bloody unbelievable

I was in the middle of my first break from work when Elizabeth Holmes and her black turtleneck burst onto the scene with the brilliance  of a thousand suns. Valued at 9 billion dollars, her company Theranos promised to revolutionise a key diagnostic aspect of healthcare- laboratory testing. Her ascent to business stardom was inspiring and felt personally relevant. She had taken a ton of risks- dropped out of college young, turned a passion project into a life goal, persevered in a field that isn’t known to be particularly kind to women. It also felt like a timely cultural intervention against years of male- led innovation in the startup space. Her poise and her power showed up shows like The Big Bang Theory for their mean- spirited portrayals of women in science. Comically inept at doing life, these women exhibit a strong self- sabotaging streak evidenced by their relationships with narcissistic men. Their low self esteem makes them undeserving of the little kindnesses that make up healthy romantic relationships. While their immaturity and habitual boasting get the men our love and our laffs, the women are punished for far less egregious errors by being written off as a scold, a bumbling idiot, or a shrew (Bernadette, Amy and Leslie respectively). 

Holmes was different. She brought a self assured grace to the table, and her premise was elegant and disruptive. Pinprick- based bloodwork felt like real scientific progress as opposed to her peers’ formidable but fundamentally inessential sells. This wasn’t an app that hyper- connected people or a phone that commanded luxury prices. Her idea didn’t need spin- it really could make the world a better place. She was a force for good. 

That is, until investigative reporter and two- time Pulitzer winning team member John Carreyrou began asking questions. Carreyrou had a habit of reading the New Yorker on his daily subway commute and remembers being unmoved by their gushing coverage of Holmes’ exploits.

‘…there were some things I’d read in that article that I’d found suspect.’, he writes, ‘The lack of any peer-reviewed data to back up the company’s scientific claims was one of them. I’d reported about health-care issues for the better part of a decade and couldn’t think of any serious advances in medicine that hadn’t been subject to peer review. I’d also been struck by a brief description Holmes had given of the way her secret blood-testing devices worked: “A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.” Those sounded like the words of a high school chemistry student, not a sophisticated laboratory scientist…(I ) found it hard to believe that a college dropout with just two semesters of chemical engineering courses under her belt had pioneered cutting-edge new science. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg had learned to code on his father’s computer when he was ten, but medicine was different: it wasn’t something you could teach yourself in the basement of your house. You needed years of formal training and decades of research to add value. There was a reason many Nobel laureates in medicine were in their sixties when their achievements were recognized.’ A few weeks later he got a tip from an obscure pathology blogger who shared his scepticism of Holmes’ technology despite advances in the field of microfluidics. Carreyrou officially initiated the investigation after former key Theranos employees joined his quest for the truth.  Bad Blood- Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup is the sum of his excellent investigative work and a fly on the wall look at how Theranos contained and deferred an epic implosion by way of Holmes’ gumption and bald faced lying.

To me Carreyrou is a journalistic outlier because he refused to buy into the prodigy narrative, nor was he swayed by the names on Holmes’ formidable board, which included Henry Kissinger and former US Secretary of State George Shultz. In one interview he explains why he was unimpressed with her lineup of directors. He talks about two types of investors; ‘Dumb Money’ are typically privileged old white men who cultivate proteges in the hallowed Washington tradition of post- retirement philanthropizing. They invite pitches in their stately old drawing rooms and invest with the understanding that they are patrons and advisors, not investors. Their admiration is fawning and mostly uncritical. ‘Smart Money’ is VC firms that have entire teams dedicated to diligence and research. They demand periodic updates from their investees and closely monitor their company’s progress. While investigating Carreyrou understood why Theranos didn’t have a single doctor, healthcare or medicine tech investor on her board- she just couldn’t afford to.

Carreyrou was dogged, meticulous and painstakingly ethical in his search for the truth. His findings force us to take a hard look at our universal awe of Unicorns- rare Silicon Valley startups valued at 1 billion or more, their founders celebrated in the media and held up in homes and classrooms as career role models. At the time of his investigation there were only 39. These companies had another distinguishing feature. ‘Instead of rushing to the stock market like their dot com predecessors had in the 1990’s,’ writes Carreyrou, ‘the Unicorns were able to raise staggering amounts of money privately and thus avoid the close scrutiny that came with going public.’ This means that Unicorns can potentially get away with toxic work policies and grey- area practices, neither of which overly concern their RoI- minded investors. 

