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Elizabeth Holmes, Cutthroat Entrepreneurship and Turtlenecks

The world is filled with so much falsehood, narratives and propaganda, that you wonder where the world is headed. We have become a society that defines what success and failure look like based on how others live their lives even though we know this is not our truth. We have become such a materialistic and ego-driven society of likes and clicks that we auto-exclude others who do not fit in those boxes. For Elizabeth Holmes it was an entrepreneurship hunger, for others, it is in the simplest things. Honest people now suddenly lack that salacious appeal and hype, instead, liars and cheats are the real winners.

By now, it is no longer news that Elizabeth Holmes, the Former Theranos CEO was on Monday convicted on four counts of fraud and conspiracy. It was a trial that charmed Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. This is not another article about the conviction, you have probably read enough but my thoughts on how the cutthroat nature of what success is supposed to look like drives people over the cliff in a bid to keep up. Elizabeth Holmes looked the part, behaved the part and dressed the part because that is what successful founders are “supposed to look like” especially in tech-driven Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurship has now become defined by the standard of specific people at the top. If you are not following their path, doing what they did, then somehow you are not quite there yet.

Start-up competitions, Angel Investors, and entrepreneurship mentoring have somehow morphed into what is allowed or worthy. People who act the opposite are treated as misfits, and outsiders and many suffer to access funding because they do not look the part. The Irony of many big founders today that are being used as a yardstick for success is that they made it to the top because they were rebels (at least, with a cause) and trailblazers who were traveling the opposite road than everyone else. Their craziness and outlier behavior were exactly why they stood out and climbed to the top, with patience and failures.

Why then should entrepreneurs behave or look like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk and their likes to exude some form of excellence to be counted as worthy entrepreneurs? This is a controversial statement, but reality will prove you otherwise. You look at competitions, and mentorship programs and hear what most judges describe as the type of businesses, ideas that will “scale, become profitable and sustainable in the long term”, you would see traces of the very attributes Elizabeth Holmes worked so hard to portray with Theranos. We say success has no single path, but you look around and everyone else is judging what “success” in entrepreneurship, and professional life should look like and what it is not by the same yardsticks. Many startups would probably have asked the same investors charmed by Elizabeth Holmes for the same amount of money or less but would have been turned down because they did not meet those “criteria” or were not worthy examples of what success ought to look like but we will never know that for sure.

So, then we have to start asking what her motivation was and understand the mentality she operated Theranos with, such that she had everyone fooled, and got magazine covers, and countless platforms without any scrutiny. Being a white woman, some will argue gave her the advantage, but I would say she had her plans well-orchestrated and researched to operate a “fake it till you make it” business venture. This same modus operandi can thrive anywhere just if the environment is right for such a person.

And I cannot fathom why anyone would even be talking about this as something that has to do with Gender, Bringing anything “feminism” into this issue would be rubbishing the work women and men across the world do to improve the lives of women and girls.

Take Ponzi schemes and get rich pyramid schemes in countries like Nigeria with many desperately poor people attempting to escape the rat race. A society that relies mostly on keeping up with appearance has many fraudulent elements running wild, cashing in every day simply because they look the part. That appearance becomes a magnet that blinds desperate people (from asking legitimate questions) looking to cash out of a business venture too good to be true. Despite warnings from the Central Bank of Nigeria that these are fraudulent schemes, more and more people fall for these turtlenecks, suit and tie-wearing robbers. What is even worse is that social media can be deceitful. With many followers, a few motivational tweets, some good professional and vacation photos, a refined posture and grammar the stage is set because such a person with these attributes exudes the demeanor of what “success” is supposed to look like. How come they always love to wear turtle necks?

Considering the preferential treatment STEM ventures have over non-STEM ideas, more turtleneck wannabes will manifest in different forms. The type of accolades STEM-related ventures attract compared to non-STEM because the prevailing narrative that “STEM is the future” overrides many funding competitions. This is where the money and the attraction is. The pressure to be successful is so much that delayed gratification is a lost cause. We would argue I am a different person and that what Elizabeth Holmes did is criminal. Yes, no doubt but ask yourself what you define as success. Look at your spending decisions, how you choose your friends and acquaintances, treat others around you, career choices, business ideas, the type of persons on social media you engage with (when you have people of different following saying the same thing), chances are you would find the same thing that kept Elizabeth Holmes, Obi Invictus, Glory Osei and Muyiwa, Hushpuppi and the likes of them going till they got caught.

There are still many out there, but no one has caught them yet.

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