Rolling with the Holmies
Elizabeth Holmes has some hardcore fans. Let's explore why.
Thanks for being here. If you like Brands Mean a Lot, consider forwarding this email to a friend. If you’re new here, don’t be clueless, subscribe. And don’t be way harsh, Tai—smash that like button.
"There should simply be better parts for women and actors of color. Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?" - Daniel Craig, currently portraying James Bond, in an interview with Radio Times.
Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos fame, is currently on trial for fraud. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison. For years, Holmes deceived investors, partners, and employees about the capabilities of the technology Theranos was producing. Whether or not she’s a bad person is a philosophical debate for someone more nuanced and capable than I. What’s not up for debate is that she did some pretty criminal stuff.
Yet, somehow, Holmes has fans. Business Insider recently reported about the online constellation of Holmes fans (dubbed ‘Holmies’), many of whom have expressed un-ironic, earnest support for her during her trial. In fact, as pictured above, some have even attended her trial in California dressed in Holmes’ trademark ersatz Steve Jobs costume; a black turtleneck paired with black pants. A copy of a copy of a copy.
That Holmes, such an unambiguously villainous character, has fans, shouldn’t actually come as a surprise. Martin Shkreli, of AIDS medicine price gouging notoriety, had tens of thousands of subscribers across all kinds of online platforms. OJ Simpson, the white Bronco fella, had supporters stationed outside of his trial as well. In another similarity between Holmes and Simpson, and an interesting aside, their fans created an array of fascinating bootleg merchandise supporting their predicament.
Elizabeth Holmes is of course not the first female to be at the center of such an engrossing and notorious trial. Hi Casey Anthony. Ciao, Amanda Knox. She is, however, the most notorious female businessperson to be put on trial, possibly of all time. For a time, Holmes, a female college dropout, was both the youngest and the wealthiest billionaire of all time. An astounding feat considering America’s obsession with college and its putrid treatment of both female entrepreneurs and females in the workplace.
Daniel Craig’s quote is apt. James Bond is a misogynist, violent character from an era when exhibiting such traits carried less public condemnation than it does now. Given this, Craig is correct: There should be new action characters created for women and POC whose expression isn’t bound by the constraints of whatever is expected of James Bond. Milla Jovovich in both Monster Hunter and the ‘Resident Evil’ movies comes to mind, as does Regina King in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ series.
The ability to obtain venture capital and the attendant press is a reflection of a founder’s ability to network and to sell. Venture capital can also be a patronage network wherein those with preexisting privilege--previous founders, those who went to elite universities and white men--have an easier time obtaining money and press than those without. Women founders receive less than 10% of all VC money, and 65% of VC companies have zero female partners.
With the Bond comparisons and the above facts in mind, Holmes’ trial represents incremental progress. Here’s a then 19 year old woman who succeeded, for a time, in a STEM field overwhelmingly dominated by men. Further, Holmes was able to navigate the male dominated VC landscape with only a year of college under her belt. She was so successful in forming connections between powerful patronage nodes that she somehow managed to bring Henry Kissinger, himself a powerful figure existing well outside of traditional VC networks, onto the board of her company.
Before I get to Holmes’ supporters, I want to say I can’t explain OJ Simpson’s or Martin Shkreli’s idolatry save for some broad theory around America’s obsession with football, capital, and voyeurism as a misguided form of fandom. Holmes, like the aspirational, yet-to-be-created character that Craig references, has created a new persona that lives outside the archetypal business villain. She’s not the wolf of wall street Jordan Belfort, whose alpha machismo catapulted him and his firm to riches in an industry already saturated by it. Nor is she the deviously technocratic number cruncher Ken Lay, whose intimate knowledge of energy, finance, and the regulation surrounding it allowed him to commit intricate acts of fraud and conspiracy for the benefit of Enron.
She’s not just different because she’s a woman. Holmes is to fraudulence in business what Craig’s yet-to-be seen action star is: a new archetype free from what’s ordinarily expected. That a woman managed to achieve this represents a perverse form of progress in business. With this progress in mind, why wouldn’t Holmes fans supporting her at trial?
Holmes fooled so many people because she was always talking to The Very Serious People — government leaders, CEOs, celebs, etc.
Had she pitched Theranos to anyone who actually had to consider how they spent their money, like a schoolteacher or a mid-level grocery store manager, they would've immediately known she was a fraud.
Brands Mean a Lot is missed a lot