Elizabeth Holmes, worth an estimated $US4.5 billion at age 30, isn’t domineering or ruthless like many of her fellow self-made billionaires.
But as the founder, CEO, and chairman of private health services company Theranos, Holmes has grown the company she started at age 19 into one that investors value at $US9 billion for its potential to remove syringes from blood tests.
Holmes has raised over $US400 million for Theranos from investors like Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and she runs a board that includes former Wells Fargo CEO and chairman Richard Kovacevich, cardiac surgeon and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
How has Holmes set the tone? In a new article in The New Yorker, Kissinger tells writer Ken Auletta how he thinks she’s established her authority despite being soft-spoken and agreeable. She “has a sort of ethereal quality — that is to say, she looks like 19. And you say to yourself, ‘How is she ever going to run this?'” It’s through “intellectual dominance; she knows the subject,” Kissinger says.
Growing up, Holmes often demonstrated her sharp intellect, as well as her strong will.
She taught herself Mandarin Chinese as a sophomore in high school and decided she’d like to spend her summer working on her Mandarin at Stanford University. After repeated denials from the admissions office, which refused to accept a high-school student, a frustrated representative decided he’d conduct the test over the phone to appease her. He accepted her on the spot, and Holmes used the next three summers to become fluent.
Before she left to attend Stanford as a President’s Scholar following high school, her father gave her a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” a classic piece of Stoic philosophy that he intended would teach his daughter that she was always in charge of her destiny.
Holmes spent the summer after freshman year working with engineering school dean Channing Robertson and his Ph.D. students at the Genome Institute in Singapore. She discovered through her research what she determined to be a better way to test blood and filed a patent. Back on campus, she stopped focusing on her classes and spent the majority of her time building the company that would become Theranos.
In March 2004, as a 19-year-old sophomore, she convinced her parents that she should drop out and instead allocate tuition money toward her company. She also persuaded Robertson, who wanted her to finish her degree, that she was making the right decision.
Robertson tells The New Yorker that while they were in Singapore, he found himself listening more to Holmes than to his Ph.D. candidates. He became Theranos’ first board member and introduced her to the other power players that would join the board.
Today, Holmes is at the forefront of a movement to give consumers more control over their health.
Syringe-phobic patients can walk into Walgreens in Phoenix, Arizona, and Palo Alto, California with a doctor’s note and get a blood test that requires only two drops of blood gathered from a finger prick. The blood is then sent to Theranos and tested in its labs. Theranos says its technology can run a variety of disease detection tests from just these two drops, as opposed to needing a full vial.
Holmes is now intent on scaling Theranos, and says she prefers sacrificing free time for the sake of her company, skipping unnecessary indulgences. It comes back to the philosophy she developed as a child: “I would much rather live a life of purpose than one in which I might have other things but not that,” she tells The New Yorker.
To learn more about Theranos, Holmes’ path to success, and her vision for the future, you can check out the full New Yorker story here.
Correction: A previous version of this post did not clarify that the blood tests are currently only available in Phoenix and Palo Alto Walgreens locations.
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