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Who was Elizabeth Holmes when no one else was looking? Hulu’s new series ‘The Dropout’ pulls back the curtain

March 1, 2022, 4:30 PM UTC

Elizabeth Meriwether, the television producer who rose to fame from the television series New Girl, knows what it’s like to get in a little over your head. It’s one of the reasons she connected with the story of Elizabeth Holmes—that along with sharing the same first name.

“I started New Girl when I was 29, and so I had experience being young and in a position of power before I sort of knew what I was doing,” she tells me. 

Meriwether is the showrunner for Hulu’s new limited series, The Dropout, based on the podcast of the same name by ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis. The series, which stars Amanda Seyfried as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes and Naveen Andrews as Theranos COO Sunny Balwani, airs this Thursday.

Meriwether and I sat down at the end of last week to talk about power, gender, scrappiness, and fraud. Mostly, our conversation revolved around who Holmes might have been as a human being—the person and thoughts behind the woman facing up to 20 years in prison for fraud who has largely become a symbol of Silicon Valley culture gone wrong. 

“I was just really trying to look for clues on who she was when she was alone, who she was when nobody was looking,” Meriwether says.

Amanda Seyfried, pictured, plays Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu's new limited series on the rise and fall of blood testing startup Theranos.
Amanda Seyfried, pictured, plays Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu’s new limited series on the rise and fall of blood testing startup Theranos.
Beth Dubber—Hulu

The show spans a 12-year period of Holmes’ life and navigates a slew of investors, employees, advisors, and whistleblowers who play a role in the rise and demise of a startup that promised to deliver test results with a single drop of blood. But the scenes that stick out most are those of Holmes alone: Staring out the window of her office after firing one of her first employees; dancing to hip hop in her car, thinking no one was looking; or repeating sentences to herself in the mirror over and over, in what feels like a reach for confidence. The very first scene of the show is Holmes at age 11, running on a track far behind everyone else, refusing to quit until she crosses the finish line. The show, of course, is dramatized; and the creative expression is obvious. But the sentiment, and some of the precise language and scenes, Meriwether pulled out directly from research: Details and pieces of Holmes’ life from The Dropout podcast, or exchanges from texts between Holmes and Balwani that emerged during the trial.

“I’d spent years kind of trying to figure out what those conversations would be and just really trying to imagine what that relationship was,” Meriwether says of getting access to Holmes and Balwani’s personal text messages when the trial commenced about two-thirds through the production process. “It was happening while we were shooting. So I was staying up late at night going over hundreds of text messages … Trying to cut and paste and take things that I thought were interesting.”

Meriwether says she took creative liberty in depicting how Homes’ gender was intertwined with her rise to power as the youngest self-made billionaire in the world (per Forbes, 2015), as well as her downfall. “I don’t really know what she was thinking or doing,” Meriwether says. 

At the same time, you can feel that dichotomy throughout the series—Holmes as the only woman in the room, feeling the need to prove or change herself to be taken seriously. Scenes also depicted times she may have used gender, and an aura of innocence, to her advantage as things began to turn sour. “I think gender is a part of the story. I don’t think it’s the whole story,” Meriwether notes. 

When Searchlight Television first approached her about the show, Meriwether says she was skeptical about whether there was anything new to bring to the table. At that point, there had been podcasts, a book, a documentary, and thousands of articles. But she ultimately decided that an in-the-moment, human look at Holmes could add to the conversation. “That’s a story that I felt like hadn’t been told as much,” she says, adding later: “I don’t have answers. I think I have more questions.”

After all the research and the filming, what questions did she still have? For one, Meriwether says she can’t understand what was running through Holmes’ head when she decided to go ahead and put Theranos devices into Walgreens stores—”knowing that real people were going to get their blood tested with it. That’s something that—it was really hard to access that moment with her and what was going on in her head… I still struggle with that.”

The Dropout offers a glimpse at who the woman behind the red lipstick and the Steve Jobs-esque black turtleneck might really be. It’s no exact portrait, but it does feed our curiosity in the question many of us have been asking for years: Who was Elizabeth Holmes, really?

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
Email: jessica.mathews@fortune.com
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VENTURE DEALS

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- Kin Insurance, a Chicago-based direct-to-consumer home insurance company, raised $82 million in Series D funding led by QED Growth and was joined by investors including Commerce Ventures, Flourish Ventures, Hudson Structured Capital Management, Alpha Edison, Allegis NL Capital, Avanta Ventures, August Capital, Geodesic Capital, and PROOF.VC.

