5 (unsettling) thoughts after reading Bad Blood

The un-put-downable investigative book about Silicon Valley’s biggest fraud

Keerthana K
7 min readDec 8, 2022

This was long due but a book such as Bad Blood, needs to be discussed. (And what better day than today when its major culprit- Sunny Balwani has been sentenced to nearly 13 years of imprisonment.)

The cover of the book along with fraudster- Elizabeth Holmes (founder of Theranos)

I’m starting this by narrating a coincidence which is completely useless, but I still found it fascinating 😊-

  • I started investigative journalist- John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood on 16 November.
  • The book starts with the date of 17 November (2006).
  • And Elizabeth Holmes(who this book is about) finally got sentenced on 18 November (2022).

And by that date I was so consumed by it that I was checking the news every 2 minutes, intensely rooting for this cold blooded psychopath to be given the maximum sentence.

Here’s some background as to what makes it such an important book

Bad Blood is about a Silicon Valley company called Theranos, which it’s founder misled its investors into believing that it is going to be a breakthrough blood-testing company. It’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes marketed the product passionately but resorted to extremely deceitful ways to ensure her company’s success.

The company functioned very secretively- never letting anyone know about it’s shortcomings. It had an extremely toxic environment where employees (mostly from Stanford) were lured in, but were made to work in a high-pressure, negative environment. They weren't even allowed to communicate across teams lest the secret of their faulty products would come into light. Elizabeth Holmes wanted to be the only person who had the bigger picture.

Investors meanwhile were led into believing that all this secrecy was to protect it’s intellectual property! Theranos strategically roped in few of the biggest names as board members, who were so charmed by her that they touted her to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates of Silicon Valley. And she was able to reach one of the highest company valuations without even one person seeing how their machines actually work!

Biden’s visit to Theranos manufacturing. Strong political presence played an important role in legitimizing their faulty products which had put patients at risk

All hell broke lose when few courageous employees with strong moral compass tried to speak up despite facing physical, financial and career-ending threats from the lawyers of Theranos.

John Carreyrou- the investigative journalist from WSJ who brought Theranos fraud into light

“A good book makes you think long after you have finished reading it.”

There are a few thoughts which stayed with me long after reading this book. Thoughts that are not necessarily a part of the book but were definitely triggered by it-

1. Playing the woman’s card

As the criminal allegations were finally catching up with Elizabeth through Wall Street Journal’s articles by John Carreyrou, she came up with the idea of using the woman’s card — she alleged that she was being targeted as she is a woman, and that’s why her credibility in Silicon Valley is being questioned. She also decided to allege herself to be a victim of sexual assault, so as to garner additional sympathy.

Recently in her court appearances (much after the book had come out) she was seen to be heavily pregnant. It was an year since the court trials begun. And very conveniently, by the end of it, she appeared 7–8 months pregnant- strongly using this as a reason for her to receive a lighter punishment on moral grounds!

It is highly disturbing how in a world filled with injustices towards women, some just try to take an advantage of it

2. Brown people in corporate culture

One cannot talk about Elizabeth Holmes without talking about her partner Sunny Balwani. Sunny is a dominant, equally-disillusioned, second-most important executive at Theranos, who is more than twice her age. Just like the company’s product, they kept their relationship a secret with the board members.

At Theranos he bullied the employees, was completely authoritative, treated employees like his slaves and expected their complete allegiance. He would keep a track of when employees came in and were leaving, and of the breaks they take. He hated it if anyone left early and was pleased with people who would work even on weekends, and who would not say No to any of his orders. He did not understand the concept of personal life and believed everyone should dedicate their every living moment to Theranos. Familiar much?

Every person who has ever worked in corporate India would have come to know at least one such person in their careers. What more, he had spies amongst his employees who would keep him posted on other employees. And these spies were usually his Indian hires — his yes-men who would do anything to please him and prosper in the company. To top it, they knew perfectly well how to escape Sunny’s own inspection of their time. If you are an Indian in the corporate world you end up becoming extra creative in your ways to escape your toxic bosses.

All this is a grim reminder of how people carry their toxicity across the globe and spread it wherever they go. Wasn’t this toxicity the reason you emigrated from your country to work elsewhere? Why pollute even that?

3. Corporate lawyers- Spies, threats and intimidation tactics

Although everyone is aware of the corporate law sharks, you get a glimpse of the levels they can go to, to achieve success. Law firms frequently use spies and other coercive tactics in front of which a common employee stands no chance. Another go-to tactics is the excruciatingly long hours of interrogation which would finally wear one out; and not to forget the debilitating effect of the amount of money a person ends up spending just to stand against a corporate firm. They would go to any lengths to tarnish a person’s image. People who have been wronged by corporate firms stand no option but to back off and vanish lest they would be ruined for life. What can a common man then do to get justice?

4. In life, it’s all about timing

For good things or for bad things to happen, often a series of events should occur at the right time. When the timing is wrong, no matter how much effort you put in, it might never get you the desired results.

John Carreyrou was tipped about Theranos by a medical blogger, who in turn was contacted by few Theranos-sufferers. Usually investigative journalism takes years on a story. As luck would have it, John just completed an investigative piece he was working for 2–3 years and was looking for something new. He needed a strong lead to even verify and pursue it. As it happened, an employee agreed to talk to him just then, despite the threats he was facing from Theranos. There are many other coincidences which fell right in the perfect sequence, despite many odds, for Theranos to be held accountable.

Same holds true for the rise of Theranos as well. Role of luck in life is far greater than we give it credit for.

5. Would you have the courage to be a whistleblower?

Not all whistleblowers go on to become heroes. Someone like Edward Snowden has been called various names like traitor, hero, coward or a patriot. Many are forced to go into hiding, leaving their countries.

So when faced with extraordinary situations, what would you do?- Would you have it in you to be a whistleblower despite all odds, for the greater good of humanity? Or would you just look out for yourself when faced with physical, monetory or career-ending risks, convincing yourself that ‘no matter what we do, nothing changes’? Sometimes all it takes is one voice to bring down the strongest of powers, but it takes a special kind of courage and heroism to be that person. Would you have it in you, to raise your voice if you see injustice done against humanity?

It is easy to sit and comment against crimes in Iran or Afghanistan, and express solidarity. But do we have it in us to make a difference?

Favourite lines from the book

Though it’s a book which is known for it’s meticulous investigation than it’s quotable quotes, the author aptly describes Elizabeth Holmes at the end of it, as follows-

“A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I’ll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile, but there’s no question that her moral compass was badly askew. I’m fairly certain she didn’t initially set out to defraud investors and put patients in harm’s way when she dropped out of Stanford fifteen years ago. By all accounts, she had a vision that she genuinely believed in and threw herself into realizing. But in her all-consuming quest to be the second coming of Steve Jobs amid the gold rush of the “unicorn” boom, there came a point when she stopped listening to sound advice and began to cut corners. Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”