We can't get enough of Elizabeth Holmes. The founder and CEO of Theranos once imprisoned the fantasies of venture capitalists and magazine profile writers with his for-good-to-be-true story of a revolutionary blood test technology. Three years, many federal investigations and eleven crimes count later, our appetite has shifted to devouring the story of how Holmes wondered the world. Silicon Valley Moral History ̵
One of the documentaries, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, debuts on Monday at HBO. The film, by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, presents a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Holmes as a modern Thomas Edison gone wrong. The magician at Menlo Park, Gibney reminds us, was a champion to "fake it until you do it" that lifted the money off a promise long before he realized how to make the incandescent lamp. Of course, Edison eventually came, while Holmes faced up to 20 years in prison, and her company was forced to empty thousands of blood samples for patients in Arizona.
Gibney has used a career in what he calls the "scam", with topics such as Enron, the Church of Scientology, Lance Armstrong and the Catholic Church. We talked to him about the lessons of Theranos.
What did you think of making a movie about Theranos?
I was interested not only about the details of the story, but what it had to say about the psychology of fraud – not just how someone fools others, but how they deceive them into deceiving others, and how those who are being deceived are fooled . How does that happen?
We are in the middle of something of a national fascination with scammers. Do you see Elizabeth Holmes as part of an American archetype of a scammer?
I've been to this tactic for a while – the fraud scene. I think what's interesting about Elizabeth is: What happens when you pursue a dream and your dream doesn't work? Do you admit it? Or do you continue to find ways to pursue the dream and pretend it really works when it is not?
I think we as Americans – go back to movies like The Music Man – it's a kind of fascination with a scammer, someone who breaks the rules. We want to see them shut down and punished.
But I think the more important thing about Elizabeth for me is that she had a mission – a noble mission in a way – that she wanted to accomplish. And what led her down was this notion that the police called "noble cause of corruption" or "end justify the funds". You know, if you pursue a noble goal, it's okay to fake it until you do it.
I'm curious how you came to believe that her original motivation was actually noble.
There are signs of [Wall Street Journal reporter John] Carreyrous's book as early as she cuts the corners and lies to people. But I think if she wanted to make a lot of money, she could have done a lot more than she did. If she had been Bernie Madoff and just tried to do so and then leave, she could have paid herself much more gently than she did.
Scams have been a consistent line in your career. What is the connection between Scientology and Silicon Valley or Silicon Valley and Enron?
I believe the connection between scientology and Elizabeth Holmes is the "throne field". Look at what happens to [Theranos board member] George Shultz – the grandfather of [eventual whistleblower] Tyler Shultz; the said State Secretary. Even when his grandson comes to him and says, "You know grandfather, there is a tremendous fraud at Theranos," he can't repress or retreat or relax the faith he has. He is in a prison of faith in Elizabeth Holmes. He has committed to her, and for him to say, "Oh, it's terrible," would mean that he must go back to the beginning and admit that he was fooled and cheated.
On the other hand, you take something like Enron and you look at people like Jeff Skilling. Jeff Skilling, I think, was not like Bernie Madoff. He had a mission. His mission was that the completely unbounded unregulated free market should end up with enormous social benefits.
This idea of the end justifies the means and tries to manipulate the reality to adapt to the dream, they think I am consistent.
Many people around Silicon Valley point to Theranos and say, "They are not genuine Silicon Valley. We are not like that."
It is an element of truth and there is an element of villain. Fake it & # 39; until you do it is something that is steeped in DNA from many Silicon Valley companies. And there are many powerful Silicon Valley companies – the most respectable – still lying to people. Look at Apple and the battery. Look at Facebook and Google as to how they mine our data, and how they misused information and also sort of rudiments to our worst instincts.
In some ways, Elizabeth was an outlier, and it is true that many of the powerful Silicon Valley VCs did not invest in her because they did not see the evidence, and they were suspicious of her. But I think that in ethics of "moving fast break" without really considering the damage that can be caused and how it can become culturally problematic, she shares some DNA with the other Silicon Valley companies.
You weren't able to talk to Elizabeth Holmes.
