(This post was triggered by three factors – a) Bad Blood – Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up and b) Leisure in Bangalore – often called Silicon Valley of India, after a business meeting and c) A chance remark by Sankhadip Sengupta last winter in a back-yard bon-fire party about Milady, femme de fetale of Duma’s The Three Musketeers)
Elizabeth Holmes – Founder and CEO of Theranos – Stanford drop-out at 18, “changing the world” and becoming $ 5 bn worth while doing it
Milady de Winter – a pivotal character – femme de fetale of Alexander Duma’s classic The Three Muskeeters
While reading Wall Street Journal’s Investigative reporter Mr. John Carreyrou’s laconic, calm yet surgically bloody and precise investigative reporting (a recommended reading for all reporters, especially of India) and also knowing that Mr. Carreyrou shares a French ancestry from his father’s side, I suddenly felt the import of the greatest question : How some of the most powerful and influential men who were deciding about destinies of nations and war, being at the same level as that of Richelieu of France in the prime of their career could behave almost as if hypnotized by the charm of an ethereal being like Milady de Winter?
Alexander Dumas – French novelist
John Carreyrou – The Reporter who investigated and chronicled the whole story. A great absence and perhaps the clue : Ms. Holmes did not grant any interview to him although otherwise she has been generous to reporters.
Creative literature is the cheapest and most-effective time-travel machine ever created. It is incomprehensible as why Literature moves us just like it is incomprehensible as why Ms. Holmes was able to “control so many powerful men” just as Milday de Winter did. This realization at the deepest level has the potential to draw us towards feeling the moral impact of an action, although may not be so effective in regulating it. While one can wonder at the enigma of human existence – reflecting on our mortality, vulnerability and weakness, one may ask – Why ? How to conduct Life in all these chaos, confusion and temptations.
“Changing the world” – a slogan too often used in the Valley (“Is the world created by or your father or something you got as a stock to be vested ?”) with a cock-sureness is infantile because that misses the deeper and eternal question : Who am I ? How to change myself ?
Counts, Barons, Academic High Priest, Generals – on whom the spell was cast
Henry Kissinger – Former Secretary of State and definitely a man who has seen much of human nature – good, bad and ugly
Mr. Schultz, Former Secretary of State and arguably one of the key architects of victory in the Cold War, seen with President Reagan. Mr. Schultz’s grandson worked in the company and without him, Mr. Carryrou would have never achieved what he did achieve in his investigation. Explanation followed
Rupert Murdoch – invested $ 125 million and it was his newspaper, Wall Street Journal that exposed the story. A honourable moment in the whole saga – he refused to intervene and kill the story as requested by Ms. Holmes while he has told that he believes that the editors in WSJ will treat this fairly.
General Mattis – one of the board members
Professor Roberston, Chemical Engineering, Stanford University . He was the first in the series of successful, distinguished, highly influential old men who saw something of a “genius” in Ms. Holmes. He compared her with some names of Western Civilization and perhaps he is regretting those statements now. Explanation followed below.
Dr. Avie Tevenian, a decade old colleague of Mr. Steve Jobs at Apple Corporation. Was a board member of Theranos and left in 2007. He was the first but not the last who detected early signs of “cult-leadership” and “group think”. One interesting point – Dr. Avie is the youngest of the board members and the spell appears to be directly proportionately in intensity and its hold with age. Mr. Schultz, the most ardent is 94 years old, whereas Dr. Avie, I estimate will be will be in his fiftieth decade.
The first truly seduction victim
Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani – a Pakistan-born, Indian immigrant – met Ms. Holmes when she was 19 and he was almost 40.
Mr. Balwani alias “Sunny” belongs to a class of Indian immigrants who were at the right place at the right time (1990s dot com boom, technology trained, based in Silicon valley in the 1990s ) and became enormously “wealthy” which they themselves, with all reasonable and unreasonable belief in their competence and hard work could never dream of. It reminds me of Schopenhauer’s quote on martyrs where the sardonic philosopher argued that martyrs earn great fame without going through arduous and lengthy path of struggle and pain and anonymity, as surely happened to the philosopher.
