The Case of Theranos
In sociology, we often get some pushback from our students because things can often feel, well, really depressing! We spend weeks and weeks talking about inequality and oppression and the lack of justice regarding these subjects. We discuss the statistics related to gender, race, age, sexuality, and other groups; they reveal staggering inequality and outright discrimination built into our systems. We talk about how people are more likely to just repeat what their parents did instead of rising above their station, and, in fact, the statistics are leaning toward younger generations doing worse than their parents. Yikes.
Even on a more global scale, students often feel very uneasy when we discuss the idea of the United States as a hegemonic power in the world. Even within the U.S., there is a power structure that perpetuates power and money for a select few. But, every once in a while, a story comes along that captivates us and upends some of what we assume to be true (while often verifying other parts).
The prime example of this perfect storm is Elizabeth Holmes and her now-defunct company, Theranos. It is a fascinating story: a young Stanford dropout forms a company that, she claims, can run hundreds of accurate blood tests on just a single drop of blood taken from a finger prick. Her board members were made up of a virtual who’s who in the power world: former secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, Stanford professors, former governors, and the list goes on. And the investors? They were an absolute powerhouse of GOP backers including the DeVos family and the Walton family, who invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Theranos. But the rub is that none of the technology worked; Holmes was selling a bill of goods from the first go, and she is now facing criminal charges for her fraud.
I see two sociological observations in this story, and both are fascinating. One, because Holmes is a woman, there is a narrative that surrounds her that is very different from, say, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. In every article, book, documentary, and podcast I have consumed, the author makes a note of Holmes’ appearance: blonde hair, unblinking and captivating blue eyes, and a wardrobe of black turtlenecks. They note time and time again that she took a page from Jobs’ playbook: always wear the same thing every day, and people will know you are, ahem, serious about your work. What’s fascinating about this narrative is that they are intent on illustrating how she stole this idea from Jobs as if he was the first person to ever think of this as a strategy. From the coverage I have seen, the move is also seen as strange and off-putting when Homes does it, but no one had the same thought about Jobs. In addition, everything I’ve consumed about Holmes mentions her voice; it is deep and baritone. Unemotional. Steady. They cite people who claim her voice isn’t real and that she went to vocal coaching to lower her voice so she wouldn’t sound “shrill” as so many female politicians are called. The question to me, as a sociologist, is not did she do this but why did she feel she had to? The coverage of Elizabeth Holmes embodies much of what we put onto women in our society, especially those that are powerful or color outside the lines.
The second fascinating narrative that emerges from the Theranos story is the idea of comeuppance for the wealthy and privileged in our society. By any standard, Elizabeth Holmes led a pretty charmed life. She was a the daughter of an executive and the ancestor of a major yeast company creator. She had legacy that lended credence. Once investor mentioned that her grandfather was a major entrepreneur and her great-uncle had a hospital named after hime, so she definitely had the medical/business intelligence. What an astounding display of privilege. She dropped out of Stanford because she wasn’t going to class and she anecdotally and casually says that was a waste of money. It’s relatively infuriating for those that have scraped by to hear words like that.
Not only was Homes quite privileged, her board and investors read like a manual of the wealthiest and most powerful people in our society. They seem to belong to a secret club where each of them goes to the others to show what needs backing in our society. Theranos happened to be the hot ticket. More than a billion dollars later, Holmes had her money, and the investors had their symbol. What a wonderfully framed symbiotic relationship.
So, about the comeuppance: people seem slightly gleeful when the rich and powerful are taken to task. As a side note, the college admissions scandal is a great example of this. We don’t have a tremendous amount of sympathy when we feel people haven’t earned their way, and when they fail, we often take delicious happiness from it. This storyline emerges over and over again, and Theranos is just another example. We don’t feel particularly bad for Holmes or her investors. She is a fraud, a liar, and a thief, and she garners no public sympathy as her very public downfall plays out on our televisions and all over the internet. But we also don’t feel bad for the people that invested hundreds of millions of dollars with her; in fact, there is a fair amount of eyebrow raising as if to say, “well, it’s not like they don’t have the money”. This discounts all of the investors that gave less money but lost much more, but it is easier to think of the wealthy and powerful who were brought down a notch.
Comeuppance in a hegemonic society is a satisfying thing because it happens so infrequently.