Advice from the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire in the world

5 November 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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“What’s the thing you love, and that you’re so incredibly passionate about that if you got fired you’d still want to do it?” When Elizabeth Holmes, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire asked a roomful of people at the recently held Forbes Under 30 Summit; she was speaking out of her own experience. Holmes holds the title because driving her vision was innovation and doing things differently. 

While accepting the Under 30 Doers Award for making expensive lab tests accessible to anyone, Holmes had in fact made a considerable impact with her words. “We believe that transparency empowers the individual and empowering the individual will change the system,” she outlined her vision in an interview with Forbes.

Ranked at No 121 on the Forbes 400 list this year, Holmes is the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. Her company Theranos produces blood tests that can test for multiple sicknesses using less blood than required by the standard tests. It also sells them at a lower cost: over 200 tests priced under US $ 10.

With a father who worked for USAID, she says that watching her father and his colleagues at work made her realize that when she grew up, she wanted to do something that would change people’s lives. She was driven by the need to do something that would help people - that would empower them every day.

There are many other roads to making an impact in people’s lives – many would assume it can be done through a political or a community concern. But Holmes knew better – she believed that building and sustaining a business could make things different and take it further.

“Building a business could be a vehicle for making a difference in the world. If I could build a product that would make a difference in people’s lives, what would that product be?” was her take on the subject. She obviously saw a lot more than others did in everyday things. How many others would find boring, standardized testing of blood for disease, appealing? Often, young entrepreneurs like to choose industries that are appealing and secure. Holmes clearly made a difference because she could see through the clutter and clearly identify need gaps.

She finally found her calling in blood tests – because it is something that could change the experience of “saying goodbye to people we love”. She says she saw too many people die because they found out too late that they had a condition that would eventually kill them. 


“Controversy isn’t always bad”  
The accessibility Theranos has given to patients has raised some eyebrows in a highly competitive industry. Some claim that Holmes isn’t helping patients when giving them access to tests and information; they believe it is fuelling a culture of over testing and hypochondria. Holmes has also been accused of not making information available on how their tests work and how they could be made much cheaper than others. Holmes says it is because the industry does not want to see anyone making a difference.

“Blood tests are not always accessible to people at the time that matters.” She says one of the reasons why tests are not available to the average individual is that they must be ordered by a doctor. What inspired Holmes was the fact that pregnancy tests were available at the pharmacy – why should any other tests be different? Applying a simple but powerful concept to hundreds of other tests was the Eureka moment for Holmes. Theranos did get FDA clearance for a herpes test in 2015; information is available online how to use it.

Holmes told other young entrepreneurs present that controversy isn’t always bad. She says she believes it can be a good thing when it comes to making the right decisions. “You’ll get knocked down over and over and over again, and you get back up,” she said. “I’ve been knocked down a lot, and it became really clear that this was what I wanted to do, and I would start this company over 10,000 times if I had to.”

Holmes says Theranos does try to reinvent itself every 12 months – there are 130 more pre submissions for tests in the FDA planned and she believes she is ready for the challenge.

So what can we learn from a young woman who chose to take on a whole new life-changing concept when the others of her age are content with less serious topics like fashion and beauty? What insights can be gleaned from her journey of entrepreneurship?  The lessons are there for hundreds if not thousands of young people who want to and can indeed make a difference as Holmes chose to do. 

(Nayomini Weerasooriya, a senior journalist, writer and a PR professional, can be contacted at nayominiweerasooriya@gmail.com)
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