It is important to understand why Holmes got away with deception and fraud for over a decade without anyone- regulators, investors, retail partners, the media- noticing. The only people who did notice were ordinary folk who’d had Theranos do their bloodwork via physician referrals. The physicians especially were mistrustful of the company after patient reports threw up repeated inaccuracies. Sometimes a Theranos device would throw up improbable potassium values for a patient, a value possible only if they were dead. The frequency of these errors was frightening but meant nothing when voiced by ordinary people. This is because we romanticise the entrepreneur. They remain the objects of an enduring cultural fascination and feature prominently in our resignation fantasies.  Before I go into why, let’s first draw a distinction between the old and the new entrepreneur, even though both are mainstays of the same capitalist ecosystem. One, the idea of genius is strongly embedded in the stories of the new entrepreneur or new guard. This is an important myth to perpetuate because it precludes uncomfortable discussions around race, class, privilege or accountability. Prodigious talent confers a godlike status on its wielder, and you don’t knock your gods down easily. As a result the idea of genius has become inseparable from and central to the origin story; in many cases they’re one and the same thing. Two, they’re good at performative anti- establishmentarianism. Whether its Zuckerberg’s hacker ethos or Google’s anti- formal offices, there’s an egalitarianism and benign irreverence to their vision. You want to root for the guy that won’t spend his money on an expensive suit just to impress an investor.  But just because they aren’t staid or predictable doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic in a typically capitalist way- Amazon’s been panned consistently for making their employees work unforgivable hours and Facebook’s business model is built on the exploitation of privileged- access data on consumers. They are beneficiaries of the same system they claim to reject. Three, with origin stories that almost always feature a rejection of the formal education system, rough- around- the- edges personalities and unmistakable youth, these guys have great relatabilility. These stories almost always feature a garage/ dorm/ basement, a broken- down car, dubious finances, suspiciously uncritical parents and a friend or two willing to participate in a shared delusion. We’ve all been broke and saddled with an uninspiring thesis/ job at some point in our lives and harboured dreams of working for ourselves. Dropping out of school was once considered delinquent behavior, but the Valley entrepreneur introduced us to the idea of the Good Delinquent. The Good Delinquent plays on our own dissatisfaction with the formal education system- its expensiveness, its pointlessness in a competitive job economy and its ultimate futility. There’s also the matter of appearances- in the contrast of their wealth with their enduring frumpiness (Gates) and normal, low- key domesticity (Zuckerberg) we see our own lives and possibilities reflected. Seductive conclusions (I’m not so different from these guys, I too can have this if I try hard enough) are thus easy to draw. Four- these guys are now the most valued employers in the world- by recruiters, potential employees and media alike. It’s difficult to challenge that level of validation. Five, a lot of these guys are Meta Curators; their algorithms control the visibility (or lack thereof) of images, news, issues, opinion, conversations- everything. It’s not easy to step back and say I think this needs a closer look. Five- the Valley entrepreneur understands the power of iconography. In Steve Jobs’ black Issey Miyake turtlenecks, Zuck’s normcore grey sweats and Elon Musk’s douchebro swagger we see evidence of a carefully cultivated image that’s as valued by consumers and market watchers as the company itself. All of these combine to concentrate unprecedented amounts of power, influence and public goodwill in the hands of these men. We see in them an essential goodness, even when they’re locking horns with regulatory bodies and lawmakers over indefensible policies and market manipulations.

Carreyrou’s book challenges the notion that these titans are beyond reproach. He mentions a number of red flags that should’ve alerted anyone watching Theranos closely. My personal favorite is his assessment of Holmes’ derivative personal style. She modelled herself after Steve Jobs and took to black turtlenecks with enthusiasm. She also spoke  at a false pitch, a baritone several octaves below her natural one. When I watch her in interviews I see another glaring affectation. She mimics presidential speech patterns quite competently, particularly Barack Obama’s; she gets his vocal fry down pat. Several observers have also commented on her intense blue gaze. The fact that she could go longer- than- average without blinking meant that her stare had an earnest, hypnotic quality. ‘A woman must continually watch herself,’ says John Berger in Ways Of Seeing. ‘She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.’ He writes that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision : a sight.’ In a world run by older men with questionable fashion choices, Elizabeth Holmes- with her beauty and her audacious vision- was a sight. She presented as the male- approved version of herself she liked best, a version that allowed her to pass as harmless and well intentioned even as she pulled an elaborate con.

