Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes may have misguided the public, but real innovators do exist.
Editor’s: The following post is a response to a Fortune article that outlines the dangers of putting founders such as Elizabeth Holmes on a pedestal.
In his article After the Theranos Mess, Can We Finally Quit Idolizing Entrepreneurs?, columnist Steve Tobak argues that our tendency to build up untested innovators only to knock them down when they fail is a harmful distraction.
True, we may be obsessing over entrepreneurial icons at a frantic rate. And yes, some of them will let us down, as happened with Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who endangered lives with a flawed technology.
But despite the bad actors, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who are actually creating innovations at an even more frantic rate. We are living in the most innovativeperiod in human history, a time when disruptive technologies enable entrepreneurs to do what only governments and big research labs could do before: build new industries and solve the grand challenges of humanity.
Witness the transformation that computers, networks, sensors, and artificial intelligence are creating and stay tuned for the innovations that synthetic biology, genome sequencing, and nanotechnologies will produce over the next decade. These will transform humanity itself. And it is entrepreneurs all over the world who are leading this charge.
Yes, there are reasons to worry about the dark side of these exponential technologies. The excitement they generate can be abused by entrepreneurs and investors more interested in making money and accumulating accolades than bettering mankind, a situation we saw play out at Theranos. But that doesn’t mean we should paint all entrepreneurs with the same brush or fault them all for the mistakes of the few.
And of course we do not need more frauds; these Silicon Valley snake oil hucksters divert critical resources away from genuine entrepreneurs, drain the investing public and can even endanger individuals’ health.
As Jeff Sonnenfeld and I explained in the Washington Post, when an entrepreneur turns out to be charlatan, the investors and board members who help prop them up must also take responsibility.
Two years ago, I was very hopeful about Theranos. When I first learned Theranos was led by a woman, my heart sang. Could this truly be the breakthrough diagnostic technology that was being touted? Could a woman scientist finally be getting credit for her invention? Throughout history, many great women have created amazing inventions, and yet they have not received the credit they deserve. Silicon Valley is well-known boys club that too often mistreats women while minimizing their contributions. Badly needed are success stories with female protagonists who can change stereotype and serve as a role models. That is what I was hoping Holmes was; it’s why I told the San Jose Mercury News that “she may be the female Mark Zuckerberg that Silicon Valley has been waiting for.” For this, I do not apologize.
I would not hesitate even now to idolize any woman—or man—who promises to better the world. I know I may be disappointed again, as I was with Holmes, but we have to give entrepreneurs the benefit of the doubt. My belief is that Holmes is an exception, not the rule; that entrepreneurs who set out to solve big problems are motivated by a desire to do good rather than the desire to make a fortune. In Silicon Valley, if you want to make a quick buck, you build an app, you don’t attempt to solve a grand challenge.
Yes, the majority startups fail and most crazy ideas are indeed crazy. But every now and then, you get a Tesla, SpaceX, Facebook, or Google—companies that defy the odds and create world changing technologies. Their visionary founders are modern day heroes worthy of our admiration.