Mr. Sunny, as it appears from the statements of his employees, far from being grateful about his good fortune, he was some kind of a bully. His mental make-up was that of a feudal Lord (I use the word in italics consciously ), most of Indian businessmen of earlier era who believed that employees are something like menial servants and since he was rich, even by American standards, they were his “slaves”. In one memorable moment in the book, when an American employee was rudely told by Sunny that the frustrated employee could not even resign from the company, the employee retorted, “Sir, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863“. After that, Mr. Sunny was taken aback.
A man like Sunny – cash-rich but without much inner worth and culture (“habit of the mind”) in one way was the ideal candidate to be seduced first – in the long list of seduced men, he remains the only man who was doubly seduced – romantically as well. He reportedly forwarded $ 13 million interest free loan in “good faith” to Ms. Holmes and later rose to be the President and COO of Theranos and remained almost at the last. However, as in case of Milady de Winter’s young prison guards and other young men, when the ship was sinking, he was kicked out from the company and also from her bed at the same time and now he is facing the triple whammy – losing the lover, losing almost all the money he made earlier in reparations, fines and legal fees plus a non-zero prospect of spending time in Federal Prison. Even though they are mentioned as co-defendants in the criminal charge, he is fighting it alone and that is suggestive.
In his book, John Carreyrou also mentions something interesting without any trace of judgement or bias against young, well-educated, brilliant Indian immigrants in the age-group of 25-35 and this is to be noted by policy-makers of the US. It was found that Mr. Sunny as COO was recruiting more Indians, many holding PhDs from renowned universities and research institutions. They might have all the academic qualifications but very little job experience and since their H1-B visas were tied to their employment or in other way, their residency, there is enough incentive to, as Mr. Carreyrou says, to please Sunny or advance their career or both. There is an incident where a car of an employee was found to have a dent and with tape measure, it was positive that an Indian IT consultant’s car was the perpetrator. When the IT consultant was approached, he escalated to Sunny and Sunny immediately took sides of the IT consultant even though the evidence clearly showed that the Indian man’s car really hit the other person’s car.
Mr. Carreyrou did not and it is unfair to demand that he should know of the policy implications I mentioned earlier. To be blunt with facts : there is a qualitative and quantitative difference between Indian students who do research in US universities now compared to those who did the same few decades earlier. In the 60s and 70s, most of the researchers went with a purpose to study and with the intention to return back to India. Although majority of that population (and they were few prior to the Immigration Reform of the mid sixties) stayed and eventually became citizens but that was not by design but due to choice and habit at a later stage. Most of the Indian researchers in the US and from other domains (notably IT) starting 1980s and continuing till today have already “designed” their career and many have already decided to stay and continue there. Thus “to stay” whatever it takes may be the ultimate cause putting those young and brilliant students in a vulnerable situation, easy to be exploited by men like Sunny and he really did.
In a strange sense of justice, dispensed by Time, Mr. Sunny – the bully and the exploiter of younger employees became super-exploited, in the form of losing money, his love and perhaps his freedom to be decided by the Judge and the Jury in a Federal Courthouse.
The Conscience Man – the Moral Tragedy and Redemption
The only redeeming character in this saga of Secrets, Lies, Deception, Untruth and Un-science is Dr. Ian Gibbons and he only appears to have been traumatized by the web of lies that he felt he had been also a part of. If lack of experience for younger employees was the vulnerability that forced them to continue in a toxic work culture, it was the age and huge experience as a scientist and researcher that made his position vulnerable. A PhD from Cambridge, England of the old school and defender of the scientific faith – “doing in the right way”. He was the Chief Scientist of Theranos, recommended by Professor Robertson, the first person who saw the light of “genius”. When he raised questions, he was demoted and later, when the house of cards was falling, he came to understand that the lies and deception now caught up with him as some of his own works – patented works were circulated as Holmes’ work and some litigation naturally popped up and Dr. Ian was called as a witness. Depressed, tired and under moral pressure, he committed suicide. He is the only relatively old man who was too deeply troubled by the goings-on and his participation thereof. Whatever people may say, experts included, I think Dr. Gibbons’s suicide was symbolic with the exit of the conscience of the company and the people around and within six months from his death, the first devastating expose came in Wall Street Journal and Theranos really changed the world and the Valley by becoming its so far greatest episode of Secret,Lies and Deception and it is for the Law of the land to judge – whether of serious crime.
