!” So did everyone else. The old white men didn’t buy investments in a medical startup – they paid for the privilege of seeing themselves reflected in Elizabeth’s huge eyes. Once more, they were young, energetic, brave. They were on the side of goodness. They didn’t just take an inspiring step forward – they ran.
All Holmes – not just the next Jobs, but Newton, Einstein, Mozart, da Vinci, and later Rosa Parks and Marie Curie – had to do was tell the 90-year-old George Shultz: “you are a force of nature, and it’s inspiring just being in your presence.” She earned an ally for life, one who would later disown his grandson for doubting Elizabeth. Because now that she was the Next Big Thing, the elderly Shultz was too, by association, and so were others that followed. The board and the investors deceived themselves over and over again, and every time they announced Holmes was to be believed, she believed them, too.
If you put two mirrors opposite each other, reflections run endless – and the only integrity a mirror understands is the difference between being broken or not.
When she is forced to apologise for the damage Theranos has done, Holmes’s lawyers advise her to use the word “devastated” – and she does. She is, specifically, devastated by the blow dealt to her company, one they will bounce from even stronger, one that will make her a better leader. “It’s devastating,” Holmes repeats to the speechless journalist, “but I don’t believe that we put anybody’s health in danger.” And it’s true. She really doesn’t believe it.
Once the disastrous interview ends, the exasperated lawyers long gone, Elizabeth sits in front of a mirror, her face a mask, eyes blank. Why is this even happening? After all, when she asked Balwani earlier on “do you think we did something wrong?” he was speechless. In retrospect, the question was silly.
Tell us a secret. Holmes has no answer. How would a friend describe you? She can’t think of anything. What’s your favourite food, Lizzy? her new boyfriend Billy asks, laughingly. Come on, there must be one! She doesn’t know.
Mirrors don’t know what they look like.
The real-life Elizabeth Holmes has been found guilty of four counts of wire fraud and conspiracy. The sentencing has been scheduled for September 26. Lizzy is facing twenty years in federal prison on top of multi-million fines and restitution. In 2021, she gave birth to her first child with Billy.
In the meantime she’s just taking a moment to enjoy herself and have fun, to quote The Dropout for one last time. I, for one, find that an inspiring step forward. The best thing about the future is that it’s always in front of you.