Policy

For former employees, the stain of Theranos is hard to wash away

As Elizabeth Holmes' fraud trial begins, three former employees talk about moving on from such a public scandal, what they'll be watching in the case and why they don't regret working for Theranos for a minute.

Photo of Elizabeth Holmes walking.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos, is standing trial for fraud.

Photo by Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The first time Charlie realized that his time at Theranos might become a scarlet letter on his resume was in May of 2016.

It was a full seven months after reporter John Carreyrou published his first explosive exposé on the company, accusing Theranos' leaders of covering up serious accuracy issues with its widely hyped blood-test machines. Until that point, Charlie, a pseudonym for a former Theranos employee who agreed to speak with Protocol on the condition of anonymity, says he was "sipping the Kool-Aid," believing the company's CEO Elizabeth Holmes and COO Sunny Balwani when they said the Journal's accusations were bogus.

In the spring of 2016, though, Charlie saw for himself for the first time how the company's top brass was exaggerating its device's capabilities to outsiders — just like Carreyrou said they were. Charlie had just begun interviewing with other companies when the CEO of the very first startup he applied to stopped him short. "I was told by the CEO that their investors advised him not to hire anybody from Theranos, given what was going on in the media," Charlie said. "That was a wake-up call for me."

Over the last three years, Charlie and other former Theranos employees who spoke with Protocol anonymously have worked to put distance between themselves and their now infamous former employer, even as documentaries, books and podcasts have kept the company in the news. They've ducked incessant media requests for fear of a Google trail linking them to Theranos (hence the pseudonyms), fielded persistent questions from new colleagues and bosses who want to hear their war stories and rolled their eyes, but kept their mouths shut, in the face of press coverage they knew to be wrong.

The stain of Theranos has stood in the way of job opportunities, curbed former employees' appetite for risk and led them to scrutinize prospective employers almost as much as those employers have scrutinized them.

As jury selection begins Tuesday in Holmes' highly anticipated fraud trial, three former employees spoke with Protocol about what it's been like trying to move on from such a public scandal, what they'll be watching for as the case proceeds and why, despite it all, they don't regret working for Theranos for a minute. "It's the same as the Army for me," said one former employee we'll call Kevin, who is also a former U.S. Army veteran. "Even if it really sucks at certain times, you come out better for it."

'I was so desperate'

Despite the rejection he faced from that first startup, Charlie considers himself lucky in that he never actually had to be unemployed after Theranos, and did end up finding a job with a former employer who welcomed him back with open arms. Not everyone was as lucky.

When Kevin started applying to jobs in the spring of 2016, he didn't get any bites for months. One of those companies did ask him to answer for his time at Theranos, several rounds into the interview process, but he'll never know for sure whether that was a factor in their decision not to hire him. "I'd never had to look that much for a position before," Kevin said.

Things only got harder the longer employees spent at the company. Jane, who started at Theranos straight out of college and worked there for five years, said she stayed at Theranos "longer than I should have," in part because she'd never worked anywhere else and in part because she said she genuinely thought there was a way to turn the company around, a company she really thought was trying to do something good for the world. She'd started at Theranos before anyone knew Holmes' name and had watched its meteoric rise. But the swell of news stories soon became too big to ignore. "It was like: We're not actually trying to make things better," Jane said. "It sounds like we're just trying to cover up the mistakes."

Theranos logo outside office building Theranos headquartersPhoto: Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Jane spent five months searching for other jobs in health care and the tech field more broadly. Sometimes, she wouldn't even get a call back. Other times, she said she was pretty sure the companies only wanted to interview her because they were "nosy" and wanted to hear about Theranos. Eventually, she took a lower-level position in an unrelated field in tech because, she said, "I was so desperate." She lasted less than a year in that role before taking a full year off of work.

"I probably should have taken a break after Theranos, but I just didn't," Jane said. Now, she works for a giant tech company that she likes for the "security of it." "I don't want to work somewhere where the company is all about the CEO and not what the company actually does," she said.

