Elizabeth Holmes pictured for Forbes 2014, extracted from Getty Images

The case of Elizabeth Holmes: from Silicon Valley Feminist to Fraud

8 minutes to read
Lily Francois

Elizabeth Holmes, and her ex-partner Ramesh Sunny Balwani, are recently convicted. They were charged by federal authorities for operating a multi-million-dollar scheme. Holmes’ company Theranos went from an innovative tech start-up to the biggest fraud case in Silicon Valley. 

Silicon Valley is a specific region in North California that serves as a global center with high-tech companies and innovative start-ups. Well-known businesses such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Netflix have put their foot in the fertile Silicon Valley (Kopp, 2016). Silicon Valley’s gender diversity grew slowly, while some years showed no progress at all. There was an urge for female entrepreneurs to rise or for successful businesswomen to be included in the male-dominated Silicon Valley (Harvard, 2019). This became reality when Elizabeth Holmes introduced her company Theranos in 2003: a health technology company that claimed to have revolutionized blood testing methods with the use of a single fingerstick instead of using needles (something Elizabeth was afraid of herself) to trace dangerous diseases within thirty minutes instead of a couple of business days. Elizabeth Holmes is the example of a woman who used a performed identity to gain power in the masculine Silicon Valley.

Holmes' place within the Californian Ideology and Valley-Lingo

Silicon Valley is marked by a fusion of cultural bohemianism and high-tech industries, which is also known as the Californian Ideology as it combines “free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996, p1). This ideology of techno-utopianism (the belief that advances in science and technology can fulfill an utopian ideal) made it possible for companies situated in Silicon Valley to create an environment where all individuals are invited to express themselves freely within a cyberspace. This caused a mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996). 

Besides the fact that these companies are famous for their technological creative businesses, they are also known for their men-driven leadership that comes with specific masculine appearance and way of performing. This has an impact on Silicon Valley’s environmental behavior and discourse since most tech companies are led by men (Wadhwa, 2011): “Silicon Valley women are on the rise, but have far to go. In 2014, tech companies Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Apple, and others, released corporate transparency reports that offered detailed employee breakdowns. In May, Google said 17% of its tech employees worldwide were women, and, in the U.S., 1% of its tech workers were black and 2% were Hispanic’’ (Washington Post, 2014). 

Since discourse is influenced by the surrounding societal and institutional context of language use (Blommaert, 2015), the Silicon Valley employees are in need of new linguistic terms that go along with their innovative business models they create every day. Discourses are practices, which systematically form the object of which they speak. This definition indicates that it is not only what is said that counts as discourse, but also the practices by which statements are made possible. Several books and articles exist on this specific Jargon of Silicon Valley. When analyzing the 'Valley-Lingo', short for Silicon Valley Lingua France, you will find out that particular phrases and words say a lot about their culture: the extensive use of shortened words and abbreviations - such as '+1', which stands for agreement on either an event or a political statement, or 'TLDR'  which is short for 'too long didn’t read' – tells us everyone is in a hurry (Kopp, 2016). This groupness has it grassroots in the orientations towards specific orders of indexicality, “thus making the group recognisable both from the inside and from the outside - the particular peer group norms have a specific place in the orders of indexicality to which members orient” (Blommaert, 2015, p74). In essence, this professional language does not differ from other industries such as the pharmaceutical jargon or rapper slang. However, tech-speak is particularly powerful as it catches a broader public, as people daily use products from Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Uber, and Facebook (Kopp, 2016). 

Elizabeth Holmes as a successful businesswoman

Elizabeth Holmes fits exactly into the Silicon Valley mentality, using this Valley-Lingo and promising slogans to promote her high-tech company as a lifesaving business. Personal and emotional examples were common in her talks and lectures, “we see a world in which every person has access to actionable health information at the time it matters, a world in which no one ever has to say, ‘If only I’d known’” (Holmes, 2015). Holmes refers to the loss of her uncle, a personal story she used to tell in her TED talks. This marketing mentality breaths the same air as Silicon Valley’s outlook and adequate linguistics. Holmes combined legitimation strategies to elevate Theranos’ moral status and defend herself as an authentic entrepreneur (Ho, 2020). 

