I Used to Look Up to Elizabeth Holmes

When I was a student at Harvard in the early aughts, Mark Zuckerberg and some other classmates dropped out to become the young kings of tech. They were smart, competitive and hard-working — like most people there. But I never could exactly relate. They had a confidence that was hard to describe, a peculiar kind of ambition that seemed to all but entitle them to success. As I got older, I realized the quality I was imagining as special wasn’t. They were just men.

Then I learned about Elizabeth Holmes, a rare female paragon of super-successful genius. With her health technology company, Theranos, she was crowned America’s youngest self-made female billionaire by 2014. She broke into the exclusive club of Silicon Valley’s boy wonders, not as an employee or even an executive, but as a founder.

She and I were each approaching 30, but were on vastly different paths. I was an overgrown assistant, hunched over my desk itemizing receipts from other people’s dinners, and starting to worry that these jobs weren’t steppingstones anymore, but my career. I saved for work shoes from Aldo, while she filled her closet with those black turtlenecks from a designer whose clothes I’d only seen in pictures. I couldn’t tell if I was putting limits on myself, or if this was just the way it was. She seemed to have cracked the code. How did she do it?

Although it feels somewhat shameful to admit now, I was a little jealous of what Ms. Holmes had achieved. She wasn’t struggling up a ladder; she’d leapt straight to the top. She came off as intellectual and nerdy, unlike the sleek Instagram-filtered “girl bosses” with their marketing shticks. I didn’t realize we could do that.

Of course, by now it’s well known how Elizabeth Holmes ascended. She lied. In addition to all the obvious wrongs she is accused of committing, that’s what feels so deflating about her narrative. It has become almost a cliché to talk about how ambitious women suffer from imposter syndrome, but it’s real. For a moment, my admiration of what Ms. Holmes had achieved served as fuel. What she symbolized contradicted a lot of what I thought about gender and work and success, making me believe I could also lay claim to bigger ambitions. Then she turned out to be the biggest imposter of all.

I’m not saying that Elizabeth Holmes, even in her mythologized persona, was a perfect role model. I know all the caveats — that she was already wealthy and well connected. White. Blond. Backed by a team of powerful male mentors, including Henry Kissinger and James Mattis. But other female entrepreneurs to look up to were rare — in fact, I can’t think of any other young woman who was as prominently celebrated and rewarded for her professional achievements.

That hasn’t really changed. Even with its supposedly progressive values, Silicon Valley is a mirror of most centers of power in this country. It suffers from the same problems they all do — including a dearth of women at the very top.

So instead of being a symbol of progress, as I first saw her, Ms. Holmes has turned out to be a symbol of how far we haven’t come.

Even now, almost 90 percent of the world’s billionaires are men. A few more women made it into the billionaire’s club this year, including the singer and entrepreneur Rihanna and the chief executive of the dating app company Bumble, Whitney Wolfe Herd, but more than half of the female billionaires are heiresses.

I’m not arguing that the solution to gender inequality lies in creating more female billionaires. But until we create a fairer society and actually tax the rich at reasonable rates — instead of just bickering over a congresswoman’s formal wear — the notion that money doesn’t matter is a lie. That lie favors men. As Jessica Knoll wrote in 2018, “Rich is still a man’s word.” That remains true.

If there isn’t a way for women to thrive at the top, it doesn’t get easier downstream. In 2020, women earned 82 cents to each dollar men earned. And despite all the recent hand-wringing around how our performances are leaving men behind academically, a recent study found that women a decade out of business school working full-time at for-profit companies were making just 74 cents to each dollar made by men.

It still seems that to be powerful, women need to outplay men — which sometimes means behaving as recklessly as them. I hate that ultimately that’s where Ms. Holmes seems to have overachieved.

There were those who exalted in her downfall. I still remember the glee that a male acquaintance my age exuded when he showed me the allegations about Ms. Holmes’s fraud on his phone the evening they emerged in 2015. He had nothing at stake. But he looked so triumphant.

Of course, we can’t attribute Ms. Holmes’s downfall to a discriminatory system. In the end, she was a spectacular liar whose product did not do what she said it did. But there is a discriminatory system, the one that rewards women for pitching their projects in a voice lowered to a baritone to sound more “dominant.”

Instead of shattering that system, Ms. Holmes made it worse. The fallout of her fraudulence served to calcify the barriers, especially when it comes to the smart women trying to execute on their own visions in her wake: Several recently recounted in a New York Times article that they have encountered more skepticism from potential investors after the fall of Theranos.

Now we are all grown up. Elizabeth Holmes is standing trial. My female friends and I are still working our way up the ladder in our chosen fields. When I see them get promotions — or get passed over — I know exactly how they got where they are. The hard way.

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion.

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