Growing up, one hears the phrase “too good to be true.” While a child questions the warning or the concept, by teenage years, the lesson has been learned. It may take until adulthood to be fully understood, but the average person understands the illusion of the perfect story. Too good to be true often becomes a runaway hype train. Even after the story is proven to be a fraud or simply not as excellent as marketed, the media rarely explains why they fell for it.
Theranos is a technology firm involved in the medical sector. You might not recognize the name, but if you have read or watched business media, you have seen their founder and CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The words describing her and her firm (they meld into one in media paeans) are glowing: revolutionary, disruptive, amazing, a new Steve Jobs, young, innovative. Her story was repeated over and over in news blurbs to the point where the “WOW” tale can be two sentences long. “Holmes dropped out of Stanford, raised $400 million in venture capital and then created a firm with a $9 billion market valuation. Her 50% share of the firm gave her $4.5 billion, and a spot on the Forbes billionaire list.” All in such a simple, yet genius idea: use just a pinprick sampling of blood to run dozens of tests using advanced nanotechnology.
Beyond the money, there was the amazing public relations blitz and the tremendous amount of attention her firm received for doing very little. The New York Times lists a short paragraph of the accolades and praise she has received elsewhere.
She has been showered with rapturous media attention. Time named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World this year. She was the subject of lengthy profiles in The New Yorker and Fortune. Over the last week, she appeared on the cover of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Glamour anointed her one of its eight Women of the Year. She has been on “Charlie Rose,” as well as on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative, the World Economic Forum at Davos and the Aspen Ideas Festival, among numerous other conferences.
Most of this happened before Holmes had even turned thirty. She had moved from Stanford undergrad to the Davos Man class in a decade. This story was too good to be true, but it did not stop anyone from building the biggest hype train in years.
No one really questioned her company’s claims or process until October of 2015. The Wall Street Journal dared to investigate the claims made by Theranos, and the praise train came to a halt. Doubt crept into the Theranos tale, and suddenly every other journalist noticed the oddities that The Wall Street Journal laid out for readers. Now even the New York Times is admitting that the story has unraveled. Shortly thereafter, a $350 million deal with Walgreens came to an end due to concerns about Theranos’ claims. If this is such a home run, why is Walgreens pulling out of a deal where they already invested in the construction of clinics? Some even wondered if this could be considered fraud.
Forbes admitted to being swept up in the whirlwind, and all cited the hype machine but no one cited why the hype machine went nuts.
Forget her copying of Steve Jobs’ look for a moment. Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes is a woman. For over a year, the media has harped on the idea that computer programming and tech firms are misogynistic playgrounds for brogrammers who make inappropriate jokes and deny courageous women spots in the last innovative field in the American economy (hi-tech). Per the media and the feminist activists they quote, Silicon Valley is not a realm of hard working nerds coding and solving problems, but a fraternity house with computers. Holmes offered the media a shiny symbol for them to hold up as the end result of all the girls in STEM.
Holmes provided the media with a glorious example of what women can do in tech. See, peasants, women can create the next Apple and Google! See, note she is a woman too, not some ugly lesbian who would reinforce the idea that one has to think like a man to be good at computers! The media could not have conjured up a character to hit all of their needs in one package. Holmes is a cute, young woman. She is thin with pretty eyes and nice hair. She is white, so no awkward Asian math exceptionalism at play. She looks like she could be your daughter if your daughter cleaned up for business interviews. Holmes was too good of a symbol for the media to resist using.
She is the exception that proves the rule, but in the progressive mind, she was the exception that proved their meme. Women and men have the same abilities in math and science.
These are the same people who drive through six miles of ghetto dwellers to find the one black kid reading at night to show you that human neurological uniformity is real. Anecdotal exceptions are the bedrock of progressive messaging.
Holmes can deny it but she did put on a performance in the role created by Jobs: the proselytizing techie. Steve Jobs was not selling people on his products as much as he was selling them on being cool, being cutting edge, being a tech savant. You might just be a schlub, but searching through your expensive iPod that looked sleek and futuristic gave you status. Jobs talked of changing the world and how you, the consumer, could be a part of it. Decades into his second run at Apple, all consumers have become are sex-obsessed iPhone addicts, who don’t talk to anyone else anymore. Holmes wore the black turtlenecks. She had created the mythical story of not liking needles, explaining why she came up with pinprick sampling. She had a quirky diet, and said she had a humanitarian mission (no billionaire works for money, silly peasant). Holmes also had a catch phrase, “One tiny drop changes everything.”
If this is starting to sound like an update to the plot to “The Music Man,” all that is missing is a love interest. The media never noticed that Theranos had not submitted anything for peer review. The media can now admit that the disruptive pitch and the idea of fixing our health care system in some manner was too tempting. Shucks, they fell for the story and never quite did the investigative work that journalists are supposedly dying to do. The Times and Forbes admit that there is a procedure for sexy Silicon Valley start-ups that Holmes followed for rolling out the firm and herself. This is one that Elon Musk has perfected, but at least he delivers on promises.
There also lies the difference. Jobs and Musk were proven innovators who found a new career phase and new pitch for their products. Holmes was an unknown quantity. Holmes’ firm was not proving itself through its work but had collected a lot of interested and interesting allies and investors. No one bothered to look behind the curtain. Elizabeth Holmes was just too perfect for the media to stop. Holmes could have been their Steve Jobs with breasts. She could have been their Sheryl Sandberg with actual tech credentials. instead, Holmes is just another mirage offered up by the media to disappear in the lens of reality.