By 2015, Holmes was named “Youngest and Wealthiest Self-made Female Billionaire”, and Theranos was valued at 9 billion USD dollars by Forbes, a platform for World’s Business Leaders and the most widely visited business website (Forbes, 2015). Reading the comments on Forbes’ post in 2015, people from inside and outside Silicon Valley wanted deeply to believe a woman would have invented a ground-breaking product. The time was right for a young, female tech leader to take the stage next to male colleagues such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (Forbes, 2015). 

 from 'Wealthiest Self-made Billionaire', to 'World’s Most Disappointing Leader'

However, within one year, Forbes had revised its statement about Elizabeth Holmes and estimated her net worth from 9 billion to zero dollars. They changed her ranking from 'Wealthiest Self-made Billionaire', to 'World’s Most Disappointing Leader' (Forbes, 2016). How did this happen? How did Holmes defraud and rip off investors, doctors, patients, and 'the most illustrious board in U.S. corporate history', including three former U.S. cabinet secretaries, two former U.S. senators, a retired Navy admiral, and a retired Marine Corps general (BusinessInsider, 2019)? 

Masculinity in Silicon Valley

Research shows men are more likely to invest in men, rather than in women (Bernasek, 2010). Holmes, a woman in a male-dominated field, needed these male investors and adjusted her female persona into something more fitting using intertextuality. Holmes began to copy Steve Job’s distinguished fashion style wearing solely black turtlenecks (see Figure 1), as she was an admirer of the Apple founder and important figure within Silicon Valley (BusinessInsider, 2018). Holmes made sure to use the same marketing manager and creative director who had also worked for the iPhone releases and who was also the brain behind the iconic Think Different slogan, making her advertisements appear similar to Steve Job’s (BusinessInsider, 2018). Her consistent aesthetic way of dressing strikes as a uniform: a non-verbal way of projecting power and strength. It harnesses the psychological impact of body shape, colour, and ornament to create an impression of dominance, authority, and power (Carlos, 2021).

Figure 1: Elizabeth Holmes wearing her signature uniform look on several occasion, similar to the black turtleneck Steve Jobs used to wear.

Her appearance was not the only thing she modified. Elizabeth Holmes was known for her unexpectedly deep baritone voice, which came closer to a male pitch range than a regular mid-twenties woman’s voice. Scientific research has shown that humans perceive a deeper voice to indicate trustworthiness, attractiveness, competency, and strength: “Voice pitch alone is sufficient to influence trust-related perceptions and demonstrates that listeners use voice pitch as a cue to trustworthy behaviour” (O’Connor & Barclay, 2017, p1). Now that Holmes’ fraud case is out in the open, ex-colleges of her started to claim Holmes often fell out of voice whenever she had a drink or lost her character in social situations. They argue her dark voice was part of the complete act to “scam” wealthy investors (Crow, 2016).

Holmes' changing appearance

Since Holmes and her partner at that time Ramesh Sunny Balwani, are currently on trial and are being charged by federal authorities, Holmes’ appearance has changed. Now that she must show up in court and defend her story, she dresses differently. She includes colours and chooses tight clothing or dresses in which she shows off her pregnancy. Instead of straight hair - usually worn in a bun or ponytail - she now femininely curls her loose blond hair. Often she is pictured hand in hand with her spouse as well as with her mother whenever the cameras are pointed at her, creating a motherly and feminine image of herself (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Elizabeth Holmes' appearance has shifted drastically from her professional uniform look to a soft appearance.

Holmes pleads not guilty for fraud, claiming she is not responsible for the decisions she made as head of Theranos because her mind was impaired by manipulation from Balwani - her former boyfriend and business partner (Karlamangla, 2021). The vulnerable girl strategy fits her current appearance.

Holmes' shift in appearance

This article described a case of performed identity, taking Elizabeth Holmes as an example: a woman who tactically moved throughout a male-dominated field using the right jargon, a fitting discourse, on-point marketing, and intertextuality. It made her reach the top in Silicon Valley, as Holmes fit exactly into the Silicon Valley mentality. However, as more and more information came to light, Theranos seems to have been conducting illegal business (Karlamangla, 2021). Holmes' appearance and actions became a center of attention when these allegations came to light. As she began to lose her credibility, ex-colleges felt comfortable speaking up and telling stories about her ‘acting personality’ such as the way she spoke and the uniforms she wore. A performed identity she apparently lost whenever she was in a comfortable environment or when having a drink (Business Insider, 2019). That old appearance is completely gone and she now only appears in 'soft' colours and styles since the allegations became known. Elizabeth Holmes went from a figurehead for feminists who wished to see a change within the male-dominated Silicon Valley, to a massive fraud (WSJ, 2021).


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