The Dropout – Bloody Compelling (But Painful) Watching For Women in Business

Like many, I’ve been completely absorbed by the case of disgraced biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, especially after reading John Carreyrou’s best-selling 2018 non-fiction book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.

From the initial 2015 journalistic and regulatory investigations, which uncovered tech failures within now defunct blood-testing startup Theranos and led to allegations of fraud against its former CEO Elizabeth Holmes, right through to the 38-year-old’s 2021–2022 trial, which saw her charged with three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, I’ve been hooked – and shook!

But not quite to the extent that I’m now hooked on The Dropout, Hulu’s compelling new limited series on the lightning rise and fall of Holmes and Theranos. Starring Amanda Seyfried as the eponymous dropout, referencing the fact that Holmes quit her chemical engineering degree at Stanford at 19 to found Theranos, a company whose value soared to $9 billion, the show is based on an ABC News podcast of the same name. The Dropout is now four episodes deep, and it’s unexpectedly difficult not to root for a young Holmes despite knowing where her whole wretched tale goes.

Much, if not all of my inability to loathe this woman, even in the knowledge of her deception, is down to my own experiences. I myself am a female former tech entrepreneur (although thankfully undisgraced) who came up in a male-dominated world. Like me (you may remember from a recent blog on the comparatively low number of women in STEM careers that I had to hire male “actors” to front my startup so I could secure investment), Holmes felt compelled to take certain actions to succeed as a woman in a world full of ‘Old White Men’ (as episode four is called).

Holmes styled herself as “the female Steve Jobs”, attempting to emulate the late Apple CEO in various ways – most notably by designing her office around the type of furniture Jobs loved and beginning to dress in the same black turtlenecks and other clothes he famously favoured. If The Dropout is accurate, the latter followed repeated comments from male colleagues about her sense of style – or seemingly lack thereof.

Holmes regularly made her staff stick to a punishing schedule, responding harshly when they dared step out of line. Viewers see evidence of this in The Dropout when she scolds her team for presenting a lab employee with a birthday cake and when she sacks her Head of Chemistry (played by Stephen Fry) for questioning a dubious business move. The culture at Theranos, built on fear, was worsened by her life partner at the time, President and COO Sunny Balwani, whose aggressive management style included closely watching staff movements.

Holmes allegedly tried hard to achieve her unusually deep voice as part of a major effort to force investors and employees to take her more seriously. In The Dropout, the young CEO practices her new sound in front of the mirror at a party, later taking it out for a spin at work. One employee asks if she has a cold, to which she responds “No” before shaking it off. On the ABC podcast, people who worked at Theranos claimed their boss would sometimes accidentally drop the pretense, especially when tired or drunk, speaking in a naturally higher voice.

During the trial, which concluded in January this year, Holmes argued that many of her mistakes were the result of coercive control by Balwani, who was 20 years her senior. He was apparently a bully within their private relationship too, guilty of sexual and emotional abuse and controlling her diet and diary during their time as a couple. Further, he insisted Holmes transform herself or face failure.

The first episodes of The Dropout have already alluded to this control. The show’s creators clearly want to avoid condoning Holmes’ crimes, as they should, while simultaneously highlighting the lengths to which women have historically been forced to go in business for men to take them seriously.

I previously said that I’m hooked on The Dropout, and I am, but this isn’t to say the series has been an easy watch – the exact opposite is true. The four episodes already aired have been a painful reminder of my own challenges, although preceding those of Holmes by a decade or so. Happily, huge strides have been made since my experiences, and even since Holmes’ ascent (and later descent). It is, however, worth noting that we still have some way to go before the workplace equality gap is closed and women no longer feel it necessary to adopt typically masculine attributes to make their mark!

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