Elizabeth Anne Holmes was raised to be special, to be a "somebody." At 9 or 10, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said she wanted to be a billionaire.
Her family background on both sides was very grand, at least back in the day. An ancestor was one of Napoleon's top field generals, another started a big company, although there were reversals of fortune and they seemed to have got shabbier as time went on. Her father Chris exhorted her to leave her mark on the world, claw back her lost status; that she would need to accomplish something that furthered humanity's good, not just become rich.
"I grew up with those stories about greatness, " Elizabeth Holmes told the New Yorker. "And about people deciding not to spend their lives on something purposeful and what happens to them when they make that choice – the impact on character and quality of life."
So Holmes decided to spend her life on something purposeful, founding the blood testing company Theranos at age 19. But hey ho. It turns out she will have left her mark on the world for very different reasons than those her father might have hoped.
She sure rose high before she fell. Former US secretary of state George Schultz described Holmes: "Everywhere you look with this young lady, there's a purity of motivation." And US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said: "She has probably one of the most mature and well-honed sense of ethics- personal ethics, managerial ethics, business ethics, medical ethics that I've ever heard articulated."
Cough, cough. It would be fair to say there is not much in the way of purity or ethics surrounding Holmes now.
This week she was charged with criminal fraud and could spend decades in prison. Her company, which at one stage had a valuation of US$9 billion (NZ$13 billion), was based on inflated claims it had special technology allowing it to do instant tests on tiny amounts of blood. This was a sham. A lab she showed investors was a fake. And, as Jon Carreyrou writes in his brilliant expose, Bad Blood: Secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup, Holmes pushed ahead with a trial of her flawed technology on cancer sufferers, despite knowing it didn't work.
How did it go so wrong? And are we doing our kids a disservice if, like Chris Holmes, we are exhorting them to pursue greatness? Are our grandiose hopes for our children perversely setting them up to fail? Not everyone can be the next Steve Jobs.
Once upon a time, people who went into business were assumed to be in it for the money. At least with robber barons or a Rockefeller or a Murdoch, you knew where you stood. They were ruthless and greedy. End of.
These days, it's not so clear who is genuinely altruistic and who is simply an arsehole with a snazzy marketing pitch.
Because these days pretty much everyone in business says they want to change the world. This is not a bad thing, obviously. Holmes' technology, if it had worked, might have revolutionised lab tests, making them more accessible and cheaper and benefitted many people.
The problem is, it didn't work. And yet so many people desperately wanted the story to be true, they put aside their scepticism and better judgment. It might have helped if there was a bit less hero-worship of young entrepreneurs. And we may not be Silicon Valley but I notice we increasingly do that fawning thing here, too.
Recently, local entrepreneurs gathered at an extravagant party at the former Dotcom mansion in Auckland. The party with a Great Gatsby theme was hosted by 22-year-old Jake Millar, and Newshub said it was a chance to meet "somebodies" (the old, much-maligned Kiwi egalitarianism has truly fallen by the wayside).
Millar has raised a seven figure sum for his advertorial site Unfiltered, containing "uplifting" interviews with entrepreneurs. Good luck to him, although I'm not sure how much good it is doing.
Those who are feature on the site are not interviewed by journalists and get the right to vet what's shown, so Unfiltered is unlikely to ever give a warts-and-all look at a company let alone break a story like the Theranos expose. That was laid bare by Carreyrou, from the Wall Street Journal, a paper owned by someone I regard as Dr Evil, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch doesn't make any proclamations to "do good" but one story like that is probably contributing more to the world than 1000 puff pieces about wannabe do-gooders. The world is full of paradox, eh?
And maybe we are more likely to encourage young people to change the world, not by exhorting them to Napoleonic greatness, but by helping them stay in touch with their own basic goodness as human beings.
While I was writing this, I just asked my 10-year-old son what he wants to be when he grows up. "I just want to be a normal citizen that just works on things during the day." Dude, that's fine by me.