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Expensive game - Elizabeth Holmes and the Billions Lost to Gender Bias
by Marta Pienkosz

February 2023

Silicon Valley has long been the global hub of technology innovation and the birthplace of many successful start-ups. The region is renowned for its unique entrepreneurial ecosystem, which cultivates a culture of risk-taking, innovation, and disruption. However, it also has a reputation for being a winner-takes-all environment, where only a few can succeed in the intense competition. A great example of an entrepreneur doing everything in their power to fit in was Elizabeth Holmes, a former Stanford student who once was considered a rising star in the tech industry. Holmes founded Theranos, a biotech start-up with a groundbreaking vision to revolutionize the healthcare industry by creating a device that could test for health conditions using just a single drop of blood. Despite its initial success and a $9-billion valuation in 2014, the company’s activities were exposed to be fraudulent in 2015 (Williams 2022: 25). This essay seeks to explore the archetype of a female leader through the lens of Elizabeth Holmes who managed to build a multi-billion-dollar company, convince influential figures to invest millions in a non-functional technology despite or perhaps thanks to her gender.

Despite the increasing number of female executives, women who aspire to be entrepreneurs are still confronted with a range of challenges and unconscious biases that can hinder their success. The "think entrepreneur – think male" stereotype is a major hurdle for women aspiring to break into the world of entrepreneurship (Laguía 2022: 1001). Numerous studies have shown that that stereotype of a successful entrepreneur is associated with masculine traits by both men and women, while only the latter also perceive entrepreneurs and females as having similar characteristics (Laguía 2022: 1003). This means that in general, men do not associate women with entrepreneurship. With 93% of venture capital investors being men, women face a significant gender barrier, which puts them at a major disadvantage, especially in the early stages of business where attracting VC funding is crucial for growth (Balachandra 2020: 265). Simply put, attaining VC funding as a woman in the technology industry can be challenging due to the prevalent belief among predominantly male decision-makers that a successful company can only be led by a male. This unconscious bias can result in women being overlooked and their business ideas being dismissed in favor of those who more closely align with the "think entrepreneur – think male" stereotype. Despite these challenges, some female leaders have gone an extra mile towards combating these biases by carefully crafting their public image. Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, was once hailed as a role model for female entrepreneurs. Though her story ended in a conviction for fraud, her public persona highlighted the potential for women to succeed in entrepreneurship.

Elizabeth Holmes' story began at Stanford University, where she studied chemical engineering before dropping out in her sophomore year to pursue her vision of revolutionizing the healthcare industry. During her time at Stanford, she established a crucial relationship with Professor Channing Robertson, who became a mentor to Holmes and helped to validate the proprietary technology of her startup, Theranos. Robertson's endorsement gave Holmes the credibility and recognition she needed to establish herself in the highly competitive world of tech startups (Slegers 2022: 118). After securing support from the academic community, Holmes focused on gaining the attention of investors by cultivating the image of a visionary founder and disruptor of the status quo. She became instantly recognizable for her lowered voice and black turtlenecks, a trademark of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs— widely recognized as the original visionary founder of Silicon Valley. One could even argue that she wanted to position herself as Jobs’s natural female successor. Her appearances at conferences, TED Talks and press events were carefully constructed to convey the revolutionary aspect of her company's promises, rather than to showcase the technology behind it (Williams 2022: 24). In presenting herself, Holmes always spoke with undeniable confidence. She famously stated that "the minute that you have a backup plan, you've admitted that you're not going to succeed” (Petersen 2015). This is particularly noteworthy considering a study by the Harvard Business Review showed that venture capitalists tend to ask male founders about their highest ambitions for the company, while women are asked about failure scenarios and how they intend to prevent them (Conley et al. 2021). This indicates that confidence is seen as a masculine trait within the gender dichotomy, where male entrepreneurs are rewarded for setting often unrealistic-sounding goals, while female leaders are encouraged to play on the safe side and constantly consider "what if" scenarios. Holmes, by carefully crafting her public image and displaying stereotypically masculine traits — outrageous ambition and unwavering self-confidence— managed to overcome these unconscious biases and secure multiple rounds of funding.

