In 2014, the name Elizabeth Holmes still carried a message of hope. During Holmes' 2014 TED Talk, the young entrepreneur had promised the world that her company, Theranos, had developed a way to simplify diagnostic blood testing, making it more accessible and affordable, while also making it a lot less painful. For years, her pitch worked, and she garnered more than $400 million in support from some of Silicon Valley's wealthiest investors. At the time, Theranos was valued at $9 billion; a year later, Forbes would name Holmes the youngest self-made woman billionaire on its list of 50 women (that title has since gone to Kylie Jenner).
"If I had one wish, standing here with all of you, it would be that today, just for a minute, you think about the fact that we have this right, a human right, to engage with information about ourselves, about our bodies, and for those that we love to engage with information about themselves," Holmes told the audience during her TED Talk, which you can watch in full here. "And when we do that, we will change our lives, and the lives of those we love will change. And we’ll begin to change our healthcare system and our world."
Her speech posed Theranos' supposed technology as the answer to a human rights issue, name-checking factoids like "healthcare is the leading cause of bankruptcy." She added a personal touch, speaking about her uncle who inspired Theranos; she talked about spending summers with him and that she remembered "how much I loved him." Her uncle was "diagnosed with skin cancer which all the sudden was brain cancer," and Holmes noted that he passed away from cancer before she could say goodbye. This story lays the emotional weight of an invention like Theranos' Edison blood-testing system at viewers' feet. It's hard not to want this technology to work after hearing her speak. It's also why, knowing what we know now, this now-infamous speech is so frustrating to watch.
Everything about Theranos – from its promise for a healthier future in which all people could easily access their health information to Holmes' low-pitch voice — turned out to be a lie. The technologies she touted to the public weren't accurate, and scientists have loudly disputed that her fundamental guarantee, that labs could run extensive blood tests from just a few drops of blood, is even possible. Now, Holmes faces multiple charges including massive fraud, wire fraud, and the conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Holmes has not pleaded guilty to most of the charges.
Looking back, the warning signs seem clear. Holmes was secretive about the inner workings of Theranos and didn't like to share information even with some of her highest-ranking employees, her responses to reporters were vague, and her ideas seemed far too amazing to be true. But there was something about her that lured people into her web. Maybe it was her similarities to tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs (she was a college dropout, she wore black turtlenecks, and she ran a tight ship). Maybe it was because she was incredibly confident. Or, maybe it was because she knew just the right things to say to touch people.
"We see a world in which people get access to laboratory information late at night, on a weekend, early in the morning, in rural areas," she said in the video. "In establishing decentralized and distributed testing frameworks, a world in which decentralized care begins to be possible in developing economies."
During a time when healthcare costs are astronomical, when scheduling an appointment at the doctor can take weeks or months, and when millions of people worldwide can't access basic preventative care, Theranos gave people hope — and this measured, deliberate speech was an early delivery method of that hope. It sold the idea that technology would ultimately help, not hurt, society and that anyone — regardless of circumstances — could access potentially life-saving lab work. Holmes promised "a world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon" — and that was perhaps her biggest crime of all.