After a nearly four-month-long trial, Elizabeth Holmes has been found guilty on four of 11 federal fraud and conspiracy charges. Nearly two decades ago, at 19 years old, Holmes dropped out of Stanford to create Theranos, a now-liquidated health technology company. The company promised a cheaper and more efficient alternative to the traditional blood test — a small automated device that could test for many diseases with just a few drops of blood and very little time.
In 2014, the company had garnered plenty of positive attention from investors, retail partners and the general public. Forbes had even named Holmes one of the richest women in America, with a net worth of $4.5 billion. However, by the end of 2015, many researchers, regulators and investigators began questioning the validity of Theranos’ finger-pricking testing devices. They claimed that Theranos was not really using its novel testing technique and that its lab was not complying with federal standards. In 2016, Holmes had lost her license to operate blood-testing labs as well as her biggest retail partner, Walgreens. Forbes estimated that Holmes’ net worth had declined to $0.
The story gets dirtier from here; Holmes’ partner steps down, Theranos is sued by an investor and by Walgreens and Theranos lays off over 50% of its staff. In 2017, the company failed its second lab inspection and settled with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and with the Arizona attorney general, who was representing Arizona customers who had been misled by the company’s claims.
Finally, in 2018, Holmes and her partner, Rumesh Balwani, were indicted on criminal fraud charges. The trial was delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic and Holmes’ pregnancy. In the meantime, Theranos dissolved.
In August 2021, the jury for Holmes’ trial was selected, and after three months of testimonies from 32 witnesses and 50 hours of deliberation, a verdict was reached. Holmes was found guilty on one count of conspiracy to defraud investors and three wire fraud counts tied to specific investors. She was found not guilty on three charges of defrauding patients and one charge of conspiracy to defraud patients. The jury did not reach a verdict on three charges of defrauding investors. For these crimes, Holmes faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 plus restitution fine for each count.
What does this mean for women in male-dominated Silicon Valley?
In the beginning, Holmes seemed like the epitome of a feminist girlboss: a hard worker who fought for her place among the other technology greats. As such, the revelation of her fraud was quite disheartening. However, her guilty verdict is actually a great stride for women. While Holmes was a successful start-up founder, she acquired her success by lying and giving in to the male perspective. As her company was on the rise, Holmes embraced black slacks and turtlenecks akin to Steve Jobs. She commanded a room full of venture capitalists with intense eye contact. According to some, she even learned how to make her voice deeper.
It is interesting, then, that her defense relied so heavily on depicting her as a feminine victim of male abuse. Her previously straight hair was styled in loose waves, and her lips were painted a pale pink, complemented by dainty jewelry and a large diaper bag. Now, Holmes was no longer trying to look strong — she wanted sympathy.
Holmes is not a feminist. She simply knows how to use her gender to her advantage. In our world, people find it hard to believe that a woman could be a criminal mastermind. It is more plausible and palatable to claim that a woman is a puppet for an intelligent man. That is exactly what Holmes testified — that Balwani abused her and dictated how she should act. Although Balwani disputes these accusations, all of it might be true. Holmes is talented at aligning her gender with her goals, explaining why she would reveal this information now rather than while she was a budding billionaire. But it is also more comfortable, for lack of a better word, and that is why it was the foundation of the defense’s arguments. The defense was leaning into the sexist belief that women cannot think for themselves or make decisions independently, but the reality is that women can make choices — even bad ones.
We do not know if Holmes is telling the truth about her relationship with Balwani. As inclined as our society is to believe women, it is plausible that she is weaponizing this for her own gain. After all, she was putting on a performance appearance-wise in the courts. And if she is lying, it undermines a lot of the work that women have been doing to raise awareness for sexual assault.
Holmes has proven that she is not your stereotypical dumb blonde. Behind her charm lies the potential to seriously manipulate and harm innocent people. Thankfully, the jury did not buy into the defense’s portrayal of women as weak and innocent — and this is a win for women everywhere.