Carreyrou’s book is an important, unputdownable read. It demonstrates what a free press can accomplish when left to do their work unhindered. It endorses unconventional/ alternative media platforms- like blogs- as no less essential to democracy for their lack of eminence or institutional backing. It confirms our worst suspicions about corporate culture; despite their professed egalitarianism, these remain some of the most oppressive, opaque workplaces in the world, discouraging dissent and scepticism in much the same way as the old guard did- strong-arming newcomers and junior employees into submission on threat of termination. It illustrates the flip side of can- do work culture, a culture that sees questioning as incendiary and dangerous, minimizes employee concerns, and goes to great lengths to protect the reputations of its heroes. It is also a testament to the human spirit- what a bunch of honest, confident employees can do for the greater good. It reignites conversations around extending protection to whistleblowers in the workplace and making offices more transparent. It makes a case for nurturing our rusty bullshit detectors, too afraid or lazy to ask questions even when we’re suspicious or clamping down on our discomfort or repelled by the authority figures who matter. And finally, it’s a firm squeeze on the shoulder to anyone who’s been made to feel small, worthless and insignificant at their place of work- you didn’t deserve it. No one does. Not ever. Your voice matters even if you’re the newest or lowest- paid member of company. Let no one tell you otherwise. 

the essential internet/ 45

An excellent primer on feminism for the friend/ colleague/ parent/ relative who just. doesn’t. get. it.

The disturbing racism- steeped history of candy in America, which anyone with a sweet tooth for big- name confectionery must know, plus the equally disturbing antecedents of India’s favorite boozy drink

There’s no word that describes the act of journaling better than life- changing. Here’s everything you need to know before you start. Also, a life audit is excellent prep for a personal journal

It isn’t hard to be generally approving of the French aesthetic and their sensible approach to beauty

I think I found my favorite version of Rajasthani classic Kesariya Balam

Image- Actor and dancer Helen, who I love most for her full, open, teeth- revealing smile, a contrast to the pursed- lip mouth contortions and knee jerk pearl- clutching performed by the leading ladies of her time. “…in the Merchant Ivory film Bombay Talkie I had to dance on the keys of a gigantic typewriter.”, she says in an interview, referring to the weird and wonderful nature of her job and the fantastical contours of her plumage. She brought childlike joy, grace and unmistakable relish to the act of embracing her sexuality, and for that India’s film industry must forever be grateful. May we all go through life like Helen dancing on the keys of a giant typewriter!

the essential internet/ 44

The spirit of Christmas doesn’t have to be Christian, or why the current move to reduce India’s complex and dynamic popular religion to a singular formulaic entity (Hindutva ) makes zero sense

Why Japan is resisting the cashless economy model. So many lessons here for legislators and policy writers in India, who in their haste to ape advanced economies forget to factor in/ wilfully ignore the cultural aspects of cash- based living

7 ways to resist Eurocentric beauty standards

We’re all terrible. All of us

Can not, will not stop listening to this song

Image- Ada Jafri, the First Lady of Urdu Poetry. As part of my quest to read more women this year and the next, I’ve begun immersing myself in her beautiful ghazals.

older & okay

Age has given me the gift of me; it just gave me what I was always longing for, which was to get to be the woman I’ve already dreamt of being. Which is somebody who can do rest and do hard work and be a really constant companion, a constant, tender-hearted wife to myself.

Anne Lamott

GIF source unknown

the essential internet/ 43

Can we please stop being competitive about work hours? It’s pointless and stupid

Salt Fat Acid Heat author and star of an excellent Netflix show of the same name Samin Nosrat is SO relatable in this interview about her approach to  eating. “I did learn early on in my office life… that if I eat lunch out every day it’s really bad news and that often I can’t get anything done the second half of the day because I’m just digesting.