My producer initially sat with her for about five hours of the record to try to persuade her to participate and we failed. We kept coming back and trying to get her to talk to us and she refused. She continued to say, "When we are back on our feet, you can see the successful Theranos." Right. It never happened.
Early on, we had a very difficult time talking to employees because they were all afraid of [Theranos lawyer and board member] David Boies and were sued. It took a long time to build up momentum in the form of getting people on the record, and then we got very lucky when it came to someone from the inside who gave us a treasure chest of video.
Roger Parloff, Fortune magazine reporter who wrote Holmes' first magazine profile, has borne some guilt to help create Therano's myth, but he was also the only person in the film that expressed some real remorse for what happened, he comes across as this very tragic figure.
I see him as the striking heart of the movie. It dragged him inside that he was wrong and that he put her on the front. To see those moments where both his embarrassment, but also his anger, make him almost speechless – it's a very powerful moment. We live in a time when we have a scam for president and everything is angled for everyone's own cognitive disturbance, but Roger believes I really took this idea seriously to pursue the truth.
Journalists are both truth seekers, but also narrators. By coming over Elizabeth Holmes, this was a powerful story that they really wanted to tell about a young female entrepreneur in male-dominated Silicon Valley that really comes up with something that did well. But when you see something that is a wonderful story, you sometimes have to wonder if it's an adventure.
One thing that the documentary makes very visible is this long list of old men who seem to have been imprisoned by a very young woman: journalists Parloff, Ken Auletta and Charlie Rose; investors Don Lucas, Larry Ellison, Tim Draper and Rupert Murdoch; board members George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Jim Mattis and Channing Robertson; and others, including Joe Biden and Bill Clinton.
I mean, I think it's so clear. Phyllis Gardner [a Stanford professor of medicine] refers to the board, saying: "They obviously passed to a certain charm." We tread easily on it, but it is clear that they gave in to a certain charm. She was young. She was pretty. It blinded them in a certain way.
I think Elizabeth even infused her own myth with this idea of youth – youth conquers all. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College. I'll get out of Stanford. You don't need that bullshit education. All you need is genius. Well, maybe if she had lived in Stanford for several years and took a few more courses, it might have made us all a little good.
We do some kind of respect for the youth in some ways, and Elizabeth very much in the company used it. She had a real distrust of the elderly, either because they were experienced and they showed her, or they didn't get it like young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs get it. You move fast, you break things, you don't ask many questions, don't give me your old paradigm game. Well, sometimes you know that experience can be very valuable, right?
Fortunately, two very young people are also whistleblowers who end up getting her down. Because they are not as concerned about families as they need to support, and I also think they are more idealistic. They come out of college and they haven't been cynical yet.
I think the men fell for her. It is clear and it is clear that she understood. There were no women on the board. How strange was it for a woman who is the CEO?
Were you ever worried about falling into the same trap? Personally, I was a little surprised that the movie came off more sympathetically with her than …
than it should have?
… than I feel, by giving her motives altruistic. And I think the comparison with Edison is generous.
It is generous in a way, and there are a few reasons I went there. One is, I really don't think she's a Madoff character. So I give her the credit for at least having that sense of mission. But honestly, in my opinion, it is not necessarily the good news. You can look at Hitler and say he was a guy who believed that the end justifies the funds, right? It's not good news.
The comparison with Edison – yes, Edison was a true inventor. But let's also be honest: Elizabeth exists on a range of people as over-promises and sometimes subcontractors and sometimes committing scams. I didn't want to make the movie where Silicon Valley gets knocked off the hook. Because if she's just the bad apple – you know that's what they said about the people of Abu Ghraib. They are just bad apples, and then they have nothing to do with the overall system. Well, it was quick for Abu Ghraib, and I think it's a villain for Silicon Valley. I think she exists in the context of the Silicon Valley culture, though she is an extreme outlier in many ways. So that's the excitement I was kind of interested in playing with.
I wonder if I was too generous. But it's hard to know. She feels very much that she is a victim. And it's a hard thing to count on. And that's why I put in Phyllis at the end, saying, "You're not a victim." You know, the money stops with you, Elizabeth Holmes.
This interview is edited and condensed for shortness and clarity.