Elizabeth Holmes is a grifter. I’m not sure why that’s so hard for some people to say. She’s not some mysterious, Sphinx-like creature who contains multitudes. She’s a classic, old school con artist who went back to the medical roots of selling snake oil. I was a molecular biology major in college and seriously considered becoming a scientist. (I ended up going to law school.) It’s a tough haul as an undergrad. It’s even tougher as a grad student and much tougher as a researcher. It takes a huge amount of work from a range of diligent, extensively trained, sometimes generationally brilliant people to achieve the kind of medical breakthrough Holmes was promising to deliver at her company, Theranos: tests for a multitude of medical conditions using the small amount of blood provided by a finger-prick. Everyone should have been skeptical that a 19 year-old college dropout modelling herself after billionaire tech founders was going to revolutionize medical technology. In hindsight, her subdued, Steve Jobsian, black turtlenecks were blaring sirens.
Medical research is an ocean apart from software and app development. Both require talented, skilled workers, but it’s almost impossible to become proficient at the former without formal training at a university. The equipment and materials needed are too expensive. Supervised research over extended periods of time (often years) is also required. A 19 year-old with one year of college under her belt, no matter how brilliant, just wouldn’t have the knowledge or experience to helm a company like Theranos. Knowledge and experience aren’t what it takes to raise money from venture capitalists, though. How adeptly Holmes adopted the Silicon Valley style of self-presentation and self-promotion were the true source of the “genius” that was being lauded on the covers of major magazines. Why were so many people convinced by what we can all now see was a pretty obvious charade?
Elizabeth Holmes is a relatively attractive, young, White woman who crashed an almost exclusively White male club. She took great care to blend in with the boys, going so far as to pull a reverse Michael Jackson falsetto with her speaking voice and adopt an affected baritone. Mirroring. It’s one of the most effective tools of ingratiation: essentially making a person attracted to a version of themselves. It’s a favored tactic of narcissists and sociopaths, who form the pool committed grifters are pulled from. A certain kind of overly confident, mediocre, White person can get away with quite a lot if they master this skill. And, yes, Holmes being White is important. The shoddy science would have been torn to shreds if a person of color had turned up with it. Many, many more questions would have been asked. Much higher hurdles would have had to be cleared. No one would have handed $700 million to a Black woman essentially on a wing and a prayer, because they found her vaguely “impressive” and charming. The “genius” would have been tested thoroughly.
Holmes being a White woman is also important. I’ve written a bit about White Feminism™ in the past. This isn’t a reference to feminists who happen to be White, but to White women who seek to infiltrate the unjust systems of power controlled by White men instead of disassembling them. The chief danger of White Feminism is that it offers no meaningful critique of oppressive systems besides there not being enough White women at the helm of them. The Silicon Valley system that lauds the hoarding of wealth, denigrates the concept of society in favor of libertarian hunger games, and elevates people like the ones Holmes presented herself to be is something feminism should be looking to deconstruct and dismantle not extol. White Feminism doesn’t examine what a notoriously toxic boss Steve Jobs was, though; it looks for a female version of him to put on the cover of Wired.
The most relevant example of White Feminism in this case is Facebook executive, Sheryl Sandberg’s, “lean in” brand of hypercapitalist feminism. Feminists and womanists of color criticized the elitist, exclusive, corporatist framing of “lean in” feminism, but they were largely ignored as Sandberg was championed by establishment media. Facebook’s recent troubles regarding the company’s myriad ethical abuses have some changing their tune. Nevertheless, Sandberg’s philosophy and how heavily it was promoted inform why Holmes became the poster child for success in tech. White Feminists want to shatter the glass ceiling of tech founding, and Holmes looked like their best bet to do it. So, the questions that should have been asked weren’t. The vetting that should have taken place didn’t. Holmes was what the Silicon Valley boys club she’d charmed her way into and the White Feminists looking for a heroine wanted, so she’s what they got, and they foisted her and her hucksterism onto the rest of us.
Stanford University professor, Dr. Phyllis Gardner, did vet Holmes and tried to warn people that the charming young “genius” wasn’t to be trusted. There’s a deeper story to be told about why Gardner was immune to Holmes’s scam and why she wasn’t listened to. The thing about grifters is that no matter how skillful their flim flam routine is, it never works with everyone. While Gardner had connections to investors, she wasn’t a deep pocket herself, nor was she a source of publicity or promotion for Holmes. I don’t think Holmes bothered to make a genuine effort to win Gardner over. In addition, seeking commonality with Gardner — mirroring her — would have required Holmes actually master the science. That’s too much like actual work for a con artist.
Theranos was a Fyre Festival-esque scam, except people’s lives were at stake. I shudder to think of what might have happened if Holmes had managed to drag this charade even closer to the finish line. Theranos had a partnership to set up its testing machines at Walgreens pharmacies in Arizona. Did Holmes even blink at the possible risks of people being given fraudulent test results? These consequences are among the real dangers of White Feminism and its demand for power instead of equality and fairness. It routinely puts vulnerable people at risk to benefit ego-driven people like Holmes, who don’t care about those risks and do everything in their power to avoid being found out. If the surface is all that matters, the surface is all you’ll accept. Charlatans like Holmes are masters at creating the right surface for people to look at and admire. White Feminism embraced that surface and protected it, and that’s dangerous.