True visionary or dream saleswoman? American Elizabeth Holmes, once crowned the world’s youngest “self-made woman” billionaire, thanks to promises from her blood testing startup Theranos, has experienced a fall as sensational as her rise, which has exposed the limits of culture of Silicon Valley.
On Monday, she was found guilty of fraud by a court in San José, California, where jurors spent nearly four months hearing testimony from doctors, investors, patients, and also her own.
They were tasked with determining whether the 37-year-old “lied and cheated” to raise money, as a prosecutor assures us, or whether she simply “made mistakes” and “failed” to achieve her dream, in the words of his lawyer.
Elizabeth Holmes has long been described as a visionary and a new Steve Jobs, a comparison encouraged by the black turtleneck that, like the late Apple founder, this blonde with big blue eyes almost invariably wore.
Daughter of a parliamentary assistant and a former director at Enron – a group that fell into a huge fraud scandal – she was only 19 when she founded Theranos in 2003.
Like Steve Jobs, she had been admitted to the prestigious Stanford University, and like him, she quickly abandoned her studies. She chooses to use the money put aside by her parents to finance the start-up of her startup, based in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
– Seduction –
She then puts forward personal motivations: the sudden death of an uncle in whom no disease had previously been diagnosed.
“To me, nothing matters more than what people go through when someone they love gets really, really sick,” she said in a video on Theranos’ site. “The feeling of being helpless is heartbreaking and if I can build something that can change that, this is what I want to do with my life.”
His company promised faster and cheaper diagnostics than traditional labs, using methods touted as revolutionary, allowing multiple tests with a tiny amount of blood.
Investors are seduced. In 2014, Forbes valued Ms. Holmes’ fortune at $ 4.5 billion and described her as the youngest female billionaire who did not inherit her fortune.
She was “intelligent, articulate, determined,” said Jim Mattis, a former US defense minister, who served on Theranos’ board of directors, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, during the trial.
He also assured that no Theranos machine “had ever been deployed by the military on the ground”, contrary to what the boss claimed at one time, according to the prosecution.
Elizabeth Holmes personally puts the logos of pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer on official Theranos materials touting its products, without permission from the companies involved. And keep the secret about the various failures of his machines.
But in 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a damning investigation, despite the leader’s attempts to prevent its publication by appealing to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the American daily and also an investor in Theranos.
– “Little girl” –
The articles reveal the unreliability of the start-up’s technologies, which are only used for a small part of the more than 200 tests offered.
Theranos then multiplies the denials. “This is what happens when you work to change things. First you think you’re crazy and you fight, and suddenly you change the world,” says Elizabeth Holmes on CBNC.
During her trial, she continued to try to convince the jury of her good faith. She also spoke about her relationship with Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her ex-director of operations and companion.
She explained in particular that he controlled her closely, at work and at home, seeking to “shape” her into a new person, more masculine and less “little girl”. “He would get very angry with me and then he would come to our room sometimes and force me to have sex with him,” she said.
Now married and mother of a little boy born this summer, her story has fascinated the American media, because it embodies a certain image of Silicon Valley, where displayed confidence can take the place of innovation.
But beware of sexism, remarked in a column Ellen Pao, the former boss of Reddit. She talks about other bosses, from Adam Neumann (WeWork) to Travis Kalanick (Uber), who have raised billions despite many controversies.
“There is something sexist about judging her for various mischief while not judging all kinds of men despite accusations of mischief against them,” she wrote.