If you’ve ever slogged it out in a hostel you will love this show. Actor Srishti Shrivastava is effortlessly funny and also a Very Cool Person, as evidenced by this hilarious clip of her during a family Sundarkaand paath . I also love how she fashuns 

I’m still coming to terms with my depression, an intense, debilitating phase that lasted nearly half a decade. Sometimes it feels like I’m not past it completely, that I’m standing at the curling, rotting edges of something joyless and sinister and ancient, something pulling so strongly and primally it takes quite an effort to walk away. Other times it feels like a Dementor’s just brushed past me, leaching my world of color and happiness for entire minutes, altering the space around me to an aqueous consistency so everything seems still, slow, alien, leaving me numb and unable to function in the moment. I have to shake myself out out of it like a puppy just out of his bathwater. This particular episode is my favorite from among an entire series on depression. It talks about why depression is different from sadness, and how to tell if you or someone you love are depressed

Christian pop is a thing, and I LOVE it. Okay, some of it

Image- Saira Banu in my top choice of attire for shaadi season. The gharara/ sharara is a relic from 19th century Avadh, where it was worn by Muslim brides. The kurti hugs the waist snugly and makes for a pleasing visual counterpoint to the vast, airy farshi pajamas that spill and swish like sea foam around the axis of your body. Copious amounts of gota and zardozi are used to weight the garment and give it heft. Contemporary versions experiment with all kinds of fabric- cotton and chanderi are personal favorites- and cinch the pajamas a little way above the knee for a more impactful flare, making the whole thing an insanely comfortable alternative to its silhouette cousin, the lehenga

psst! r u a leader-y grl?

One day in an informal meeting about possible external partnerships, I recommended a friend and former senior colleague who I thought made the cut. Over several follow- up meetings I suggested more names, being careful to clarify that I could vouch for them precisely because I’d worked with them. For some reason this irked a male colleague, who cornered me later asking why ‘you feel the need to drop names, like, constantly‘. He was a very nice guy, and he looked pissed. He wasn’t leading the partnership discussions in any way, nor was he central to them. This made his aggressive little sideshow unwarranted. It just wasn’t okay for a woman to do what men do all the time- in meetings, on smoke breaks, on drunken outbounds, in the middle of rambling, fantastical, delusional conversations about ‘growing the business’.  It’s called networking, or leveraging your connections. Men throw names and scenarios at each other a lot, but of course that didn’t matter. It never does.

A friend rising with warp speed at her workplace while in her early twenties has similar stories. When picked by the boss for a task that could catapult her to national fame (it did ), his number two, the natural choice for the job, felt the need to give her ‘advice’. Here, read this book, he said solicitously, you need it. You can’t do this if you’re not well read. He was insinuating that she didn’t deserve the position. He’d taken decades and an expensive degree to get there himself, and we all know there’s no coping mechanism like showing a newbie her place with good old- fashioned passive- aggression. If that newbie is a woman, the job is infinitely easier. A whole host of efficient tools lie at your disposal- gaslighting, obfuscating, out- shouting, appropriating credit.

This is not to say women don’t make problematic colleagues or bosses. But it seems to me that terrible men are tolerated far more than terrible women are. Even perfectly nice women behaving like men ordinarily do get called the most vicious, most reductive names- Bitch. Cunt. Whore. While men enjoy the twin advantages of institutionalised leeway and gender solidarity, women turn into self- doubting wrecks if they’re not careful.

So when heroes like Sheryl Sandberg tell these women, all women, to toughen up and lean in, it sounds less like good advice and more like victim blaming. Her book gets it mostly wrong. She attributes workplace fails to women’s feminine, deferential behaviour, to their politeness and to their silence, to their softness and to the way they balk at working weekends or ‘tough jobs’. To her, women are overlooked for leadership roles not only because they don’t know how to ask for a seat at the table, but also because they don’t want it bad enough. Guess who’s always been telling women they aren’t good enough, Ms. Sandberg, explaining their own feelings to them, infantilizing them? Men. And women like yourself, who forget their place and their privilege. Ornery women’s workplace problems can and never will be solved, as you suggest, by women being less women-y.  Blaming the women is like telling the tortoise she’s set up for inevitable failure against the hare because she’s slow and stupid, not because the race is rigged. To Ms. Sandberg’s credit, she’s acknowledged that the Here underachieving sister, let me show you how it’s done slant of her book was a bad choice. Her apologies are too little too late; for the half- decade since its publication the book’s been telling women how they must behave in the workplace in the most damaging way possible

