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How Elizabeth Holmes pushed the limits of hustle culture

Once compared to Steve Jobs for her apparent breakthroughs in health technology, former entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes is now a criminal fraud. Her conviction reflects Silicon Valley’s relentless hype culture, and could have implications far beyond just her sentencing.

For many tech enthusiasts and business hopefuls, Silicon Valley is the place to be.

Home to the biggest brands in the world – including Google, Facebook, and Apple – this Californian hub is responsible for moulding many of our richest and most influential entrepreneurs.

Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of private medical company Theranos, was one of these wonderkid billionaire inventors. She featured on the cover of Forbes in 2014 as the ‘youngest self-made female billionaire’ ever, and was considered by experts to be the ‘next Steve Jobs’ of the medical world.

Theranos promised investors and consumers a quick, pain-free method of conducting blood tests, using only a small amount of fluid via a nanotainer. The collected blood would be run through a device called an ‘Edison’ which would then be able to diagnose and detect a huge range of health problems.

Sounds great, right? The problem was, the Edison device did not work. It was unable to give patients accurate information. One trialist in 2013 said her results indicated she had previously had a miscarriage, for example, which was entirely false.

When interviewed by press, Holmes refused to discuss how her device functioned, citing her fear of potential competitors as justification for remaining tight-lipped. Her strategy paid off.

Big-time investors pumped tons of money into Theranos, despite its questionable medical legitimacy and the mystique surrounding its use of technology. Rupert Murdoch, Tim Draper, Larry Ellison, and even the retail chain Walgreens were backing the project, with Holmes securing $9.1 billion USD in its Series B funding round in 2006.

Fast forward fifteen years later and things aren’t quite so rosy. In 2015, a Wall Street Journal investigation caught wind of Theranos’ shaky science and overpromises, leading to an eventual shutdown of the company and Holmes’ arrest.

At the beginning of 2022, Holmes was found guilty of defrauding investors with three additional charges of wire fraud, and could receive up to twenty years in prison for each offence. She faced eleven charges in total and was found not guilty of four, with the remaining three left undecided by the jury.

How does it reflect Silicon Valley and wider entrepreneurial culture?

Whether Holmes actually ends up spending decades in prison is debatable, and while she was indeed convicted of fraud, it was only in relation to her investors and not the potential harm her company could have inflicted on unknowing patients.

Her story of overselling a dream, falsifying documents and tests to appease investors, and endangering the wellbeing of others for the sake of individual glory is not an isolated one.

Silicon Valley is rife with business hopefuls trying to become the next industry darling, regardless of whether they’ve an actual product or idea to sell.

This incessant pursuit of wealth and notoriety is coupled with a millennial obsession for ‘self-made’ entrepreneurship, a belief that any market is rife for exploit and personal gain when the right tactics are used.

A similar focus on individual success can be seen via influencer culture, through social media platforms and reality television programmes that sell a personality, idea, or feeling over a tangible product or solution to a genuine problem.

TikTok and Instagram are full of posts and videos that hammer home this phenomena, and it’s no wonder Gen Z in particular are so obsessed with self-made income.

‘Side hustle’ culture emphasises an absurd level of productivity and promotes the ideal that all of us can become billionaires with the right amount of work and grinding, even if we’ve nothing to sell investors or consumers other than hot air.

Molly Mae’s recent comments on ‘everyone having the same twenty-four hours’ have faced backlash for exposing this mindset, and it exists on every rung of the capitalist ladder, from small-time Instagram influencers to the biggest names in Silicon Valley.

What could the ramifications be moving forward?

Some commentators have rightfully noted that Holmes has faced intense scrutiny for her activities compared to many men within the same industries who’ve operated under a similar ‘fake it until you make it’ quota.

It’s hard to tell whether this will truly cause a culture shift within Silicon Valley.

As long as there is potential for business moguls to permeate mainstream culture and generate insane profits there will always be fraudulent activity behind the scenes. The promise of wealth, success, and all the fruits of capitalist exploit remains too enticing to ignore.

Perhaps more importantly, the Holmes case is a very public example of the dangers that come with modern investment and entrepreneurship. It exposes just how easy it can be for companies to sway even the most experienced investors into throwing away hundreds of millions on faulty products and services.

Holmes’ lengthy trial and seemingly severe punishment should be a warning to founders that going to any lengths to appease those throwing money at you can have consequences. Whether this will actually be the case remains to be seen.

Attempting to make money and a name for yourself via any means necessary is a generational trait that extends through Millennials and Gen Zers. In many ways, an idea and a dream has become more valuable than the reality, at least for some.

Silicon Valley is unlikely to change, but perhaps it’s time we stopped praising individual CEOs so much and instead looked inward at the system that encourages faking it until you’re wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.