Deliver Elizabeth, Adam and us from the Power of the Dog

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.


“Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!” Psalm 22:20


A version of the above was seen being read by a young man, Peter, in the final scenes of “The Power of the Dog”, a new movie by Oscar-winning director Jane Campion. Peter is a gentle soul fond of twirling to hide his sadness and is a whiz of the craft of making paper flowers. He is subject of relentless ridicule by Phil, brother of George who ends up marrying Peter’s mom Rose. Phil is a force of will to reckon with, even when he is non-confrontational and hides in his room playing banjo; a super-macho rancher, he lets known his strong disapproval with pithy epithets – so much so George walks on egg-shells around Phil and Rose is driven to alcoholism. Set in the desolately beautiful vista of 1920’s Montana, the film is poetry on celluloid, plays on complex relationships between men, insecurities both hidden and in display, and, impulses that can drive them astray.

Watching the movie, I thought of Elizabeth Holmes, a one-time poster child for American innovation and entrepreneurship till she was not. Awaiting sentencing hearing after being convicted of multiple fraud charges, she is toxic for most who’d have thrown themselves at her feet a few years back. Between Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann (Adam ruins that vision thing), fallen stars have put the American entrepreneurial ecosystem itself on trial.

Are we too good for our own good?

I have met neither but I do have a close friend and colleague who shares initials, as well as the last name, with Adam, but they are not related. I have, willingly and unreservedly, committed my entire professional self to the entrepreneurial ecosystem that birthed the two, along with Elon, Jeff, Mark, Larry, Sergei, Bill, and thousands of others, created trillions of new wealth and tens of millions of new jobs. Pitfalls of a few do not smear the overwhelming majority, but they are a good opportunity to introspect.

Let’s do a quick rewind. Elizabeth dropped out of Stanford to make real an idea she toyed with– that it is possible to use a small amount of blood, aided by the wizardry of software and innovations she claimed she had in mind, to test for a wide range of conditions. If this could be done, possibilities were of gargantuan proportions and it truly would make this world a better place. She was no doubt helped by her family connections, but more importantly, she cultivated a cult around herself that was irresistible even for the high and mighty. Fawning profiles spent inches, even reams, extolling a mystical prodigy in regulation turtleneck, jacket and slacks, her strict regimen that started her days at 4 AM, blah blah blah. Money poured in by the millions, almost a billion dollars were spent in creating the façade, and hiding the nuts and bolts, before the house of cards toppled on itself. A very persistent reporter from The Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou, went behind all the smoke-and-mirrors and began uncovering the truth despite threats and derision Holmes and company heaped on him. In about a year, the writing was on the wall and in two years Feds bring fraud charges against Holmes and her right-hand, and one-time lover, Sunny Balwani who is awaiting trial while Holmes awaits sentencing.

With Adam damage was bigger, at least financially. Adam started what could best be described as a TECS (Tech-Enabled-Commercial-Sublease) program, but he managed to garb it with enough story-telling to make him appear as a tech pioneer. Cult of Adam was global, summarized somewhere as a success story of global business in getting Saudi capital to an Israeli businessman dealing primarily in the US, through a Korean-born Japanese entrepreneur-investor Masayoshi Son, helped by South Asian bankers and minions; Son and Adam met in India for the first time but they scribbled their first deal in 16 minutes in NYC. Cult of Adam fell flat when pre-IPO prospectus brought out the data he was so good at keeping out of the limelight, helped by investigative reporting in the Journal and other outlets.

They created their cults with story-telling, physical appearances and (lack of) access – Elizabeth basked in precision and a punishing routine, Adam reveled in raw spontaneity, emotional outbursts and apparent lack of focus. Both dreamed big, and I mean audaciously humongous, earth-shattering. Both appeared to sincerely believe they were brought on earth to change the world for the better by creating new business models for staid verticals. Belief in self, a conviction in their mission and truly transformational quality of their mission took messianic proportions. Probably this aura of a Messiah – disparate in appearance as they were – that made believers out of reasonable women and men that came into their orbits.

At some level cult and business became inseparable and fed off on each other. That, however, did not make them fall.

Adam over-extended, overspent, and played footloose with corporate boundaries – at one point of time he was buying up buildings for himself with money lent to him by We group and leased it back to WeWork, We group indulged his fantasies in everything from surfboards and childcare to latest corporate jets. What was, and can well be in future, a very profitable business in a short-term rental at sky-high rates with freebies, new-age feel-good mumbo-jumbo and Adam-speak ended up deeply in the red to finance Adam’s follies. That may or not be technically illegal, but they were serious breaches of ethics. What Theranos did was undoubtedly illegal – they slapped labels from companies and conveyed explicitly that they had potentially multi-billion-dollar pipeline from pharmacy giants and government bodies. In whatever contracts they secured, they used off-the-shelf equipment to conduct tests, potentially mislabeled results with possibly devastating consequences. The cult of Elizabeth was intoxicating for generals, veteran diplomats and others to sign on as advisers, further extending the cult; the cult was powerful enough to snub out reporters’ questions on testing methods till it was not so. In other words, both strayed so far from their playing fields that playing by the rules was not even an option; stain became so dripping in blood that you had to be blind not to see it a mile away.

Elizabeth was not found guilty of “faking it till making it”, no Penal Code can ever define what it means, even as popular accounts found her guilty in people’s court. Adam was found guilty of dreaming too big too. Having lived that life for over a decade now, I am as hard-pressed as everyone else in that bauble to comprehend what’s so wrong about stretching my boundaries, side-stepping and overstepping usual assumptions, thinking of what I can do if I have enough resources and going about finding these resources and alliances. At the very minimum that’s the everyday job of an entrepreneur – our dreams and nightmares are made of these simple truths. I would argue that is true for any transformational leader in any sphere. Imagine what Mandela, King or Gandhi would do if they were to look at what they already have, and imagine a future based on that only – heck, there would be none of them if so. At the core, there is little different amongst various manifestations of a change agent – they are visionaries, they create and cultivate a story that supports their vision, they use their story to convince others to buy-in, their story and buy-in process multiply at each iteration till it reaches a critical mass.

If faking it till making it was a crime, Jesus was a true criminal and we’ve all been taking His name in vain. Or, quoting venture capitalist Tim Draper in the more prosaic context of this article, “if this scrutiny happened to every entrepreneur as they tried to make this world a better place, we would have no automobile, no smartphone, no antibiotics, and no automation, and our world would be less for it.” Precisely.

That brings me back to Psalm 22:20. The urges of the dog that deviled Adam and Elizabeth had all the marks of a beast – of chicanery and of unrequited greed, among others. Let us pray to be free of these urges. Only then we will be ushered to the steps of the promised land of entrepreneurial nirvana built upon unrepentant visions of change and unwavering confidence in the face of every contra evidence.

Deliver us and our beloved Adam and Elizabeth from the power of the dog. Amen.