Dr. Ian Gibbons – the Englishman, the scientist and the keeper of conscience
The above body text and captions are to provide a background with the intention to explore why these world-tested men men have continued to believe so easily, not only putting their reputation and integrity at stake so late in their career (Mr. Tyler Schultz, Mr. George Schultz’s grandson, told in one of the documentaries to the effect that the former Secretary of State who came out of Cold War and Iran-Contra with his integrity completely intact, now finds it questioned in his ninetieth decade and this was grandson’s dominant motivation to help expose the fraud).
I shall now try to put what the opinions are on the spell and then put my own thesis, in some cases taking the liberty of a radical departure :
I. Mr. Sunny : I found no commentator talking on this. So I put my own thesis. Mr. Balwani first married a Japanese lady and later separated (as per media reports). An Indian man who has a feudal mind-set in dealing with employees was not consistent in romantic relationship / marriage. This can be only explained by the fact that he was “looking for something” rather than being organically faithful to a cultural tradition. It is quite clear that he belonged not to elite aristocracy (as per his bullying and ostentatious display of wealth and swagger – Vini, Vici, Vidi in car number plates etc ) and his association with Mr. Holmes, first as a noble benefactor and later as a lover was “new money courting old money” or in other words “cash-respectability” trade-off. This is the same as that of old aristocracy of England marrying American heiresses (such stories are abound in Sherlock Holmes’ stories during late Victorian era).
This propensity of society was earlier restricted within the same race but in this case, it over-lapped into other races in the age of more movements – both of idea, goods and people. No wonder, Mr. Holmes mother was shocked (“oh.. such an older man and that too an Indian”) when she first came to know that she was having some kind of co-living with Sunny but later on everyone reconciled when Mr. Sunny bankrolled their holidays in some up-market hotels. Moreover, he offered $ 13 million good faith loan without interest to Ms. Holmes just as Federal Reserve was offering zero interest loan to stimulate the economy and a part of that good faith found huge funds moving from coast to coast in search of ideas, visions and the visionaries who are going to change the world and in this process making everyone richer by money to be measured in astronomical units of vastness. A note of contrast and complementary principle working here : in one of the greatest insider trading cases where Indian born Rajat Gupta was found guilty and convicted (I spent a considerable time researching on this and eventually writing a formal paper entitled – Immunodeficiency of contemporary education and the Case of Mr. Rajat Gupta), it appears that this was a reverse case : social respectability trying to bargain billionaire level wealth. Or in other words, Mr. Sunny was wealthy (with a margin) but was unknown and a no-body in certain social circles whereas Mr. Gupta was known and respected at the top-most social circles but he was not as wealthy as he thought he should be while founding a venture fund company called New Silk Route.
2. Professor Robertson : Except Professor Roberston and Dr. Avi, none of the characters who were supposedly under the spell were scientists in the strict sense of the word. What happened ? It may be damning but following Mr. Sherlock Holmes’ advice regarding deduction, I deduce that in the 60s and 70s, when scientists were “changing the world” – the genius of Einstein etc and as fundamental science reached a crisis and then became more and more a hand-maiden to technology and people who controlled its direction through funding the genius and world-changers were now Steve Jobs and such technology wizards who now wanted to have their product ubiquitous in every home of the world and in a milieu where such wizards were considered “gods”, it is possible and not un-pardonable that an old Professor of Chemical Engineering wanted to be part of something glorious and world-changing (as science was so couple of decades back). This demonstrates my long back held belief that after some 400 years from Newton, Western Scientific tradition has reached its decadent phase with the discovery of “celebrity scientists”.
3. Mr. Schultz and others : Mr. John Carreyrou argued that many of these old men would have liked to have a daughter or a grand-daughter with such a mix – charming, beautiful, young, brilliant, college drop-out with a world-winning idea. They must have felt an emotion only known to them and it must have been new and novel to them(“an old man is an infant to his old age” – Milan Kundera, I agree, except for true philosophers and poets.) For such men, world has little charm left and the need to be in the vortex of things happening is a need we mortals always harbour. Most do not get opportunity and thus escape many follies in the bargain but those who get, do get a double-edged sword.
