You’ve probably seen Elizabeth Holmes’ face dozens of times by now — the inventor and CEO of Theranos who was going to revolutionize the blood-testing industry with the Edison machine that could analyze dozens of medical tests from a single drop of blood. Her career mirrored a Shakespearean tragedy: a meteoric rise (at its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion dollars), followed by the revelation of a tragic flaw (Holmes had to spin a web of lies to fool investors and regulators about Edison’s deep flaws), followed by a tumultuous fall from grace. There are so many layers to this modern tragedy that make it such a compelling story, but for now let’s focus on one of the most fascinating aspects of our tragic hero.
There are many videos that show Holmes appearing in interviews or technology conferences. Out walks this tall, attractive woman, dressed entirely in black (black shoes, black slacks, and black turtleneck — her feeble attempt to say: “Hey look at me! — I am the female Steve Jobs!”), creating a sharp contrast from her very fair skin and baby face, framed by a mane of shimmering blond, wispy hair. One is immediately mesmerized by those huge, piercing blue eyes. She stands there for a moment, a female Svengali, sizing up her audience that sits quietly with bated breath. What will she say? And then she speaks. That voice! WTF? Is there something wrong with the microphone? Out of those bright blood-red lips comes this deep, baritone voice that is so amazingly discordant from her appearance. It’s like looking at some clueless old chap who is wearing a terrible toupee that you can spot a mile away (you know the type: light fine hair on the sides, dark thick hair on top). After a few sentences one reaches an inescapable conclusion: “This voice is totally fake!” Naturally, Holmes’ low, deep voice has been fodder for endless ridicule and criticism: “Her voice sounds like when children try to pretend they are adults.” “Her voice sounds like a woman pretending to be a man.” “Her voice sounds like a woman who has a potato stuck in her throat.” “Her voice sounds like Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone movie when he calls the police near the end of the movie.” “She sounds like a zombie.” “She sounds like Kermit the Frog getting an enema.” “Wasn’t she that whacked-out chick in the movie The Exorcist?” I could go on…
So this begs the question: what does Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice sound like? The best person to answer that questions is John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter from the Wall Street Journal and author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, whose carefully-researched stories brought down the Theranos house of cards. At a talk during his book tour in 2018, Carreyrou explained the truth behind Holmes’ deep, low voice: “It’s an affect. There’s an anecdote in the book where an employee joins in early 2011 and at the end of a long day she concludes a meeting with him in her office. [She] gets up, grabs her jacket to leave and on her way out expresses excitement that he’s joined the company, that he’s on board, and says that they’re gonna do great things. [She] forgets to turn on the baritone and lapses into a more natural sounding young woman’s voice… And I just don’t base it on that anecdote. Her best friend at Stanford was a source for the book… and she says that Elizabeth’s voice sounded nothing like that when she was at Stanford. … A family member was [also] a source for the book and that person says that the voice was affected as well… The best proof of it is that I have a recording of an interview she gave in May 2005 to NPR’s Biotech Nation program and at that point she’s 20 or 21 years old… and she sounds nothing like the Elizabeth Holmes of 2014 or 2015. [In the interview] the pitch of her voice is higher, she speaks fast — almost so fast that she sort of stumbles over her own words. She is like this bubbly young hyper-enthusiastic woman. And when you contrast that to the very poised, contrived persona that she fashioned over the ensuing decade, it’s quite a contrast.” The NPR interview, where you can hear Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice, can be found here.
Several reporters have suspected that Holmes’ must have expended quite a bit of effort to maintain this particular charade. Too bad she didn’t redirect this effort to develop positive and moral leadership skills, to seek better guidance from individuals with integrity and experience, to help guide her company toward triumph rather than an abysmal failure. Through her deceit, on so many levels, Holmes became the poster child for one of the biggest con jobs that Silicon Valley has ever witnessed.
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For further reading: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Presentation at Politics and Prose