HBO’s Theranos documentary highlights the double-edged sword for women in tech

HBO’s documentary “The Inventor” asks viewers if they can decipher what’s behind the cultivated persona of Elizabeth Holmes.
HBO’s documentary “The Inventor” asks viewers if they can decipher what’s behind the cultivated persona of Elizabeth Holmes.
Image: Courtesy of HBO
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.

It’s been nearly five years since news first broke that Theranos, at the time a buzzy Silicon Valley-based healthcare company, may not have been all it promised. But our thirst for retellings of the story of the doomed company, and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, seems inexhaustible. Yesterday (Mar. 18), we got another one: HBO’s two-hour documentary, The Inventor.

For those already well acquainted with the story, the documentary offers little in terms of new facts. But more than in other tellings, The Inventor works to explain the public’s willingness to believe a woman in tech if she’s captivating in a certain way, and to find a particular kind of glee in her downfall.

The plot points of The Inventor don’t stray too far from John Carreyrou’s reporting for the Wall Street Journal, or his 2018 book Bad Blood, or the recent ABC podcast “The Dropout.” Elizabeth Holmes was 19 when she dropped out of Stanford. Armed with a compelling narrative about a lifelong fear of needles and a dear uncle’s early demise that could have been prevented with early diagnosis, Holmes launched Theranos to develop novel technology that would detect diseases from just a pinprick of blood. She was able to secure noteworthy public figures as board members and investors, and even a few large partnership deals, notably one with Walgreens, which offered the drug store’s customers a menu of 200 blood tests, all available without prescription. But the Edison, Theranos’ “microfluidity” blood-testing device, never actually worked. Lab techs at the company’s headquarters either fudged results by using blood-testing machines built by other manufacturers, or sent faulty ones back to patients.

Thanks to whistleblowers and Carreyrou’s dogged investigative reporting, the fraud perpetrated by Holmes and company president/COO (and Holmes’ then-boyfriend) Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, was made public. The company was sanctioned by government regulators, lost its Walgreens contract, and was sued; Holmes and Balwani were found guilty of massive fraud, and Theranos shut down.

Both the podcast and the HBO documentary include interviews with the whistleblowers: Tyler Shultz (the grandson of former secretary of state George Shultz, who sat on Theranos’ board and was close to Holmes) and Erika Cheung (who worked as a lab associate at Theranos before alerting regulators to the company’s sketchy practices).

Their perspectives help explain the cult of personality that developed around Holmes and her infectious idealism. “It was hard to really get a sense of who she was. But in a way I idolized her, based on the little I had read—for being a woman in the sciences, being a woman in tech, the fact that she started her own company—that really got me excited,” says Cheung in the documentary. “She was a really good idol to have. In a sense I was super naïve and drank the Kool-aid a little too quickly and was more enthusiastic to be a part of the team.”.

Silicon Valley suffers from a dearth of female leaders, especially those who’ve invented their own technology and founded their own companies. In 2017, 17% of US-based startups had female founders, and they brought in about 2.2% of total venture capital dollars.

So it’s not that surprising that many workers, investors, and journalists saw Holmes, playing that very role, and worked to lift her from college dropout to center stage. By the mid-2010s, she was suddenly everywhere, at tech conferences, doing TED talks, and on the cover of Fortune, where a headline puzzled whether she was the next Steve Jobs (the profile inside the issue launched her into the Silicon Valley mainstream).

In Bad Blood, Carreyrou calls Holmes’ gaze “almost hypnotic.” “From still photos of Holmes herself—young, blond, and blue-eyed—cynics might be excused for thinking, ‘Oh, I get it. I see why all these geezers are gushing about her company,'” reads the 2014 Fortune magazine profile. “And from small talk with her, one might still wonder what all the fuss was about. She is polite and soft-spoken. She listens. She laughs naturally at other people’s jokes and doesn’t try to trump them. Her voice is lower pitched than you might expect, but that’s about all you notice at first. That, and her youth.”

The Inventor implies that Holmes’ enchanting persona and position as the rare woman in Silicon Valley is what led donors to open their checkbooks, and old, white, male luminaries—like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former head of the CDC William Foege, and former senator Sam Nunn— to join her board before doing due diligence on her technology. Even as things began to fall apart, Holmes worked to maintain her cultivated image, the the cult of personality around it. As Tyler Shultz recalls in the film, a split developed between the “carpeted world, where Elizabeth was a goddess, everyone worshipped the ground she walked on… [and] the tile side, where nothing works, it’s a sinking ship, everything is a lie.”

The Inventor is a sort of performative interpretation of the experience of those sucked in by Holmes’ personality in the early and mid 2010s. Photos and footage of Holmes, wide-eyed and slightly robotic, occupy much of the documentary’s screen time. The film invites you to analyze her every gesture, her every microexpression, and try to figure out whether Holmes truly believed, or whether she was a con artist all along.

Similarly, after her downfall, critics took to picking apart Holmes’ very public, consciously-constructed appearance in search of a tell. Journalists have written about her hair, her clothes, the (apparently fake) timbre of her voice, as if these factors alone would indicate that she’s somehow psychologically unwell.

Sexism wasn’t responsible for Holmes’ downfall, of course. As The Inventor and other tellings make clear, her story is a lesson that you can’t just keep faking it—you have to eventually make it. But there’s a particular kind of way that powerful women fall, a revelry and pleasure in it that’s less common with male leaders. And unlike hucksters that, say, created fake streaming services or mismanaged their books, Holmes’ deceit put patient lives on the line, permitting us to feel more entitled to celebrate her downfall as a kind of revenge.

The Inventor, because anyone who starts watching it knows how it will end, exists because of that schadenfreude. However, it’s important to consider the role her gender may play in the pleasure of watching it. As reporter Ann Friedman last year in Elle, we should be angry at Holmes—but we should also be wary of what we’ll actually learn, culturally, from the story of Theranos. “Women are constantly second-guessed; we struggle to be taken seriously when it comes to our experiences with harassment, our pain scale at the hospital, or our attempts to get the credit we deserve for our work,” wrote reporter Ann Friedman last year in Elle. “So while a part of me admires Holmes’s audacity, mostly I’m angry with her for setting women back, for reinforcing the idea that we’re not to be believed.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.