- GridPoint, a Reston, Va.-based energy management and optimization company for buildings, raised $75 million in funding led by the Sustainable Investing Group and was joined by investors including Shell Ventures

- ​Nayya Health, a New York-based benefits experience and healthcare management platform, raised $55 million in Series C financing led by existing investor ICONIQ Growth and was joined by investors including Transformation Capital, Felicis Ventures, and SemperVirens

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- Disco, a Toronto-based educational software platform for knowledge creators and organizations, raised $15 million in Series A funding led by GSV Ventures.

- Sourcemap, a New York-based provider of end-to-end supply chain due diligence software, raised $10 million in Series A funding led by Energize Ventures and was joined by investors including E14 Fund.

- XRHealth, a Brookline, Mass.-based virtual health clinic in the metaverse, raised $10 million in funding from investors including HTC, Bridges Israel, AARP, crowdfunding on StartEngine.com, and existing investors.

- Orkes, a Cupertino, Calif.-based microservices and workflow platform, raised $9.3 million in funding co-led by Battery Ventures and Vertex Ventures US

- ​​Calyptia, a San Francisco-based stream processing platform for data management, raised $5 million in seed funding led by Sierra Ventures and Carbide Ventures

- Testsigma, a San Francisco-based automated testing platform for web and app development, raised $4.6 million in seed funding led by Accel and STRIVE and was joined by investors including BoldCap, co-founder and CTO of Freshworks Shanmugam Krishnasamy, co-founder and vp of engineering at Freshworks Kiran Darisi, co-founder and principal engineer at Freshworks Parsuram Vijayasankar, CEO of Ally.io Vetri Vellore, CEO at B12 Nitesh Banta, co-founder at Pintek Ioann Fainsilber, and others.

- Common Paper, a Beaverton, Ore.-based commercial contracting software company, raised $4.5 million in seed funding, co-led by Boldstart Ventures and Uncork Capital and was joined by investors including CEO of Carta Henry Ward, CEO of UiPath Daniel Dines, and co-founders of TechGC Greg Raiten and Kiran Lingam.

- CryptoTaxCalculator, a Sydney, Australia-based platform for simplifying crypto tax calculations, raised $2.9 million in seed funding led by AirTree Ventures and was joined by investors including Coinbase Ventures and 20VC.

- Visionary.ai, a Tel Aviv, Israel-based startup that uses A.I. to make cameras operate better, raised an additional $2.5 million in seed funding led by Ibex Investors and was joined by investors including Spring Ventures and Capital Point.

- point.me, a New York-based flight award travel tool, raised $2 million in seed funding from investors including WndrCo Holdings, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dropbox founder Sujay Jaswa, former DreamWorks Animation president Ann Daily, Skinnygirl founder and CEO Bethenny Frankel, Paul Bernon, David M. Baggett, and Carl de Marcken.

- ​​NextGem, a Grand Rapids, Minn.-based social app built for sports trading card enthusiasts, raised $1.8 million in pre-seed funding led by Great North Ventures and was joined by investors including SK Ventures, Groove Capital, Gopher Angels, ESPN analyst Matthew Berry, former Minnesota Twin baseball player Corey Koskie, and Ryan McKillen

PRIVATE EQUITY

- Firmament acquired a minority stake in Forest Incentives, a Warminster, Pa.-based provider of third-party logistics and procurement services. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- Hudson Hill Capital acquired a majority stake in Blue.cloud, a Tampa, Fla.-based cloud technology services company. Financial terms were not disclosed.

- Thompson Street Capital Partners’s portfolio company, Len The Plumber acquired Canady’s, a Savannah, Ga.-based full-service provider of residential HVAC and plumbing. Financial terms were not disclosed.

OTHER

- Software AG acquired StreamSets, a San Francisco-based data integration platform, for €524M million ($585.5 million).

- Otonomo Technologies agreed to acquire The Floow, a Sheffield, U.K.-based telematics data gathering system, in a cash and stock deal valued at approximately $69 million

- Drip acquired Sleeknote, an Aarhus, Denmark-based onsite engagement tool for commerce brands. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

- Global Healthcare Exchange acquired Syft, a Tampa, Fla.-based supply chain management platform. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

- TripActions, acquired Resia AB, a Falkenberg, Sweden-based travel management company. Financial terms were not disclosed.

FUNDS + FUNDS OF FUNDS

- Electric Capital, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based venture capital firm, raised $1 billion for its third early stage fund and a new digital token fund.

PEOPLE

- Lincoln International, a Chicago-based global investment bank, hired Antoine Dupont-Madinier, Max Cornu-Thenard and Jay Bliley as managing directors. Formerly, Dupont-Madinier and Cornu-Thenard were with Panmure Gordon, and Bliley was with Stephens, Inc.

- Slow Ventures, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, hired Yoni Rechtman as principal. Formerly, he was with Tusk Ventures.

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