Noblesse Oblige: Thicker than Water
A useful postscript to my reading of Bad Blood and my blog posts about the podcast The Dropout, both of which examined the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos story, is Tyler Shultz’s new Audible podcast, Thicker Than Water.
Shultz is, of course, the grandson of George Shultz and the whistleblower who began the process of exposing the lies and misrepresentations behind Holmes and Theranos.
In much the same way that my most pressing question about Holmes and her company was “How could anyone do this?” my most pressing question about Tyler Shultz when I encountered him in Carreyrou’s book and The Dropout was, “How did he do this?” Among the many people who knew, should have known, or seem to have known how badly Theranos’s technology was failing and how boldly Holmes was lying about it, how is it that Tyler Shultz was the one who decided he had to do something?
Shultz’s podcast, I think, provides some helpful answers. He’s clearly a smart and charming young man, who has led a life as protected by as much privilege as any American can hope for. I don’t mean that he’s part of some incredibly wealthy, hard-partying jet-set. I just mean that he’s the youngest generation of a famous family, who attended good schools, got good internships, and was brought up with the understanding that his opinions matter and that what happens to him is worthy of note.
He could be annoying if he weren’t clearly such a good guy (and I do confess to eye rolling over a few self-indulgent moments in the podcast). But one of the things we don’t talk about when we talk about the problems caused by inherited privilege is that, sometimes, it can have a good side.
Tyler Shultz is fairly clear that he got his internship with Theranos because his grandfather is George Shultz. But it’s equally apparent that the sense of his own significance and the assumption that he would be listened to and taken seriously are part of what allowed him to turn Theranos in.
The heart-breaking part of the podcast is hearing Shultz talk about his realization that, somehow, his grandfather’s loyalties had switched to Holmes and to Theranos, and away from his grandson. He still sounds baffled when he mentions she was invited to family parties from which he was excluded. And the pain in his voice is unforgettable when he discusses the ways his grandfather pressured him to retract his statements about Theranos despite mounting evidence that he was right about the company’s lies. Shultz’s decision to do the right thing was clearly agonizing, yet he stuck to it.
It’s easy to be dismissive of young white men who have easy roads to travel in their lives. There are probably some good reasons for it, too. But the Thicker Than Water podcast will remind you that there is always more to people that we initially think. Just as the world’s first impressions of Elizabeth Holmes’s as a technological wunderkind turned out to be hopelessly, painfully, mistaken, my first impression of Tyler Shultz as “just another one of those kids who wanders into class late, unprepared, and hungover, wearing Nike slides and a ball cap” was mistaken.
Underneath the soft sheen of his privilege, Tyler Shultz is a man to respect, and one whose insistence on sticking to his principles has done more for market tested innovation than Elizabeth Holmes and her former company ever did.