“You’ll find an investor,” soothes Ian Gibbons, portrayed by Stephen Fry in Hulu’s miniseries “The Dropout.” The biochemist is speaking to 22-year-old Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) in the early days of Theranos, before the blood testing company’s meteoric rise and fall.
The year is 2006. Holmes is the company’s founder and chief executive. Gibbons is her chief scientist developing the biotechnology.
As anyone familiar with Theranos knows, the real Gibbons died by suicide in 2013. He overdosed on acetaminophen a day before he was required to testify in a lawsuit about the company’s technology. According to John Carreyrou’s book, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” Holmes never reached out or returned a call from Gibbons’s wife after his death. Gibbons had worked for Holmes for nearly a decade.
“Of course the succubi at Sand Hill Road didn’t like you,” Gibbons tells Holmes in the Hulu series, referring to Silicon Valley’s venture capital investors. “They want everything done fast, and science is maddeningly slow.”
Succubi. I had never heard this word, so I looked it up. A succubus is “a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men.”
Holmes only met with male investors, so the descriptor’s misuse interested me. Is it, in actuality, a surreptitious dig at Holmes herself?
Looking back at her company’s spectacular collapse, it’s clear the young female entrepreneur beguiled a long list of distinguished—and dare I say, sleepy—older men, from board members to investors to business partners. Her vision, resolve, and precociousness blinded them to her faults and lulled them into ignoring smoke from a fire. Maybe “The Dropout” writers are poking fun at that fact.
More to the point, the word is an attack on Holmes herself. She is demonized and sexualized because she’s a woman. Gibbons’s throwaway line is not the only instance of gender-driven ridicule.
In the same episode, engineer Edmond Ku (James Hiroyuki Liao) is seen staring at a broken toy while his young daughter, dressed as a princess in a tiara, yells at him to fix it. “But you can fix anything,” the little girl whines. The irony that later Holmes irrationally and frantically cajoles Ku to fix the Theranos prototype before a demo in Switzerland, at one point throwing a tantrum herself, comes in loud and clear.
She’s both a sexual demon and bratty little princess. I don’t recall Bernie Madoff being characterized as such in the media.
When a woman is judged not strictly by her actions but for being a woman carrying out those actions, the result is an opposing tide of individuals eager to defend her on the basis of being female. I don’t just mean the lookalike “Holmies” camped outside the court during her trial.
Some female entrepreneurs have expressed empathy toward Holmes because they know what it is like trying to make it in a male-dominated industry. To them, she made inexcusable mistakes, yes—but she was also relatable, maybe even redeemable.
Fashion tech startup founder Beth Esponnette wrote a column where she detailed just how difficult it is for a woman to raise money in Silicon Valley. There are unconscious biases and blatant sexism on one hand and cold, hard statistics on the other: 2.3 percent of venture capital funding went to women-led startups in 2020. Holmes was an aberration for beating the odds.
“Why don’t we judge the biased system we created as much as we judge the person it destroyed?” Esponnette wrote. “… The next time someone jokes at a cocktail party about Holmes’s baritone voice, just remind them how dumb it is that we give more money to people with deep voices.”
Building Holmes up or tearing her down on the basis of her gender is all beside the point. It serves only to distract from her actions.
All the speculation into Holmes’s core comes back to one lesson: When it comes to a business leader who is charming and convincing, concentrate on what they do, not what they say or look like. This lesson is as true in a courtroom as it is inside a company.
Take Holmes’s recent conviction in a federal fraud trial. As in the shows and books, her state of mind was a fixture of the trial. The defense painted her as a naive entrepreneur who fell victim to Silicon Valley’s culture of puffery. (Again, I am tempted to draw a comparison to Madoff—did anyone dare say his actions stemmed from naivete?) The prosecution rebuffed that portrayal and had the burden of proving she intentionally defrauded investors.
The government secured convictions only on counts where the evidence was so damning the jury could not help but concede criminal intent. Holmes fraudulently added the logos of pharmaceutical companies to validation reports she sent out to investors even though those companies had not endorsed her technology. The proof was in black and white.
Then, there is the culture at Theranos. Holmes succeeded at obtaining massive buy-in of her vision among employees, yet the signs of a toxic work environment were plain: siloed departments, high turnover rates, fear of retaliation for any form of dissent. Those concrete, provable factors tell the real story. Holmes operated with incredible finesse, but the emotional toll on her employees proved her leadership and decision-making ability were deeply flawed.
Holmes was an aberration in some respects, but she is not the first person to create a cult of personality that hurt more people than it helped. She also won’t be the last.
So, when the next Elizabeth Holmes rises at your company, focus not on unraveling the nuances of their personality and instead on the facts of their decision-making. And if this person happens to be a woman, don’t let gender creep into the calculus. It’s her actions that matter, not her personality.