The once high-flying biotech startup Theranos continues to be in the news, but for all the wrong reasons, serving as a cautionary tale to the next generation of entrepreneurs eyeing Silicon Valley careers. That context made a recent event at Stanford featuring two former Theranos employees, who joined the company fresh out of college, all the more relevant.
Tyler Shultz (Stanford, '13) and Erika Cheung (UC Berkeley, '13) were the courageous whistleblowers who alerted investigators about the fraudulent claims at the heart of blood-testing startup. On Jan. 14, 2019, they recounted their experiences before hundreds Stanford students and others at the university for an event appropriately titled "Spilling the Blood of a Silicon Valley Unicorn."
“Since when did 2 + 2 = 6?” Cheung recalled asking herself while she was working at the now-shuttered startup. Her confusion arose when she reported worrying lab results about patient blood samples to her supervisors. Instead of offering support, they resorted to what she considered to be gaslighting tactics, leading Cheung to believe that she “was the crazy one.”
Shultz, who joined Theranos when he was still a junior at Stanford, shared similar experiences of bewilderment at the company. At one point, he described a time when he and his coworkers decided to test their own blood for syphilis on Theranos machines. To their surprise, “a ton of us tested positive,” he said. Shultz knew something had gone terribly wrong, but when he reported it, his lab manager shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guys, it’s not impossible.”
Stunned in disbelief, Shultz knew this was a red flag. How could a company ignore major flaws in its technology when real patients were relying on it? For him, the myth of Theranos’s revolutionary technology had been shattered. He decided to speak out and warn others.
Capturing the struggles of Cheung and Shultz as they recounted their harrowing experiences at Theranos was Sasankh Munukutla, a Stanford undergraduate and member of the student group CS+Social Good. He posed difficult questions to them about Silicon Valley culture, the scope of employee culpability, and the personal and emotional toll it took on them to take on a multibillion-dollar company on their own.
“I don’t think I could have taken a class that could have prepared me for this,” Shultz remarked as he recalled how his parents almost had to sell their home to cover his legal fees. During Cheung’s retelling of her own fear and struggles, she said, “I had a burner phone for over a year because I was afraid my phone was being tapped.” How does one prepare for that kind of stress?
Nevertheless, they persevered, and their story serves as an important reminder to undergraduates that the path toward doing the right thing is not always easy. This message sometimes clashes with the “can do” approach that dominates Silicon Valley, in which acting ethically to fix the world’s problems is sometimes reduced to engineering projects that can be fixed with an app here, and a tweak there.
Indeed, many see the Theranos saga as a canary in the coal mine, warning us of the impending dangers that await if we adopt wholesale a Silicon Valley approach to solving problems in society — in particular, in health care and education. In spite of this, the whistleblowers remained optimistic about the path forward and reminded us that “most entrepreneurs are just really passionate, smart people.”
However, when asked about whether an “alternative culture” is necessary to remedy the laissez-faire mentality in Silicon Valley, Cheung remarked, “Just be honest. Just be transparent. It’s such a simple thing that it’s almost hard to say that it’s an alternative culture.”
It is perhaps a foreboding sign that one must preach the most basic principles of honesty to some of the most powerful and influential entrepreneurs of our time. It’s a start, but Shultz and Cheung’s experiences have shown us that it can take great personal sacrifice to rectify seemingly obvious ethical lapses. If this is true, much more work needs to be done to encourage serious ethical reflection in our future generation of leaders.
This event was supported by a new initiative at the Center for Ethics in Society to promote undergraduate engagement with ethics outside the classroom. Through its partnership with CS+Social Good, the Center was able to reach hundreds of students who are now wrestling with deep questions about what kind of impact they want to have on society after graduation. Going forward, the Center plans to continue building strong relationships with student groups on campus, and to expand its offering of events that encourage ethical reflection.