October 28, 2021

They Still Live in the Shadow of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes

Julia Cheek, founder of Everly Health, which provides at-home health tests through its subsidiary, Everlywell, said at a conference in 2019 that comparisons to Ms. Holmes were so frequent that colleagues and advisers even suggested she dye her hair so that the connections would stop. Both women have blond hair. Ms. Cheek did not change her hair color.

Ms. Cheek, 37, attributed the constant analogies to the fact that few female-founded companies get to a certain size and profile, which magnifies the actions of those that do. “Women founders have to navigate these types of questions that their male counterparts simply don’t have to answer,” she said.

The frequent comparisons are pernicious, many entrepreneurs said. In conversations with investors, female founders often field what researchers call “prevention” questions, which are framed negatively and designed to prevent losses. But male founders are more often asked “promotion” questions about a start-up’s possibilities, which allow them to focus on their hopes and ideals, according to researchers at London Business School and Harvard.

“If you’re offered a promotion question, you can answer in a promotional way,” said Andy Coravos, founder of HumanFirst, an at-home health care start-up. “The core issue you have with Elizabeth Holmes is it’s a prevention question.”

Some women said they also felt caught in a start-up ecosystem that venerates bold, disruptive businesses, with investors often forgiving those who bend the rules or who take shortcuts in pursuit of growth.

Beth Esponnette, founder of Unspun, a custom jeans company, said investors had frequently encouraged her to be more aggressive, sometimes to the point of dishonesty. One once advised her to increase her revenue projections by 10 times, a wildly unrealistic level.

Last month, Ms. Esponnette published an essay describing this struggle titled “I Get It, Elizabeth Holmes.” Many of Ms. Holmes’s actions were inexcusable, Ms. Esponnette, 33, wrote. “But I still believe that she thought she was doing the right thing taking the universal advice of Silicon Valley: ‘Fake it till you make it.’”

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/24/technology/theranos-elizabeth-holmes.html

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