By Neha Fayaz
NAMES such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have come to become household names post the success of their entrepreneurial endeavors. With Facebook, Microsoft and Apple now dominating the global IT world, the names of such famous entities have become living proof for many on the lack of absolute need of college education to become successful. All three names are college dropouts and have become trailblazers for many to follow in their footsteps. One such person was Elizabeth Holmes who later went on to become the founder of Theranos, a health technology company.
Elizabeth dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19 with dreams of revolutionising the health industry. She dreamed of building a portable machine that could, with a single drop of blood, test a patient for health issues. This device, if successful, would render the usage of needles and big blood testing machine useless. The series ‘The Dropout’ starring, Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes- the protagonist- is based on the real-life story of Holmes and her company Theranos.
The series begins with showing what fueled Holmes’ dream to become a billionaire. It was financial issues. Her father had recently lost his job and they were forced to take help from a close friend who could be described as an egomaniac, Richard Fuisz. This coupled with her obsession of Steve Jobs, had Holmes chartering her future ambitions. Holmes disliked her family’s dependability on Fuisz and wanted to make a place for herself in this world as an entrepreneur.
The series begins with a foreign exchange program in China which Holmes is a part of. She spends most of her time learning Mandarin for the exchange program. It is in China that viewers get introduced to the stark difference between Holmes and her peers. While her peers are seen partying and enjoying, Holmes is seen trying to make this trip as educational as possible. It is here that Holmes meets Sunny Balwani, a divorcee 20 years older than her, who in the coming years becomes her romantic partner. It is also Sunny who later goes to become an integral part of Holmes’ company and a controlling agent of her life. Through the series, the relationship between Homes and Sunny never sits well. Especially Sunny’s overbearing presence and jealousy. Given the age gap and the dynamics that seeps in between this 19-year-old and almost 40-year-old man, it would be safe to call Sunny’s behavior predatory.
The initial episodes also place central focus on Holmes’ journey at Stanford. She immediately started approaching professors with her ideas for new products. She even got herself into a graduate research group after impressing one professor, a Channing Robertson, by solving a problem that senior students were unable to crack.
As a first-year student in college Holmes was making a place for herself. However, on October 5, 2003, Holmes reported that she was sexually assaulted on her university campus. In its initial episode, the series showcased that this occurred during a frat party. Like many sexual assault survivors, Holmes too was mocked by her peers and judged by her extended circles. However, the series showcased that this incident did not deter Holmes’ ambitions. She finally went on to create an idea that was partially supported by Robertson himself, who would also later become a board member of Theranos.
However, when Holmes went to visit Professor Phyllis Gardner, a doctor and professor of medicine at Stanford university, her idea was shot down entirely as being inept and medically impossible. Gardner was one amongst the first people who saw through Holmes’ deception. However, Holmes still decided to drop out of Stanford, convinced that her idea had merit, and began her company with the monetary help of her immediate and extended family members. After finally landing a big investment, the series delves into how Holmes gains enough legitimacy to hoodwink some of the biggest names in the business world. Without any genuine product to show she manages to gain large investments, hence also gaining credibility along the way. This continues till the point she runs a health technology company worth of billion dollars with renowned board members such as Apple’s head designer, who caught on to Holmes’ scam and left, William Perry, Sam Nunn and Henry Kissinger himself.
Holmes had received recognition from the then President of the United States, Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. With increasing power came increasing wealth, that was also owed to Walgreens housing Theranos products in their stores under the scheme of ‘wellness centers’.
The series also simultaneously delves into another character’s role in Theranos. One of the earliest scientists with Theranos was one Eric Gibbons, who was later sidelined and forced to take a desk job when he started questioning Theranos’ methods of functioning. Holmes looped him into a legal scandal when Fuisz came back to expose Holmes. Gibbons could see no way out of this and in between the mounting pressure of not testifying, by Holmes’ legal team, due to signing NDA’s and the risk of otherwise perjuring himself on stand, Gibbons, a cancer survivor could not take the pressure. He needed to stay in the company to retain his health insurance without which he could not afford his medications. During this chaos Gibbons overdosed on pills, committing suicide.
Simultaneously, the series showcases how this still did not stop Holmes. Instead, at this point of time Theranos was distributing portable blood testing machines that were churning incorrect results to patients jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The tipping scale that went on to expose Holmes’ lies were two whistleblowers, Erica Cheung and Joshua Schultz- grandson of George Shultz former secretary of state of the United States of America-, who were two recent graduates who landed work at Theranos. Erica saw that Theranos was duplicating the technology of another company whilst Joshua for a while knew that the testing was dubious. The duo decided to go public with this information, however, they were soon bogged down in legal constraints by Theranos’ experienced team. Nonetheless the article exposing Holmes’ scam was finally published in the Wall Street journal, post which Erica filed a complaint with the Security and Exchange Commission who after inspection released a report stating Theranos would have to close their operations for two years. It was from here that Theranos was exposed for what it was.
Elizabeth Holmes being convicted on eleven accounts of fraud has today impacted female entrepreneurs in the valley. The DotLab founder Heather Bowerman for instance has time and again had her legitimacy questioned by investors who doubted her technology to be the same as Holmes’. Similar issues were faced by founders across various industries, Alice Zhang founder of Verge Genomics had her start up event at Stanford derailed when people started joking about Holmes’ failure. Similarly, EverlyWell’s founder and CEO Julia Cheek was told to change her hair color so that she would not resemble Holmes and investors might find her more appealing that way. Frauds by men have been conducted overtime, however that has not resulted in curbing investors from finding male entrepreneurs trustworthy. It is no secret that Silicon Valley is housed with prejudice. Women share only 2 percent of the total “venture capital funding” in the United States. The questions of this depending on qualifications have also time and again been debunked in research where it was revealed that investors find men more appealing for such leadership roles.
The series dropout not only covers the story of Elizabeth Holmes but also its impact on the people around her. It also throws light on the prevailing prejudice in Silicon Valley that to date has not been addressed adequately.
Streaming on Disney Plus Hotstar in India
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