A good idea can change the world; but a good idea that doesn’t work, no matter how well intentioned, can bring it crashing down. Such is the case right now with Theranos, a company that describes itself as “a consumer healthcare technology company.” But much more than a health technology company, Theranos was a media creation.
Theranos was founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes, then a 23-year-old college graduate. Holmes, a brilliant young woman with a dream, was working on technology that could test blood for diseases using only a few drops. If perfected, this could save billions of dollars per year and lower costs for consumers.
Before the product could be proven to work, the value of the company exploded to nearly $9 billion, which turned heads in the media and made Holmes fabulously wealthy and a media darling.
In 2015, Time magazine named Holmes one of the “100 most influential people,” listing her in the “Titans” category alongside the Koch brothers and Apple CEO Tim Cook (also Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, so…)
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who sits on the Theranos board, wrote her Time profile. “Striving for prevention and early detection, she is dedicated to transforming health care around the world,” he wrote. “She manages an expanding global business by the refusal to be daunted by any obstacle.”
Dozens of other media outlets and magazines heaped followed on with glowing profiles. She was smart, rich, attractive, young and dazzling even in Silicon Valley. In other words, a perfect story.
There was just one problem – her technology didn’t work. She was proof that not all dreams come true.
Undeterred, Theranos used the technology to test blood anyway. But recently, it announced it was voiding two years’ worth of test results – results on which hundreds of thousands of medical decisions were based. The test results rendered were all no good, and should be voided retroactively, the company announced.
Elizabeth Holmes was elevated before she had done anything beyond starting to work on an idea. In time, the praise grew, as did the expectations. But no matter how good it all seemed, no one asked the most important question: Does it work.
The media didn’t ask because the story it wanted to tell did not demand it. The media wanted to write about an attractive woman heading a billion-dollar company, so success did not need to precede accomplishment before the trappings of success were heaped on her.
The story of Elizabeth Holmes is a sad one, but it’s not unique. When reporting on business success, the media is more interested in gender than achievement.
When Marissa Mayer became president and CEO of Yahoo, the media was ecstatic. But her tenure has been nothing short of a disaster.
Now Yahoo is reportedly contemplating firing her and selling off its core Internet business after the stock price dropped 30 percent in the last two years under her leadership.
What once was cheered by the media as groundbreaking is now being largely ignored to protect the narrative that large businesses, particularly in the tech industry, are sexist. The media is committed to the concept that women are discriminated against, that there’s a “war on women.” So any success – or, in the case of Theranos, potential success – is cheered and any failure watered down.
This double standard, as all double standards are, is a disservice to the very people the perpetrators purport to help. It’s 2016, yet the media “report” as though it’s 1516, and women are forbidden from working.
The failures of these women have nothing to do with them being women. Businesses and attempts at innovation fail all the time.
These women have fallen farther because they climbed higher in the view of the media. And they climbed higher because they got extra credit – lots of it – for being women.
That’s not their fault, either. It’s the fault of a media obsessed with gender and race conflicts and probably already on the hunt for another female business success story to tout before any actual success has been realized.