One common thread uniting these former employees is the fact that the experience made them more risk averse in future career decisions. Kevin, who received what he said was a "generous" severance package from Theranos in the fall of 2016, found himself digging deep into the background of prospective employers. "I paid a lot more attention than I ever had before. What is the leadership saying? What is their vision for the company, and ethically, morally, how do they operate?" he said.

That's even as he tried to convince the people interviewing him that his time at Theranos might actually be an advantage. "You have to find a way to spin, if you want to call it that, the negativity into ways you problem-solved and did right by customers," he said.

Taking the job at Theranos had been "a leap" for Kevin, who moved across the country with his fiancée for the job. "I got caught up in the opportunity, for sure," he said. After that experience, and especially now that he has children, he said, "I don't think I could take a risk like that."

For Charlie, the experience made him question working in Silicon Valley altogether, with all of its moonshots and founder worship. "I sort of had this realization that I didn't want to go from startup to startup and be fully invested into these really ambitious goals, especially in the context of health care," he said.

"It's just been a rollercoaster for some of us."

All this time they were working to rebuild their careers, the news about Theranos didn't stop. There was a splashy Vanity Fair article in 2016, a formal indictment to sift through two years later. Carreyrou's book, "Bad Blood," was also released in 2018, and the next year, Alex Gibney's juicy HBO documentary "The Inventor" premiered.

For Charlie and Jane, every book, every documentary, every podcast and legal filing brought new fears that their names might soon be included — not because they thought they did anything wrong, but because they didn't want to appear in Google results. When the witness list for Holmes' trial came out last week, they scanned it first for their names and the names of their friends. "There's definitely a concern: Is my name going to be mentioned? Is so-and-so's name? There's conversations about that all the time," Charlie said. "It's just been a rollercoaster for some of us."

The desire for anonymity also brings with it the frustration of staying quiet, even in the face of coverage they thought was misleading or knew to be flat-out wrong. Charlie, Kevin and Jane all insist, for instance, that there was never any company-wide "Fuck you, Carreyrou," chant, as documented in cinematic detail by Vanity Fair. "That's definitely an example of an eye-roll moment," Kevin said of the Vanity Fair account. "I was at each town hall, and I don't ever remember there being an 'F U Carreyrou' chant at any of them." Charlie said someone did, however, dress up as Carreyrou for Halloween that year.

None of them bothered to refute the Vanity Fair story at the time, though, Charlie said, chalking it up to "the price of moving on."

Not that he wants to frame former Theranos employees as the victims. "There's been a lot of stories — and rightly so — on the impact on patients," he said. "But employees haven't had a voice. We've been somewhat handcuffed."

Still, none of the former employees who spoke with Protocol said they regretted working for Theranos. Charlie said when people ask him about his time there — and they always ask — he still tells them, "It was the highlight of my career."

If not for the deception, Jane said, "I'd still be working there. I loved it so much."

Both she and Charlie said some of their best friends in the world are people they met at Theranos, and they're still in almost daily contact through group chats of former Theranos workers. "When people suffer through trauma together that's what builds bonds," Jane said. "It was a somewhat disturbing experience, which is why we're so close."

The group chats are bound to light up as Holmes' trial begins this week, Jane said. But not everyone on those chats agrees about what the outcome should be. "Some people are sympathetic and understand she messed up, but don't want to see her in jail. Other people are like: She deserves something," Jane said, adding that she still doesn't know where she stands.

Kevin said his overwhelming feeling about the trial is sadness. "I'm not looking for a 'gotcha' moment," he said. Instead, he wants to know, "Are people going to step up and say: 'You know what? When I was there, I did something I'm not proud of.'"

Charlie's also looking for some accountability, or at least acknowledgment of what happened — the kind he said he never got. Even in the waning days of the company, he said, "There was never an acknowledgement that we fucked up."

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