“She was a really good storyteller,” The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley documentarian Alex Gibney said of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos company, which was going to revolutionize blood testing, provide low-cost early detection of diseases and save lives.
And, of course, there was the romanticism of a pretty young woman finally getting ahead in the tech world, for which the media and some high-profile investors fell in a big way. Within months of becoming the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, heralded as the next Steve Jobs, her $9 billion company was worthless.
In her con-game, “she checked a lot of boxes,” Theranos employee-turned-whistleblower Tyler Shultz told the TV critics:
— Dropped out of college
— Dressed like Steve Jobs
— Had fleet of security so when you got to talk to her you thought you were addressing someone “very special”
Shultz described Holmes as someone who “made you feel like you were the most important person to her and you were critical to achieving the vision she had sold you on.” Her real talent, he said, was having a “reality distortion field she walked around with.”
Another former employee, Erika Cheung, told TCA critics things began to fall apart when “our quality controls were failing.” Bringing this to the attention of upper-level management, she said she was told it was “something you are doing wrong” and ordered to generate fake results to send out to patients. “It went downhill from there,” she said, as they continued to “crank out patient results” and lie to regulators.
Researching the project, Gibney found that people who had invested pots of money in Theranos, including Rupert Murdoch, appear not to have ever looked at audited financial statements. She wound up with a board that had enormous credibility, which further served to dupe investors and journalists, which he called the “snowball of credibility.”
The same power to manipulate people is what brought Donald Trump to the White House, Gibney said. But Trump is not a deceiver in the same way Holmes was, he said. “I don’t think many people in the country are fooled by Trump. He just makes it up as he goes along, and that’s the fun of it for some people.”
“The Theranos tale is a cautionary tale: trust but verify. All along the way, if anybody had asked some basic questions — if the Walgreen people had said, ‘We really want to look inside the box we’re going to put in every one of our drugstores’ – that’s the lesson,” Gibney chided.