Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is on trial. Silicon Valley is watching

If you need convincing that Elizabeth Holmes is a person with feelings, not a bad guy for blood, just look through her text messages. “You are a breeze in the desert to me,” she sent Ramesh Balwani, her business partner and boyfriend, in 2015. “My water. And the ocean. Even when the Wall Street newspaper Journalist John Carreyrou was investigating his medical testing company, Theranos, Holmes still had love in mind. “I was thinking of you this morning,” she texted Balwani in June. Balwani reminded her to stay focused: Theranos was under attack.

Six pages of text messages are among the first documents to emerge from Holmes’ trial, which began this week, more than three years after she was charged with defrauding investors, as well as doctors and patients, at the about Theranos’ abilities. She pleaded not guilty. The task of the defense over the next few months is to humanize Holmes, showing the jury a young and ambitious entrepreneur who has made mistakes in her quest for success. The government will try to convince jurors that she has become a billionaire at the expense of the health of her clients, and has put her investors at risk along the way.

And Silicon Valley will pay attention to it. The landmark case examines a company, a founder, but in doing so it will shed a harsh light on some of the norms of the startup culture, including the expectation that founders pursue their ideas with something like reckless determination. Elizabeth Holmes had become, as Chief Prosecutor Robert Leach said in his opening statement Wednesday, “one of the most famous CEOs in Silicon Valley and the world.” But beneath the facade of Theranos’ success, there were significant brewing issues. The question for the jury is therefore to decide when the startup swagger turns into fraud.

“I’m glad that the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘pretend until you do’ is being challenged,” says Eric Bahn, co-founder of Hustle Fund, a early-stage venture capital firm. “Over the past decade, it almost sounded like a rallying cry for founders and investors.”

At the same time, Bahn says, he’s concerned that the attention paid to Holmes may turn into more scrutiny of the female founders, who, studies have show, already have a harder time fundraising in Silicon Valley. “I’ve heard an anecdote before about a healthcare founder asked about her thoughts on Holmes and how that founder felt like she was already being compared.” A recent history in The New York Times found that many other female founders are compared to Holmes.

Holmes’ story has already left an indelible mark, not only in Silicon Valley, but also in American culture at large. She was an attractive character to investors and the media – the blonde baritone with the black turtlenecks – and her fall attracted as much attention as her rise: hundreds of magazine articles, a bestselling book, a podcast series. , several documentaries, a television to come. series with Amanda Seyfried. As a result, the first week in court was mainly devoted to the difficult task of selecting a jury who had not been imbued with the cover and could present an unbiased opinion.

Jurors were also asked if they had been exposed to domestic violence, as the defense plans to argue that Holmes was subjected to “a decade-long campaign of psychological violence” by Balwani. (Balwani has denied any allegations of abuse. He was also charged with fraud and also pleaded not guilty. His trial is due to begin in January.) About half of the jurors raised their hands, according to The New York Times.

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