Elizabeth Holmes was born in 1984 in Washington, D.C., the first of two children. Her father worked in the United States, Africa, and China for government agencies dealing in disaster relief, including the U.S. Agency for International Development. Holmes’s mother had worked for a member of Congress, but she stayed home to care for her family following her daughter’s birth. “I am so grateful for my parents,” says Holmes. “I’m sure they have shaped me in more ways than I know, but one thing they did from the start was help me realize my full potential.”
Holmes remembers her childhood home being covered with photos showing the effect family members had on those in need through public service. She enjoyed hearing stories of relatives, including a distant relationship to the founder of Fleischman’s Yeast. Her great-great-grandfather was a surgeon, engineer, inventor, and a decorated World War I veteran. He was born in Denmark and was the dean of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine. His career intrigued Holmes. “My parents worked in public service, and I realized at a young age that to me, the purpose of life is to make a difference in the world,” she says. “I was often thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and how I would find a way to make a difference.”
As a child, Holmes frequently had her nose in a book. “I was privileged to have parents who encouraged a creative environment and never questioned the science-oriented direction of my interests,” she says. “When I was seven, I came up with a comprehensive design for a time machine, and I was deeply convinced I could build this machine. My parents fully encouraged me and very seriously supported my enthusiasm.”
At the age of nine, Elizabeth moved with her parents to Houston for her father’s job, which often took him to China. Interested in his stories about the Far East, Holmes and her younger brother took it upon themselves to learn Mandarin Chinese.
Holmes liked school and describes herself as an “intense student.” As a teenager, she took college-level courses in China, which deeply affected her outlook. “China is an incredibly culturally rich country,” she says. “To have this experience at an impressionable age gave me a new definition of what a norm is. To be exposed to different cultures that are so unique through moves to different places reshaped my own understanding of ‘normal.’”
After taking programming courses in school, she realized that many schools in China did not have access to the same type of software tools available in the United States at that time. “I felt that if they could become available in China, it would dramatically accelerate and improve people’s access to information,” she says. Holmes began a business that sold C++ compilers (a program that translates human code into computer machine code) to Chinese universities. “This little business was a real learning experience for me,” she says. “It was this point that I began to view business as a vehicle for making a change in the world. I had always assumed I would go into public service, but the idea of doing something good through business began to resonate very strongly with me.”
Holmes had always wanted to attend Stanford University. She was aware of the school’s excellence in technology, and she had visited the campus while living briefly in California. She enrolled in 2002 in Stanford’s School of Engineering and quickly started making a name for herself. She was named a President’s Scholar and given a $3,000 stipend to pursue a research project—on top of her research as part of other Stanford programs. Holmes won a Merck Award in Chemical Engineering through which she earned additional research stipends, and she applied her childhood knowledge of Mandarin toward a laboratory internship at the Genome Institute of Singapore, which was in the process of developing new methods to detect the SARS virus at the time.
Throughout her work in the Engineering School at Stanford, Holmes had been thinking about better ways to conduct laboratory tests. In 2003, she applied for a patent for a wearable patch that would help administer a drug, monitor the variables in the patient’s blood, and adjust the dosage to achieve the desired effect. Shortly thereafter, she decided to drop out of school to start a business. Her parents had her invest in her new company the money that they had saved all their lives for her education. In 2003, at the age of 19, Holmes established what was then named Real-Time Cures in Palo Alto. She later changed the company’s name to Theranos—an amalgam of “therapy” and “diagnosis”— which refers to the detection of disease in time for therapy to be effective, in contrast to the existing diagnostic system that is built around detection of disease on the basis of symptoms. That system often results in diagnoses too late in the disease progression process to make a meaningful effect.
Holmes built Theranos around her patents and the belief that access to health information is a basic human right. “I believe the individual is the answer to the challenges of healthcare,” she has often said. “But we can’t engage the individual in changing outcomes unless individuals have access to the information they need to do so.”
For more than a decade, she has led Theranos from concept to reality, enabling a new paradigm of early detection and prevention. The company’s breakthrough advancements have made it possible to quickly process the full range of laboratory tests from a few drops of blood—instead of numerous tubes—and at unprecedented low costs. Those advancements were made directly accessible to people and their physicians through Theranos Wellness Centers.
When asked if she was afraid to leave school to start a business, Holmes replies, “No, I was not afraid. I think when you find what you love to do and you would do it over and over again for no money at all, then you have discovered your passion. I found what I was born to do, and that was all I needed to know to do whatever it took to make this vision a reality for every person.”
Holmes has a philosophy that she tries to follow in all aspects of both her business and personal life. “A lot of people talk about the pursuit of perfection,” she says. “But for me, it has always been the perfection of the pursuit—no matter how big or small the goal is. I strive for excellence in every aspect of my life and chose to devote every aspect of my life to our mission and our work.”
In offering advice to college students, she points out the importance of finding one’s passion and realizing one’s full potential; she especially likes to quote Winston Churchill, who said, “Never, never, never give up,” as well as her own belief that if you can imagine it, you can achieve it. “We live in such an incredible country—a 19-year-old girl can drop out of school here and build something like Theranos,” she says. “I don’t believe this can happen only for me here. Anyone who has a dream in our country can make it a reality.”
Holmes encourages girls and young women to pursue science and technology. “I hope to help show young women that we can be the best in those fields; we can be successful in business and be great mothers,” she says. “Being able to do whatever I can to contribute in this context matters deeply to me, and I strive to live my life in such a way that it might serve as a proof point for others.”
Holmes also believes that affordable and efficient healthcare is a basic human and civil right. She built Theranos as a vehicle to ensure every person can access their own health information at the time it matters. “I see a world in which people can detect the onset of disease before symptoms occur and in time for therapy to be effective, without having to say goodbye too soon,” she says. “It is a very big goal and mission; this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Holmes says she is humbled by her Horatio Alger Award. “I have such respect for this organization and the mission here,” she says. “I want to serve as a resource to the Scholars and to help and encourage them in finding and pursuing their dreams.”