So! Elizabeth Holmes, tech’s most celebrated female CEO, might be a fraud. If investigative reporting in the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, Holmes is the lovechild of the tech hype cycle and Silicon Valley’s obsession with diversity icons. Colour me surprised…
Theranos, a biotech company founded over ten years ago, promised to revolutionise blood testing using low-cost handheld devices. It was founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes, then a 19-year old chemical engineering major at Stanford University. Over ten years and a $9 billion valuation later, and it seems that the company has very little to deliver.
According to the Journal, Theranos has virtually abandoned its own blood-testing technology. According to one senior employee, at the end of 2014, the company had performed 190 blood tests on traditional lab machines but only 15 on its handheld ‘Edison’ devices.
Furthermore, the Journal reports that when Edison devices have been used, they have produced results that are wildly different from conventional blood tests. In a number of cases, doctors who referred patients to Theranos quickly stopped once the inconsistencies in their tests became clear. Still, while Theranos might not be a case study for building a product, it’s certainly a case study for building hype.
Theranos was the beneficiary of two troubling industry trends. One is the cycle of tech hype, where companies with questionable business models and even more questionable products somehow attract millions – or, in Theranos’ case, billions – in funding.
The second is the tech industry’s obsession with the misguided, skin-deep politics of diversity, which leads it to bestow baffling levels of support to mendacious figures like Ellen Pao, Randi Harper, and Shanley Kane, often adopting a willful blindness to their obvious, and in some cases reprehensible, failings. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Elizabeth Holmes’s public profile is just as dazzling as her company’s. Ever since Holmes appeared on the tech scene, she has been fêted as womanhood’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg. A female college drop-out turned genius tech entrepreneur, set to revolutionise the world with a big idea. CNBC ran a headline comparing her to Steve Jobs, while Elite Daily calls her a “A college dropout and medical genius.” She’s undeniably a genius at making money: Holmes is currently the youngest self-made billionaire on the Forbes 400.
But now it’s all starting to unravel. If a Wall Street Journal report is accurate, Holmes’ company may be at the centre of one of the biggest investment scams in U.S. history. Holmes’ combination of a high percentage of equity despite a massive valuation was unique among the best of Silicon Valley — but not so much for various white-collar fraudsters currently languishing inside federal prisons.
Reddit is a site that relies on user-generated content. Every day, millions of Reddit users submit links and “upvote” content onto the site’s front page, leading to an engine of internet virality. Known as the “front page of the internet,” companies will fight hard — and even pay — to attract the attention of Reddit’s userbase.
You’d think that a company so reliant on the good will of its users would make sure not to hire a CEO whose values are entirely alien to theirs. Redditors are known to despise censorship, overbearing site moderation, and wacky identity politics. Pao embraced all three, and her selection as interim CEO of the company led to the worst period of user-admin relations in the site’s history, culminating in the “Reddit Revolts.”
The animosity she provoked from Reddit’s userbase was matched only by the adulation she received from Silicon Valley’s progressives elites, who bafflingly praised her as a hero of equality for failing to win an opportunistic discrimination lawsuit.
Pao was eventually replaced by co-founder Steve Huffman, but the site’s apparent determination to alienate their user base hasn’t abated. Their replacement for Victoria Taylor, who was one of Reddit’s most beloved admins, is Wynter Mitchell — a woman who wears her social justice affiliations on her sleeves and accuses her critics of “mansplaining.” Reddit did it again.
It’s almost a shame to put Mayer in a list with Pao. Her politics are much saner, and her critique of feminism led to a delicious reaction from Silicon Valley’s worst ideologues. But, like Elizabeth Holmes, the fact remains that she hasn’t lived up to the hype.
When she took over the flagging search engine Yahoo! in 2012, the then-pregnant former Google executive was hailed as a potential saviour of the company. Three years later, the promised resurrection has yet to appear, and now there’s even talk that Mayer might quit.
Perhaps the most baffling decision of Mayer’s time as CEO was Yahoo’s $1.1 billion purchase of blogging platform Tumblr. Sure, the site’s a giant — but $1.1 billion? That’s crazy money for a company in trouble to spend. There’s little chance that Tumblr can develop the kind of revenues necessary to make that sum seem sensible. It was yet another inexplicable Silicon Valley splurge that will likely come back to haunt Yahoo!
Christina Domecq was the CEO of SpinVox, the voice-to-text “software” company that fell apart in 2009 after a BBC investigation found that most of its “voice to text” translation was done by call centre workers in India, not by the company’s software.
I reported on the SpinVox scandal years ago, but no one wanted to listen until finally the BBC couldn’t ignore the company’s nosediving translation performance and complaints from users and investigated it themselves. The results were horrifying.
One could hardly have a list of failed female CEOs without mentioning Meg Whitman, the Chief Executive of Hewlett Packard. Bloomberg LP listed her as the “most underachieving CEO” in May 2013 after HP’s stock underperformed by 30 per cent. Indeed, Whitman’s stocks have been underperforming since her tenure began.
In fairness to Whitman, HP is a company in crisis, and many of their difficulties may be inevitable. But the mark of a CEO is how they deal with crises, and Whitman has consistently failed to offer the radical change of direction that HP needs. Other companies, like BlackBerry, have done it – why not HP? Maybe it’s something about risk-taking.
With disaster following in the wake of virtually every overhyped female CEO, would it perhaps be a good idea to start judging people on merit, and holding to them account for failures and missed deadlines, rather than looking the other way because someone happens to be female, black, gay or disabled?
One need only look at the litany of professional catastrophes on Fab founder Jason Goldberg’s CV, or the underwhelming performance of pretty much every female Silicon Valley CEO we ever hear about, to see my point. It’s been a long time since Silicon Valley had any claim to meritocracy. Perhaps it’s time for a return.