Meet the $9 Billion Woman: Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes has invented a way to get lifesaving blood tests at your drugstore—making her, at 31, the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. Glamour's Cindi Leive finds out how that happened.
As the editor of Glamour, I get to meet a lot of impressive women: politicians, athletes, Oscar winners. But even against that powerhouse landscape, Elizabeth Holmes stands out. Listen to her résumé: At 19 she dropped out of Stanford to start the biotech company of her dreams—and 12 years later, that company, Theranos, is worth a sweet $9 billion. Her former associate dean at Stanford now works for her. Two former Secretaries of State sit on her board. And Holmes, a serious, focused woman—who, like Apple cofounder Steve Jobs before her, wears a black turtleneck to work every day— is, according to Forbes, the youngest self-made female billionaire on the planet.
That's why she's impressive. But here's why she's cool: Holmes' actual life goal is not simply to make more money; it's to change our entire view of health care—and she's already started. Theranos' exclusive blood-testing method uses just a few drops from your finger to run a huge battery of lab tests—cheap and fast. Before meeting Holmes, I spent approximately 19 minutes in a spalike room at a Walgreens in Palo Alto. There I got my finger painlessly pricked—and, for less than the price of a latte, chose from an endless menu of tests that would otherwise have cost me hundreds and a doctor's office visit. (Results popped up via voicemail, and in an app on my phone, a few hours later, and yes, I am now taking a supplement to fix those low vitamin D levels.) Holmes lost an uncle to cancer when she was young, and she passionately believes that putting medical information in patients' own hands will make blood testing a routine healthy habit, just like eating right and exercising. And she believes it will save lives. ("Today, when people get really sick, most of the time it's too late to do something," she says.) Theranos centers are now at Walgreens in Arizona and California, with plans to roll out to the chain's other locations.
Like any disruptor, Holmes has stirred up controversy (the big companies who've owned the testing turf for decades claim her methods are unproven—a charge she vigorously counters). It doesn't faze her. Here's what she's learned on the sometimes rocky, always fulfilling, road to $9 billion.
Cindi Leive: So I've just come from my test at Walgreens. This does seem revolutionary.
Elizabeth Holmes: In the United States 40 to 60 percent of people do not get their tests done when a physician gives them a requisition.... And a lot of people will say it's because they're scared of needles.
CL: Which is legit. You, yourself, are, right?
EH: [Nods.] I detest [them] deeply. And a lot of people say it's because they can't afford it.
CL: The price differences are amazing. It can cost hundreds to get a basic fertility workup, but through Theranos at Walgreens, you could get the testing for something like $35. And the cholesterol test I just got might cost $85 at a doctor's office—and at Walgreens it was only $2.99. How is that actually possible?
EH: It's the result of 11 years of technology development...and [at Theranos] you know before you get the test done how much it's going to cost you. Most of the time, in health care, you have the service and have no idea how much you agreed to pay until you get a bill.
CL: You've said that your childhood was "not normal," which I loved. In what way?
EH: Well, I was not very normal—
CL: Normal's overrated.
EH: I totally agree. [Laughs.] I was very blessed to grow up in an environment in which I was encouraged to believe that there was nothing I couldn't do. For example, when I was about seven years old, I began designing a time machine, and I had very detailed "engineering drawings." And I'd show them to my parents, and they [would say], "Of course. How's the development going?"
CL: Your parents took you seriously, and that taught you to take yourself seriously?
EH: Very much so. When you're in that period of your life, you respond so strongly to what you're exposed to, in the context of what you believe you can and cannot do.
CL: You talked your way into Mandarin classes at Stanford when you were still in high school. Did you have to screw up your courage to do that?
EH: It was like building a company, where you make a decision like, "I am gonna figure out how to do this, and if they say no to me a thousand times, I'm gonna keep on trying for the next thousand."
CL: You wore them down?
EH: Yeah. I did the same [when I was] at Stanford too.
CL: And when you had the idea for your blood-testing innovation and decided to drop out of college—how hard was that decision?
EH: It wasn't hard at all. I really [felt] there was no way I could make a greater difference with mylife. When you find what you love, you do it. That's it.
CL: Did people try to talk you out of it?
EH: All the time. My parents were wonderfully supportive. They let me take the money they'd saved their whole lives for me to go to college and put it into this business. But the doubters make you stronger.... You have to think about—if you didn't have to worry about making money or taking care of people, what is it that you love so much that, even if you got fired from that job over and over again, you would keep doing it? Then go follow that, because that's your path.
CL: What's the hardest part of being a boss for you? You have 700 employees at Theranos, and you are growing.
EH: Hiring the right people. You're looking for the ones who say, "This is what I've wanted to do my whole life."
CL: You've been described as the world's youngest self-made female billionaire. Yet you live pretty modestly. You have a two-bedroom condo, and I've heard no reports of a grand closet filled with 800 Birkin bags. What are you tempted to spend money on, now that you can?
EH: It's pretty easy for me right now because I'm here seven days a week. [Laughs.] I put all of my money into this business.
CL: In Ken Auletta's profile of you for The New Yorker, he said, and I hope it's not painful to hear, "She no longer devotes time to novels or friends, doesn't date, doesn't own a television, and hasn't taken a vacation in 10 years." But you seem pretty happy. So is work-life balance overrated for you?
EH: For a long time I didn't take a vacation because I couldn't. I could take one now, but I am never happier than when I'm here. I certainly one day want to have a family, and I don't think those things are mutually exclusive.
CL: I wouldn't ask every entrepreneur about fashion, but you are wearing a black turtleneck and—
EH: My mom had me in black turtlenecks when I was, like, eight. I probably have 150 of these. [It's] my uniform. It makes it easy, because every day you put on the same thing and don't have to think about it—one less thing in your life. All my focus is on the work. I take it so seriously; I'm sure that translates into how I dress.
CL: At the moment you need a doctor's lab order to get a Theranos test, correct?
EH: Yes. Some states don't allow direct-to-consumer testing... but that must change. I do not believe you can say to a human that it is against the law to spend their own money to get information about their own body. It's a very basic human right. Theranos offers low-cost testing for STDs. Every woman should be able to get those tests without being afraid of who knows about it.
CL: I know you do tests for less than Medicare will cover, so you could save states a lot of money.
EH: Yes. We've brought the key tests down to more than 90 percent off their reimbursement threshold. The savings to a state like Arizona are greater than $10 billion over the course of the next 10 years.
CL: So let's say a Glamour reader is reading this 10 years from now. What do you hope her health-care world is like?
EH: Women often work so hard on their physique. And yet the kind of information you can learn about your health from your blood blows the bathroom scale out of the water. I hope she will have a better shot of seeing the onset of disease in time to do something about it.
CL: And for a woman reading this, with a dream of any kind, what should she take from the story of a woman who, at 19, left college and started what is now a $9 billion company?
EH: I would say three things: Find what you love, and don't let it go no matter what. I would say Winston Churchill really knew what he was talking about when he said, "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never...." And I would say that I am living proof that it's true that if you can imagine it, you can achieve it.