This is why I LOVE Sarah Cooper’s funny, relatable, cleverly illustrated riff on the corporate self help genre, How To Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings: Non Threatening Leadership Strategies For Women. She does not discuss women’s issues in the apologetic, exasperated, patronising tone employed by the likes of Sandberg. Instead this former Googler makes grim jokes about the toxic bro culture in Silicon Valley, turning the heat on the men who benefit from the too- nice, accommodating women around them. Whether you’re working at a tech startup or at one of the OGs, or are pitching your baby business to a VC, you’re very likely to find yourself in tragicomic situations that test every last drop of your self esteem. Nothing’s good enough- not your undeniable competence, not your proven successes, not even the full force of your very likeable personality. Cooper’s solution is to give us three moustache stickers- maybe go wearing one and you’ll fool them into thinking the opposite of what they thought of you. 

My favorite section of the book is on Gaslighting. The term comes from a 1930’s play called Gas Light, in which a malicious husband successfully drives his wife mad. Every night he takes off to plunder the empty flat upstairs, the treasures of a dead rich lady. Switching the lights on there causes all the gas- powered lights in the building to dim just a little bit, enough to be noticeable but also enough for plausible deniability. When his wife asks if the lights seem dimmer, he affects bafflement. Every night he climbs the stairs to steal, every night the lights dim, every night he feigns ignorance. Soon his wife begins to doubt her eyesight and goes insane. In excellent clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s book Should I Stay Or Should I Go? – Surviving A Relationship With A Narcissist , ‘Gaslighting qualifies as a form of emotional abuse that involves denying a person’s experience and making statements, such as “that never happened”, “you’re too sensitive”, or “this isn’t that big a deal”. It tends to happen gradually over time, and it leaves you feeling as though you are slowly going crazy. The gaslighter uses techniques such as withholding or stonewalling (“I don’t want to hear that again”), contradicting (telling you that you do not recall something correctly) and diversion… he also minimizes your feelings (“How could you be upset about such a little thing?”) and denies events that definitely occurred (“I never did that”). The damage of gaslighting is that it is confusing, isolating and often results in you questioning your own reality. The doubt seeps into all areas of your life…(it) fills you with… second-guessing… you may find yourself chronically apologising and no longer as relaxed and joyful as you once were.’ Cooper turns the heat on shitty gaslighters with a fun Gaslighting Defence Worksheet, a reminder to all women that our opinions, no matter how easily shot down or dismissed as silly, matter.

Sure, most women are hesitant negotiators. We’re uncomfortable voicing our reservations. We overthink the sort of things men vomit without a thought. We’re guarded, we’re brittle from constantly sidestepping exploding egos, we’re exhausted from our double shifts of managing domestic and professional expectations. A lot of us are hanging by a thread. We are this way not because of a personal lack, but because our gendered upbringing spills over into our professional lives- how can it not?- and because the ecosystem rewards and incentivizes peak brohavior. Unsurprisingly there are no books telling women to play to their strengths. No one’s teaching us how to value and cherish our most essential traits to success-  softness, intuition, the ability to drive consensus without unnecessary conflict. To be feminine in the workplace is to be wrong. It is to be primed for failure. Cooper will have us know that Sandberg and her ilk, with all their reams of data, are dead mistaken. If you’re a woman, chances are that you will face unpleasantness no matter what you do or how you present, so the best thing to do at work is to cultivate two things- an invincible sense of humor and solid female friendships. This way, when you’re boss, no woman on your team’s going to have to come in wearing a stick- on handlebar. 

Gift this book to a friend or colleague who’s been having a shitty time at work, and have fun snickering at the stickers and worksheets. I made the mistake of reading it while snacking on an orange; do you know what OJ can do if it gets inside your nose? It can hurt. Like a bitch a male colleague who casually takes the credit for your work and acts offended when you point it out. And that is why you need this book in your life.