The irrepressible profile of ambitious 21-year-old Elizabeth Holmes and her revolutionary hospital company started in a couple of news releases. As if that wasn’t newsworthy enough, the story of Holmes’s success appeared to defy or even undermine every stereotype of the well-connected, rich, white male entrepreneur. Because she was the first woman of colour to head a world-class biotech firm – now worth $20bn – you could have forgiven the major news organizations for having neglected her story.
Like many young executives, Holmes cultivated a beautiful public image – as beautiful even as she struggled with developing and selling her company. She wore expensive clothes and beauty products and created a web of connections that suggested a talent for social skills. In some ways, it’s a wonder Holmes didn’t blow up earlier. But the tendency was different for the big-name news outlets that entered her orbit. As a few tech-minded journalists pointed out, big news organisations were known for performing the key tasks of fact-checking and scouring their archives for outdated reports. The more time passed, the less likely they seemed to remember missing coverage of the 27-year-old.
Media outlets were the same age as billionaire Elizabeth Holmes and different from her appearance. Photograph: file
From the start, the media realized their coverage of Holmes had become something of a recruiting ad. The stories of the young, rich, white male entrepreneur were everywhere – in fashion magazines, the sports pages, and financial news. While publishing organizations rushed out fresh analyses of her story with help from newsrooms on both coasts, search engines spewed endless live news updates and other forms of social media obliged her followers to consume fresh articles every few minutes. In short, all this may have made journalists feel emotionally comfortable. In hindsight, it seems like a mistake. Holmes’s story had turned out to be far less exciting than anyone expected it to be.
Until now, the story of the way Holmes has been painted and defended is fairly well-known. In April, Bloomberg Businessweek broke a story with the headline “Just how much is billionaire pharma executive worth?” The story was a bit of a bombshell, as Bloomberg, notoriously, had taken on other high-profile personality-culturers in recent years, arguing that owning a news company, unlike Silicon Valley, requires being fair and not succumbing to status-seeking.
For those who wondered what the “mask of research” Holmes sought was like in the third person, Bloomberg’s article had an answer. “Gossipy girlfriends and boyfriends are fully aware of who and what he is,” a Bloomberg source anonymously told the magazine. “They are the best ways to subtly telegraph that he is the most powerful person in the company,” Bloomberg wrote. “He is entirely guarded. He has built his career around hiding himself behind the mask of research.” In particular, the piece portrayed Holmes as a workaholic superstar with an insatiable thirst for power. According to Bloomberg, the best way to get to her is to ask her to get away from work to play with your son or daughter. (Even though she knows we’re all there to find out about it.)
Jenkins is something of a rock star at her company, InterMune. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Unfortunately, this portrait misses the point, or at least the implications of it. The history of “masking” shows that these things aren’t particularly difficult. It wasn’t new, and Holmes wasn’t the first person to try. At Microsoft, Bill Gates would call young ladies to ask them to take him out on a date and meet him at the golf course. Rogers (long before Snowden) famously brought a feminine spin to public talks at AT&T, through viral videos in which his acerbic wit and savvy judgments were complemented by extremely dorky outfits and accessories. And yet if those dates with Gates and Rogers became powerful first-person counterpoints to the stereotype of the grumpy old business leader, the same couldn’t be said for Holmes. At the time, the old paradigm was that Holmes had to be the girlfriend or something dark and antisocial if she wanted to maintain control of the narrative.
So while the coverage of Holmes’s meteoric rise might have looked perfect from the outside, it was actually quite the opposite. The real story is how her rapid ascent was followed by unglamorous, yet almost always true, realities about her