When I chose Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup for our October discussion, I had no idea that the company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was on trial starting in September – postponed first by the Pandemic and then by her pregnancy. Our first responder, who also recommended the book, had become aware of the story when she listened to an ABC News podcast called Dropout that originally aired in 2019 and has recently restarted with new episodes covering the Elizabeth Holmes’ trial.[i]
Our discussion was animated, everyone participated, and the majority of us had been unaware of a scandal that was the downfall of a woman who made Time Magazine’s April 2015 list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” as well as the cover of multiple magazines, including Fortune, Forbes, INC., and the New York Times Style Magazine.[ii] For me, at least, the book led to a rabbit hole of research! In addition to the podcast, there is also an HBO documentary, Inventor: out for blood in Silicon Valley, and I showed the trailer to share images of the characters and issues mentioned in John Carreyrou’s book.
As members glanced at articles printed from the Wall Street Journal about the trial, we started with the question of whether or not Elizabeth Holmes is delusional or a con artist. One of us mentioned that one of her investors and mentors, Larry Ellison, had set an example for the “fake it till you make it” business model.[iii]Another member has heard that one of Elizabeth Holmes’ defense strategies is to claim that she is being “persecuted/prosecuted because she is a woman.” We agreed that it seems to us that Elizabeth Holmes was in charge, but she did meet her 20-year-old lover and co-conspirator Sunny when she was still in high school. This led to a discussion of the “Me Too Movement.” We shared some frustration about punishing people for behavior that happened years ago, expecting people to be more assertive, but many of us spoke up in support of those who were unable to come forth earlier because of the very real danger of repercussions. This is highlighted by the recent news of Raider’s coach Jon Gruden’s resignation after “homophobic and misogynistic emails.”[iv]
Some of us found the book difficult to read because of the sheer number of names mentioned. The author’s research and footnoting was extensive. With so many characters over so many years, it would be hard to write any other way. It moved pretty fast.
And for the story: What if she had listened to the experts who told her they needed more blood? Why did the author make such a big deal about her voice? One member said that Margaret Thatcher had a high squeaky voice and was counselled to lower her voice. Did George Schultz ever reconcile with his grandson? How could you disbelieve your own grandson who was working in the company? How do parents not believe their child when they are told a relative is abusing them? What angered us most? The corruption; the amount of money involved; the board of directors; her black turtle necks; the failure of regulating agencies; the lawyers; the potential loss of life never told. I know I still feel incredulous and I believe many of our members do also.
One of us was surprised and impressed that Rupert Murdoch would not interfere with the Wall Street Journal’sinvestigation. Another mentioned that Murdoch sold his shares in Theranos for $1 so he could afford the loss (125 million). In the end, we discussed that the story encompasses much larger issues – regulators underfunded and overworked, that justice is NOT blind, our own vulnerability in lost investments and lost retirement. One member shared that she had been taken in by another kind of scheme and when she went to a lawyer to see how she could have avoided it, he told her that if she had brought the deal to him, he probably would have invested with her.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup is a perfect book for October – it is one scary true story.
OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:
- Catch Me If You Can (2000) by Frank Abagnale (film 2002)
- Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President (2011) by Candice Millard
- Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated A Nation (2017) by Brad Ricca
- Thunderstruck (2006) by Erik Larson
- Internet Article: “Confidence never trumps competence: An inventor’s perspective on HBO’s ‘The Inventor’” by Don Smith (2019)[v]
[i] “ABC News chief business, technology and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, along with producers Taylor Dunn and Victoria Thompson, take listeners on a journey that includes a multi-year investigation. You’ll hear exclusive interviews with former employees, investors, and patients, and for the first-time, the never-before-aired deposition testimony of Elizabeth Holmes, and those at the center of this story.” Web accessed 10-14-2021: https://abcnews.go.com/Business/nightline-documentary-podcast-dropout-story-elizabeth-holmes-theranos/story?id=60365362
[ii] https://time.com/collection-post/3822734/elizabeth-holmes-2015-time-100/ ;
[iii] This quote is not about Larry Ellison but references the culture: “The scale of Theranos’ alleged fraud is unusual, but the forces behind it are not. Startup culture venerates the kind of “fake it till you make it” hustling that Holmes deployed.” https://www.wired.com/story/theranos-and-silicon-valleys-fake-it-till-you-make-it-culture/
[v] I read a few excerpts from this article during the meeting, starting with this quote: “Richard Feynman said, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.’ . . . Everything about the Elizabeth Holmes story is captured in that quote.” Web accessed 10-14-2021: https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2019/04/09/confidence-never-trumps-competence-inventor-s-perspective-hbo-s-the-inventor.