The Theranos trial: why the biggest risk to your business may be you

At 34, Elizabeth Holmes was the youngest self-made female billionaire in America. Now, at the age of 37, she is on trial for fraud and could face 20 years in prison. The Theranos saga is another example of why the biggest risk in many corporate disasters - from Deepwater Horizon to AIG - is an all powerful CEO and a supine board.

by Paul Simpson
Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes

Silicon Valley’s leaders are expected to be quirky. Steve Jobs drove an unlicensed car and usually parked in disabled spaces while, for a time, Mark Zuckerberg would only eat meat from an animal he had killed personally.

But even by the Valley’s standards, letting Balto, your Siberian husky, urinate in the corner during board meetings – as Elizabeth Holmes reportedly did at her healthcare start-up Theranos – feels extreme. Was this Holmes’ unhygienic way of reminding the directors who was in charge? Did the board object, or were they just happy that one of Holmes’ assistants was always on hand to clear up the mess?

Holmes has always been precocious. At seven, she sketched a complete design for a time machine. At 19, she founded her own business to revolutionise medicine with a machine that could, she claimed, detect a variety of conditions from just a few drops of blood. At 34, she was the youngest self-made female billionaire in America. And now, at the age of 37, she is on trial for fraud, accused, among other things, of helping to fake Theranos’ test results. If convicted, she could spend 20 years in prison.

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