Elizabeth Holmes was a compelling storyteller.
Under bright set lights, her blonde hair and wide blue eyes sparkled in contrast to her black turtleneck. She spoke slowly in a rich voice. It was easy to believe her when she said she that at the tender age of 19 she had an idea that would revolutionize health care: technology that would accurately complete a wide-range of diagnostic tests from a single drop of blood. She dropped out of Stanford and set out to change the world.
She was so convincing that she charmed unbelievable amounts of money out of the pockets off investors. She launched her own company, Theranos, in 2003, and used her personal connections to stack the board with influential, well-connected people like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. Her face graced the pages of publications as prestigious as Fortune, Forbes and Inc and she was held up as an inspirational example for women, for young people, for entrepreneurs.
She crafted partnerships with national drug store chains, and soon Theranos’ machines were offering consumers low cost, comprehensive blood testing literally at their fingertips.
There was just one problem. Holmes’ carefully crafted narrative was all a sham, from her baritone speaking voice to her Steve Jobs-esque turtlenecks to the very concept of the business itself. The Einstein mini-lab machines at the heart of the concept just didn’t work, and the company was surreptitiously testing blood using competitors traditional machines.
The whole house of cards came crashing down thanks to a Wall Street Journal reporter’s dogged efforts. Holmes has been ousted as CEO in recent months, has lost her massive fortune, was fined, and could face criminal charges.
How did Holmes fool so many people – investors, the press, political leaders, the public – for so long, and get away with it? You might think it’s moxie, but it’s not. How can you tell mock moxie from the real thing? Here are a few hints:
Real moxie isn’t afraid of a little sunshine.
It makes sense for a start up to keep its cards close to the vest, especially if it’s a biotech start up. You’d hardly want to risk someone stealing a key process, technology or insight and disrupting your plan.
But in the case of Theranos, that secrecy went far beyond protecting the technology.
Holmes maintained extraordinarily tight control with the help of her sometime-boyfriend and COO Sunny Balwani. She approved all new hires, many of whom had no idea what they would be doing with the company until after they were hired. Anyone who left the company was made to sign a strict non disclosure agreement, and a team of lawyers relentlessly enforced those contracts.
Once inside the company, departments were strictly siloed and kept from sharing information with each other. In a time when most enterprises are trying to figure out how to collaborate more effectively to solve problems, Theranos’ culture was completely the opposite.
It seems clear now that Holmes’ close control wasn’t driven by a desire to protect the technology; it was driven by the deep fear that she would be revealed as a fraud. One has to wonder if Holmes had been honest from the beginning, and had cultivated a team culture of collaboration, could she have actually done it? Could she have figured out how to make Einstein work?
Mock moxie fears being found out. Real moxie calls all hands on deck to solve the problem and save the day.
Real moxie respects expertise.
A closer look at Theranos’ investors and board reveals a troubling truth. Few, if any, had the medical background to ask the right questions about Theranos. Board members were experts in business or government, but not medicine.
Holmes also fought to reduce regulations, and thus lowered the protections for consumers.
Maybe it’s our independent, rebellious streak as Americans, but we really do seem to have a pervasive underlying distrust of expertise and regulation. We want to believe in the underdog, not the expert. Bureaucracy is seen as the preventer of progress, not the protector of people.
Mock moxie only lends credibility to the those with the most influence. Real moxie respects the expertise that comes with experience and education.
Real moxie pursues truth.
Even as Holmes was riding a magic carpet of lies, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou was picking at the threads and steadily teasing out the truth. It took him more than three years to fully investigate and report the story.
Ironically, when the story broke and Holmes began to be questioned, she deflected by declaring indignantly, “This is what happens when you work to change things. First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then, all of a sudden, you change the world.”
The implication was that Carryrou’s story was a lie, when ironically, it was the truth and Holmes’ entire narrative appears to be a lie.
Mock moxie sticks with lies and refuses accountability. Real moxie pursues the truth.
There are so many lessons to draw from Holmes’ fall from grace.
The internet is littered with inspirational quotes from Holmes. Perhaps the most ironic is this one: “I think people can benefit tremendously from really asking why they’re doing certain things.”
If I had a chance to ask her – and I had any faith that she would answer truthfully – I’d want to know just why she did it. Why would she give up on her own prospects and opportunity to risk it all on a lie? Did she realize it was a lie, and did she really think she was going to succeed? Does she think about all the patients who trusted those test results, only to have them revealed as unreliable?
What would you ask?