This article is not meant to defend Elizabeth Holmes.
Recently, fraud charges leveled against the high profile CEO of Theranos--who fleeced investors, employees, and customers in what is looking more and more like the biggest fraud of the century--could mean a hefty sentence of over 20 years in prison.
Even if you have only an ounce of empathy, it's easy to see how the con hurt patients who were looking for fast and easy results for a blood test without the waiting game. Because the tests take time, involve needles, and sting a little, many people decide not to get them. The concept behind Theranos did make sense; the practical application--not so much.
Yet, I've come to see this case under a new light.
I've already written about how terrible it is that Holmes fleeced investors, fired employees (although it sounds like from the book Bad Blood that she let other people do this), and seemed to act in a way that John Carreyrou describes as a bit psycho in his book. We already know Holmes probably spoke in a lower voice on purpose, that she likely lied about how the technology worked, and...well, we've beat up on her a lot. We've raked her over the coals multiple times, and you might say she deserves it. She deserves prison.
Then I started to wonder: Who made me the judge?
I'm a journalist, and I've covered tech companies for over 17 years now. I don't have a law degree, and I don't perfectly understand wire fraud or what constitutes a violation of the law. I don't know Holmes personally--I've never met her.
I'm certainly willing to report on the news, but I've already covered the facts of the case and why the technology they were using wasn't exactly legit. What's troubling me is that Holmes now seems to be some sort of fill-in or poster child for everything that's wrong with Silicon Valley, investing, and startups in general.
Is it all a shell game? Not at all. Does every startup perfectly represent everything they do at all times in a fully accurate way? Not really. I remember covering an A.I. company that made some bold claims about understanding what people say using a bot, and that the bot had an extensive vocabulary. Then I tried it out on my own. The bot barely understood anything. I wasn't ready to dismiss the technology entirely, but it made me realize that what the company was describing in terms of marketing and future possibilities did not match up at all with reality.
And I don't think it always will. My issue with Theranos is quite clear--they went far, far beyond a misrepresentation of the facts. My issue with attacking Holmes over and over again is also quite clear--let's leave this one in the hands of the prosecutors. None of us have all of the facts.
Our modern culture loves to attack first and ask questions later. I've seen it many times and been the victim of it myself many times. We see a headline and we jump, fangs out. Why? I'm convinced it has something to do with a serious self-image complex that is running rampant. People hate themselves, and life, and everyone they know--so of course they attack on social media, of course they see themselves as the judge and jury.
But it's out of control, isn't it? Holmes is now a punching bag. Did she commit heinous acts as a founder and fleece patients over and over again? Yes she did, most likely. Is she a terrible person? Maybe, but none of us know for certain. Does it mean we should all gang up on her and insult her every five minutes of the day on Twitter?
I think the answer is no.