Holmes not only relied on her image as the visionary founder of a Silicon Valley startup, but also cunningly used gender identity to her advantage. Her feminine charm, combined with her confidence and academic credentials, allowed her to attract influential board members, including high-profile figures such as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. As a caring, attentive, sympathetic, and apparently sincere woman she was able to provide her investors with precisely what they expected from a woman in the male-dominated Silicon Valley (Slegers 2022: 133). Holmes perhaps even made her supporters feel noble and progressive, further cementing their trust and loyalty. This led many to support her without conducting proper due diligence into the foundation of Theranos's blood-testing technology (Slegers 2022: 118).

The striking confidence in Elizabeth Holmes's persona highlights how gender and societal biases in the tech industry can inadvertently work in favor of female leaders. Studies on gender differences and individual reactions to ethical compromises have found that women are more likely to experience negative emotions, such as guilt and shame, when faced with ethical dilemmas (Kennedy and Krey 2013: 57). Simply put, women may be perceived as having a stronger moral compass and seem more trustworthy. This unconscious bias may have further influenced people's perception of Holmes's noble intentions, hindering suspicion of the fraud she was committing. One factor contributing to this appeal was Holmes's personal story of her uncle's death from cancer, which she believed could have been prevented if his blood levels had been more closely monitored (Slegers 2022: 126). Her need to establish a company appeared to be rooted in empathy and love for family. Instead of focusing solely on financial incentives, Holmes shared a story of making a positive impact on the world based on the most stereotypically feminine characteristic of caregiving. Despite the apparent redundancy of the gender dichotomy, it was this gender-unconscious bias that helped Holmes build trust among the highest figures in Silicon Valley, and in doing so committed one of the greatest frauds in modern history.

Although many accuse Elizabeth Holmes of damaging the credibility of future female entrepreneurs, her business achievements can serve as a valuable source of learning for women leaders. By positioning herself as a Silicon Valley visionary who was breaking the status quo, she exhibited stereotypically masculine traits which in turn allowed her to overcome unconscious biases that were inherent in the tech industry. Moreover, by fulfilling the ideal of a female entrepreneur and benefiting from biases intertwined with ethics and gender, she was able to attract prominent individuals to herself and gain their blind trust and indefinite support. Despite the controversy surrounding her and the doubts cast upon her integrity, there's something undeniably intriguing about how Elizabeth Holmes leveraged traditional gender norms to succeed in a male-dominated industry. Her unique blend of confidence and charm managed to shake the foundations of Silicon Valley and leave a lasting mark on business female leadership. It seems almost as if she ‘hacked the system’ using the power of her femininity. Her story thus serves as a reminder that breaking the glass ceiling is possible for those who come after her with working underlying technology - and perhaps a Mark Zuckerberg inspired wardrobe to match.


Balachandra, Lakshmi. 2020. “How gender biases drive venture capital decision-making: exploring the gender funding gap.” Gender in Management, 35 (3): 261-273.

Conley, M.A. et al. 2021. “Male and female entrepreneurs get asked different questions by VCS - and it affects how much funding they get.” Harvard Business Review. Available from

Dickson, E.J. 2019. “How 'lean in' feminism created Elizabeth Holmes and the toxic ladyboss.” Rolling Stone. Available from

Kennedy, J.A., and Kray, L.J. 2013. “Who Is Willing to Sacrifice Ethical Values for Money and Social Status?: Gender Differences in Reactions to Ethical Compromises”. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5 (1): 52-59.
Laguía, A., Wach, D., Garcia-Ael, C., and Moriano, J. A. 2022. “Think entrepreneur – think male: the effect of reduced gender stereotype threat on women’s entrepreneurial intention and opportunity motivation.” International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research, 28 (4): 1001–1025.

Petersen, D. 2015. “Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes: 'avoid backup plans’.” Inc. Available from

Slegers, R. 2022. “Infamous Monster Women: Siren Mythology and the Case of Elizabeth Holmes.” Ethical Perspectives, 29 (1): 115–137.

Williams, M. 2022. “Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos: A play on more than just ethical failures.” Business Information Review 39 (1): 23–31.