Nov 29, 2021 - Economy & Business

Ex-Theranos CEO describes alleged abuse by former boyfriend and company exec

Photo collage of a gavel with a red metal band and red circles in the background.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

On her fourth day of trial testimony, ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes described her 10-year romantic relationship with former president Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani as controlling, and said he would sometimes "force me to have sex with him when I didn’t want to."

Why it matters: While Balwani has also been similarly charged with fraud, the two are being tried separately, in part because some of Holmes' defense hinges on blaming him.

  • On the stand, Holmes said she finally began to question Balwani's expertise after a negative report from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' inspection of the company's lab, which was his responsibility.

The big picture: Holmes and Balwani were charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud. Both have pleaded not guilty, and Balwani's trial is set to begin in January.

  • Holmes founded the company in 2003, and Balwani, whom she met just before starting college at Stanford, eventually joined the company as president and a board member.

What she's saying: "He would get very angry with me and would yell at me about the fact that he was so disappointed in my mediocrity and he was trying to teach me how to be better and I wasn’t listening to him and I was never going to be successful," she said on the stand, according to multiple reports from journalists in the courtroom.

  • She also testified that she was raped by a separate individual during her first year at Stanford University, which was one of the reasons she decided to drop out of school. When she told Balwani about it, "he said that I was safe, now that I had met him," she added.
  • Holmes said that when she told Balwani she wanted to start a company, he told her she didn't have what it took, but he could teach her. "I needed to be working 7 days a week, I needed to be in the office 7 days a week, and I needed to be only doing things that would make me successful," she said.
  • Balwani wrote notes for her, outlining how she should interact with employees and schedule her days, which began at 4 a.m. Her legal team also presented text messages from Balwani in which he criticizes her way of speaking during meetings, and messages in which Holmes reflected on his comments that she needed to be more masculine as a business leader.
  • In more texts from Balwani, per Holmes’ notes presented as evidence at trial, he told her he was upset at how she was running the company and felt like he’d wasted the five years he had worked at Theranos.
  • Commenting on the stand on notes she took after one occasion of forced intercourse, Holmes said she "was lying there... I couldn't understand why I was hurting myself why I wasn’t leaving."
  • After Balwani left the company in 2016, Holmes decided to end their romantic relationship and moved out of his house while he was on a trip to Thailand.

The bottom line: While she denied that Balwani directed her to make any statements to investors and journalists, she added that "he impacted everything about who I was and I don't fully understand that."

Go deeper: Ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes testifies in her own defense

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