The final nail in the coffin is here: Theranos announced yesterday it is formally dissolving. Now, as things begin to settle, much of the world is left wondering what will happen to the woman once recognized by Forbes as the world's youngest self-made female billionaire and was valued at over $9 billion with more than $400 million in venture capital.
Elizabeth Holmes came onto the scene in 2004 after founding Theranos, a tech company with the lofty goal of "democratizing healthcare” by collecting data from blood droplets instead of larger vials. Then came the bombshell reporting by John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal in 2015: a secret investigation of Theranos first showing that Holmes' Silicon Valley startup was struggling with its blood-test technology. Holmes tacitly accepted her defeat earlier this year. After settling with the Securities and Exchange commission following charges for “massive fraud” back in March, Holmes was stripped of most of her control of the company.
After years spent on covers of the most respected magazines in the country, being likened to Steve Jobs (both in fashion sense and entrepreneurial spirit), and generally ruling over the tech world, Holmes’ operation was ultimately exposed for what it was: a jumble of embellished half-truths and outright lies. And, at first glance, Holmes’ story isn’t dissimilar to the countless fables of women CEOs and founders who are pushed off the edge of the glass cliff. However, Holmes is not the victim of such a scenario; she alone is responsible for creating a company built on intentional deceit and must, therefore, be held accountable for her actions.
It's well known that stretching the truth isn't exactly an anomaly in business, particularly tech — though even HBO's Silicon Valley knows there is a difference between business and straight up lying. Many would say it’s par for the course. In the case of Theranos, there was not much truth to begin with: The machines Theranos built could only perform a fraction of the tests a traditional lab could. Interestingly, women in business are not typically seen as being capable of this level of deceit, though with so few women in positions of power, its difficult to measure how gender affects this type of behavior. Though Holmes’ behavior may negatively impact how women founders are perceived, it’s important that her actions not be branded as archetypal.
Historically, when a woman slips up in business or politics it’s particularly damning — recall Hillary Clinton’s private email server — and often framed as an act representative of women’s inherent untrustworthiness. Conversely, when men commit fraud (and they often do) the question of whether it will affect 'all men' is never posed. In fact, their gender is almost never called into question. Of course, this is related to the gender ratios at the highest ranks of business and the fact that there are far fewer women leaders than men.
In 2018's list of Fortune 500 companies, only 24 had female CEOs. These trends are particularly pronounced in Silicon Valley: In 2017 a measly two percent of all venture capital dollars went towards women-led initiatives. While it may be disheartening to lose a woman CEO — especially when there are so few — it's crucial to note that the story of Holmes is not akin to Marissa Mayer or Indra Nooyi.
Ultimately, though Theranos has shuttered its doors, the ordeal is still not over. Both Holmes and former Theranos president (and Holmes' ex-boyfriend) Sunny Balwani are expected to head to criminal trial after being charged with "massive fraud," most likely sometime next year or in 2020. But, even as the disgraced company comes to a close and the media hearsay proliferates, it’s important that we hold Holmes to account without letting her actions sabotage the business prospects of other women leaders in the process. After all, making gendered generalizations or attempting to extrapolate one individual's behavior to leaders of that gender as a whole would be a disservice. Besides, existing double standards are already bad enough.