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Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes Finally Faces Criminal Charges

It's been some time coming, but the CEO of Theranos is finally facing criminal charges for fraud, as the WSJ's Carreyrou repor...

Friday, June 15, 2018

Theranos: Holmes Fundraising for New Company, and Sociopathic Founders?

There was other Theranos news this week that was overshadowed by the indictment, coming in the form of a Vanity Fair article by Nick Bilton. In it he reveals that disgraced CEO Holmes is currently doing the rounds of VCs in Silicon Valley pitching her next startup, even before her existing company goes under. Yes, you heard that right. Despite everything, she's still actually getting meetings with investors willing to listen to someone with her reputation. Now, I have to admit that if I were an investor, and I got a pitch from Elizabeth Holmes I'd be tempted to meet her in person to see what she was like, even if I had no intention of funding anything - however when there are VCs like Tim Draper who still are convinced that Theranos would have succeeded if it hadn't been for those pesky journalists, you know at least some of them are genuinely interested. Beyond that, imagine the thinking of someone who just settled with the SEC for fraud, with an imminent fraud indictment, who can go out there and straight faced ask for investment.

Bilton hits on a couple of key points that I've been trying to raise in this blog - first that the way tech media, investors, and startups interact is broken and encourages dishonesty and malinvestment. While Theranos is presented as a particularly egregious example of a Silicon Valley startup misdeeds, anyone who has been involved in the scene for more than a few years can recognize many other companies in what happened. It is not an outlier, it is an inevitable consequence of the system of financial rewards that benefits the least scrupulous. To quote from the article:

"You would think that seeing Holmes’s duplicity wrapped up in a neat bow in Carreyrou’s book, and in the S.E.C. settlement—which, incidentally, mentions the term “fraud” seven times—would force Silicon Valley to perform its own due diligence, and question whether the way C.E.O.s, investors, and the media interact should be re-evaluated. But alas, the tech world doesn’t see Theranos as a tech company, but rather a biotech outlier. In Silicon Valley, you can be sure that the company that should have changed everything about the way business is run will actually change very little. The majority of the tech press won’t ask tougher questions of Zuckerberg or Musk; they’ll simply continue to fawn over the idols of the business world. Whatever they say must be true."

Traditional VCs are saying that they didn't invest in Theranos, and they are right in that, much came from wealthy family foundations, but the entire "myth of the founder" and ecosystem that each is partially responsible for birthed this monster. The tech press, who put her on the cover of magazines and called her "The Next Steve Jobs" simply didn't do any due diligence of their own, and blindly accepted her word without even bothering to call their local university biotech prof for a comment. You are starting to see, though, an increased skepticism in at least some of the press, with the better journalists and publishers questioning that bit more, after all who wouldn't want to be the next Carreyrou? 



The second point Bilton raises regards the character of those founders who receive the most funding and coverage - the go-getters who sell incredible visions and struggling against reality to deliver the future, or the snake-oil salesmen peddling dangerous cures for their own financial benefit - depending on individual case and your viewpoint. In the case of Holmes and others accused of fraud, what does it take to do this over multiple years?

In his book "Bad Blood", Carreyrou says of Holmes "A sociopath is often described as someone with little to no conscience. I'll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there's no question that her moral compass was badly askew". While he goes on to say he believed she started the company with good intentions, it soon became evident there was to be no compromise in the vision, even to reality. "Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it." I'm not sure how else you can say that there is no conscience and guilt over the consequences of a person's actions. In his interview with Bilton, Carreyrou is a little more blunt: "She absolutely has sociopathic tendencies".

I think those of us who are "normal" simply want to dismiss that anyone could act that way, and there has to be a logical explanation for why they acted like that. Someone may set out with good intentions, but they are not made into a sociopath by the events in their life, their reaction to those events and their ongoing actions reveals their sociopathy. It's what they always were, it's just they're now in a situation that makes it obvious, compared to simpler times when the natural urge to think well of people lets us pretend they are a decent person.

Given how quickly Holmes showed a consciousness of guilt, it's clear to me these personality traits were already there. In "Bad Blood", the prologue relates that in 2006, less than three years after the company founding, CFO Mosley bluntly stated to Holmes "We've been fooling investors. We can't keep doing that." and for doing his job she immediately fired him. There are countless other examples where it's clear she knows she's doing wrong. Perhaps she believes that in the end she'll be proved right and that the end justifies the means, but that still doesn't absolve her of her wrongdoing. Regardless, she was this way at least 12 years ago, it is not a recent change.

While we've been talking sociopathy, I'm going to lay out an alternative lay-person diagnosis. Take it as my opinion, my Ph.D. is in engineering, not psychology. Bilton's article has a key quote:

“One person in particular, who left the company recently, says that she has a deeply engrained sense of martyrdom. She sees herself as sort of a Joan of Arc who is being persecuted,”

Now this may be a mask she wears to fool others, but I think this is a narrative that she has developed to explain her actions and justify them to herself. Everyone is the hero in their own story, and needs that narrative to define their life and why they are not the villain. From when the first stories broke on Holmes in 2015 the response was "misogyny", and even today her backers such as Draper claim persecution. A sociopath, typically suffering from a lack of empathy, simply wouldn't care. They might use such stories to provide cover for their actions, but not actually believe them. A person with other psychological issues, but not sociopathy, would build an elaborate tale of persecution to validate themselves rather than admit their wrongdoing. If any such issues are to be looked at, in my opinion it's the various parts of Personality Disorder Cluster B. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it is possible to meet the criteria for multiple disorders. Highlighting the four cluster components:

  • Antisocial: a pervasive disregard for the law and the rights of others.
  • Borderline: extreme "black and white" thinking, chronic feelings of emptiness, instability in relationships, self-image, identity and behavior often leading to self-harm and impulsivity.
  • Histrionic: pervasive attention-seeking behavior including inappropriately seductive behavior and shallow or exaggerated emotions.
  • Narcissistic: a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

Someone who has a disregard for law and others, sees in extremes, attention seeking, grandiosity, and a need for admiration. Does that sound familiar? Now you can still make a case for either, but for an attention seeking, billion dollar startup founder, the narcissistic trait in particular is too good a fit, and one that seems to be pretty useful in raising money.

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