I think Mr. Carreyrou’s diagnosis is the effect but the cause is much deeper, very deep and goes at the essence of Man. Two words : Mortality and Morality.
A Man or a woman with extremely successful careers behind their past goes into “inertia of achievement and action” – with all the money, fame and sterling career (to you and me as told by other people – media most prominent) to have a retired life, they might find their days empty, their daily routine boring, their old achievements told many times from all quarters and they appear as if this was in a dream. The flush of the experience itself, the youthful energy and the pulsating feel of believing in something with great earnest and confidence and authority are over and youth is so alluring to old men that many mourn it ruefully – Keat’s immortal reflection on the sadness of the great trees of November, now more saddened thinking of the present destitution.
All ancient cultures have stories where old men have wished to take the youth again and bartering all their riches (King Yajati in the Mahabharata trading off his kingdom with his old age with his son Puru).
No one knows for sure but I find no other explanation except what I have thought and presented above. I will remain curious to know of other stand-point or perspective.
- Readers who may challenge me in terms of drawing the parallel between Ms. Milady de Winter and Ms. Elizabeth Holmes, I have my defense pre-written by Mr. Dumas in 1844 in 800+ pages in the novel The Three Musketeers. Please read and in case, re-read. If not anything, you will have a grand experience. Nothing to lose.
- All students of journalism must read Mr. Carreyrou’s book. He is a master of under-statement, especially downplaying his own courage and hard-work. In spite of that, his Gallic power with words shines through in small anecdotes he narrates (his Sicilian-Italian-American boss and La Matazzna) and his scholarship without the heaviness of it. The greatest Art of Learning is to hide it completely except leaving some few cracks from where it can be discerned by careful eyes.
- One recurring theme is Ms. Holmes not divulging her romantic and co-living relationship with Ms. Balwani. We may ask why did Mr. Balwani do not disclose this either ? I have no answer but this is an interesting question. One easy answer is that in the relationship Ms. Holmes was the dominant party and she chose, for whatever reason not to disclose anything. I doubt this line of thinking -I feel that had Ms. Holmes pulled off the scam without being exposed, she would have surely left Mr. Balwani as seen in a report by London Daily mail that she is in court-ship with a young hotel heir called Mr. Evans. Note : Mr. Evans is in his twenties. She is 35. A reversal in terms of age preference for Ms. Holmes. If Sunny was Athos, Mr. Evans is d’Artagnan.
- A very sad but suggestive fact is that many ex-Theranos employees are finding it hard to get a job. A small valley that prides itself in being an agent of “changing the world” goes by the most conservative idea : one’s association, past or present guide the future performance. Isn’t it the complete anti-thesis of the underlying premise of all hi-risk investments ? Past performance/association is not a guarantee of future performance as things are disrupted. The Valley might have everything but it has no redeeming qualities.
- I could not discern whether Mr. Carreyrou believes in any personal or impersonal God. However, he has astutely handled a story with all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy and human drama – ingredients to make a movie but one thing is for sure – such a movie will not move us as movies like The Godfather or The Godfellas did – tales of another age and another time but their villain /heroes finally find artistic redemption. Who cannot but find a redeeming calm in Sam Rothstein in Casino at the end and we find an epic consolation that purifies something inside us and that is the first breath of moral purity.
- For all old men, I hereby paraphrase from a Vaishnav scholar who had cautioned all old men, especially having a luminous (and now nebulous to him/her) career in the past to relinquish from the ways of world – doing good or bad, helping good or bad but concentrating on one’s deeper self. It is Rembrandt’s paintings of his old age – he was looking at himself, more and more inward, he was looking at all the deep crease and crevices of human face in old age, the most spiritually reflective part of our anatomy and there, we could see the mark of true genius, a master of technique, craft and genius now in an in-ward journey and thus doing the greatest good, the greatest philanthropy – Gnothi Seauton – Know Thyself.
Self-portrait by Rembrandt- one of the greatest self-exploration in Art. Also the greatest in Spiritual Art, if such a term can be coined. One of the greatest masters now looking at himself, nothing else.