What’s it about the NYT profile of Elizabeth Holmes?

Over the weekend, I finally gave in. I just had to read the NYT profile of Elizabeth Holmes, the convicted founder of Theranos, to see what it was that had riled people so much. The piece has been called a waste of ink, but then isn’t that most of the internet anyway? If it is about the standards expected out of NYT, a lot can be said about all the ink it wasted in running the campaign for invading Iraq. If it is about running a profile piece on convicts or disgraced businesspersons, then this isn’t the first. So what is it?


If anything, the NYT piece and the overall case of Elizabeth Holmes tells us something that we all probably already know about the complexity of attempting a causal analysis of human actions, and if we want to think a bit further, then about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and  ourselves as a society and the expectations which the entrepreneurial ecosystem has of business founders.


It isn’t difficult to comprehend that she can be guilty of what she’s been convicted for and yet have a sensitive and humane side to herself. Volunteering a rape helpline, not being able “stomach R-rated movies”, rushing after the journalist with a paper towel to wipe off the mix of her dog’s slob and sand, being a mother and a partner. In thinking about those convicted of criminal behaviour, we tend to forget that all of these aren’t things which only “normal people like us” can do. Is it this that makes us uncomfortable?


Or is it that the writer got carried away and started wondering if Ms. Holmes was actually an authentic person and not what she has been made out to be? For me, this admittal and her subsequent exchange with the editor is the most powerful part of the story. It isn’t surprising in the least, because it is this which explains why and how Ms. Holmes managed to achieve whatever she did. Managing to get some of the most influential people in the business and political world to become affiliated with her business wasn’t a small task. To get them on board would take a lot more than the simple promise of massive returns on financial investments.


It may be argued that the motives of some of these men might have been questionable and that they aren’t really as smart as the world makes them out to be. The truth remains that she managed to convince not just one, or two, but a bunch of them. It may well be the case that all of them shared some common strands of weaknesses which she understood well and was able to use to her advantage. Which takes us back to the question of the extent to which we can depend on the judgement of men who we think know better than us based on the material success they have achieved in their lifetime.


Other than this, the big news is that she has lost her weird voice and isn’t dressed up like she used to – I can understand the mentions about the turtlenecks though I’ll get to that in a bit, but I still can’t fathom how someone’s choice of shade of lipstick is something to talk about. Or maybe it does have an effect and influence people’s judgement in a way that I don’t understand. Because if it does then it says more about us than about the person who’s wearing it.


Regardless of how I may feel about it, these are things which are powerful influencers of decision making. There’s a good reason why startup founders dress and act the way they do. The turtlenecks, the hoodies, the Allbirds and the Vejas. Ms. Holmes took it too far by changing her voice, but putting on an accent to signify your belonging to the “right class” is fairly common. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t want them to be the stuff which guides how we make decisions on the “hard ” that life is made of: money, business, politics. And maybe that’s what makes us uncomfortable to think about too.


What else about it makes us uncomfortable?