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The Ethical Dilemma Facing Silicon Valley’s Next Generation

By The Ringer

February 7, 2019

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At Stanford University's business school, above the stage where Elizabeth Holmes once regurgitated the myths of Silicon Valley, there now hangs a whistle splattered in blood. More than 500 people have gathered to hear the true story of Theranos, the $9-billion blood-testing company Holmes launched in 2004 as a Stanford dropout with the help of one of the school's famed chemical engineering professors. But Holmes is not here. Instead, students are learning from Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung, the young company insiders who were fresh out of college when they alerted government agencies that the secretive startup was doctoring lab results and endangering patients. On the projector screen above the two guest speakers, the ominous whistle is paired with the provocative title for the event: "Spilling the Blood of a Silicon Valley Unicorn."

When Holmes was weaving the elaborate lies that ultimately led to the dissolution of her company, she leaned heavily on tech truisms that treat dogged pursuit of market domination as a virtue. "The minute that you have a backup plan, you've admitted that you're not going to succeed," she said onstage in 2015. But Schultz and Cheung, who faced legal threats from Theranos for speaking out, push back against the idea of pursuing a high-minded vision at all costs. "We don't know how to handle new technologies anymore," Cheung says, "and we don't know the consequences necessarily that they'll have."

The words resonate in the jam-packed auditorium, where students line up afterward to nab selfies with and autographs from the whistleblowers. Kendall Costello, a junior at Stanford, idolized Holmes in high school and imagined working for Theranos one day. Now she's more interested in learning how to regulate tech than building the next product that promises to change the world. "I really aspired to kind of be like her in a sense," Costello says. "Then two years later, in seeing her whole empire crumble around her, in addition to other scandals like Facebook's Cambridge Analytica and all these things that are coming forward, I was just kind of disillusioned."

The growing skepticism of the inherent goodness of technology has made its way to the industry's most fertile recruiting ground. Stanford is known as "The Farm" because the verdant 8,000-acre campus was once home to founder Leland Stanford's horses, but today tech firms and venture capitalists treat the 16,000-person student body like their own minor league ball club. Companies pay big bucks for the privilege of hosting recruiting events on campus. Graduates often have their pick of world-famous tech giants to work for, with starting salaries for computer science and electrical engineering majors averaging $114,000 in 2018. Thanks to the school's close ties to the industry, more than 6,000 companies have been birthed by Stanford minds, including more than a few—such as Hewlett-Packard, Google, and Netflix—that did, in fact, change the world. Stanford is the Valley. It's right there in the first sentence of the college brochure.


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