‘Theranos’ was on the verge of becoming a household name… before everything crashed. You may remember the famous headshot of Elizabeth Homles in black turtleneck with the ‘nanotainer’ that contained a few drops of blood pinched between her thumb and index finger. Theranos boasted a step-change innovation in blood testing that can tap into 100+ tests with only a few drops of blood drawn from the tip of the finger. Many scientists suspected the feasibility of the famed technology that was backed up with menial evidence; but Elizabeth’s charisma with her deep husky voice swooned over several tycoons which ended up bringing her so much fame and money… until everything broke down with the report by the investigative reporter, John Carreyrou, at The Wall Street Journal.
This book talks about Elizabeth Homles’ life spanning from her childhood, college, and as a founder of Theranos; interestingly, the author never had a chance to talk to Elizabeth. The book is built upon his conversations with many people who interacted with Elizabeth in one way or another. It’s a fascinating read; I will share my key takeaways from the book in this essay.
1. Even the smartest people get fooled; you always have to be open-minded to ‘unlearn’.
Elizabeth’s investors were some of the smartest, most influential, and wealthiest people in the U.S. Notably, the former secretary of state, George Schultz, was among them; he lost a whopping $700 million as Therano’s truths were revealed.
Interestingly, George Schultz’s grandson, Tyler Schultz, was also working at Theranos; when Tyler expressed his doubts about Theranos with his colleague, Erika Cheung, George’s belief in Elizabeth and Therannos never wavered. I won’t be able to fathom how he could have had such unwavering faith in Elizabeth; or maybe he chose to zone out from the contrary opinions because he had such high stakes at Theranos and it was more convenient for him to continue believing than acknowledging his mistakes. Regardless, I have learned that even the smartest people can be deceived if they are not open-minded about others’ opinions. Open-mindedness allows them to be humble and vulnerable to have their previous beliefs rebuked and as a result, ‘unlearn’ — the only path for growth. The tendency to not listen and firmly hold on to their previous beliefs seems to be one of the biggest traps one can fall into, especially more susceptible for people with more experience.
2. You need to plow through when the chips are down; even when everyone else contradicts your beliefs.
Tyler Schultz and Erika Cheung were almost fresh out of college when they started working at Theranos. Though they were empowered to achieve the mission to change people’s lives when they first started, they soon learned the reality of Theranos — prototypes (e.g. Edison) not working up to its promises, labs not abiding safety protocols, etc. Their morale continues to plunge with a toxic work culture where everything is micromanaged and monitored by Sunny Balwani (Former president, COO of Theranos).
Tyler’s granddad, George Schultz, had a sizable chunk of investment at Theranos, and Tyler tried to convince him to walk away from Theranos multiple times, reaping little to no success every time. Later, when Tyler was disclosing the truths about Theranos with John (the investigative writer at The Wall Street Journal), he was under severe attack by Theranos’ lawyers. By then, his relationship with his granddad exacerabated to an extent he only communicated with him via lawyers.
Despite the toll it took on their personal and professional lives, both Tyler and Erika kept on believing and continued to rock the boat, finally letting the truths prevail.
3. True leaders trust employees and give autonomy to do their best job.
Rupert Murdoch is a mogul in the media industry; he owns Fox News, The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal. He had $125 million invested in Theranos during the time of Theranos investigation by John, journalist at The Wall Street Journal. Elizabeth inquired Murdoch to kill the report about Theranos multiple times, even visiting his office in NYC from the SF Bay Area.
Murdoch, however, believed that his journalists had full discretion to do what’s best for the Journal and did not interfere with the report of Theranos. As I reflected on this, I think it’s truly awe-inspiring for a leader like Murdoch to not intervene with his employees despite his foreseeable financial loss upon the outbreak of the story. If the story was quashed, there would have been a lot more damage to human lives as Theranos was planning to expand their blood testing to more Walgreen stores beyond Arizona. Moreover, the morale of journalists would have hit rock bottom as it annihilates the core identity of journalists — the freedom of press.
As I currently reside in Silicon Valley, I often encounter starry-eyed entrepreneurs who want to make it and become the next Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk… For a while, Elizabeth seemed to be the very epitome of entrepreneurial success. However, when it was not accompanied with integrity, the gap between reality and ideal got wider and the lies ran amok. This book, once again, reminds us of the importance of staying true to yourself and putting integrity as the utmost priority in anything we do.