The Dropout Who Became A CEO, And The Professor Who Became Her Employee

By EverwiseOctober 24, 2014

We recently published a “Famous Protégé” post about Sara Blakey, the founder of Spanx, who became the youngest self-made female billionaire. She’s since been surpassed, as was signaled on cover of the famous Forbes 400 issue.

30-year old Elizabeth Holmes is the founder and CEO of Theranos, a blood testing company valued at more than $9 billion. She started the company 10 years ago, electing to drop out of her sophomore year at Stanford University.

Holmes made these decisions in consultation with her mentor, an exalted chemical engineer and Stanford professor named Channing Robertson. She had approached him about starting a company together. While Robertson was initially reluctant, he did grow to endorse Holmes’ leaving school and becoming an entrepreneur, and even ultimately accepted her job offer, now serving as a Theranos employee.

From Seminar To Startup

The inspiration to start a business came from Holmes taking Robertson’s freshman seminar on advanced drug-delivery devices. This, and a summer internship at the Genome Institute in Singapore, spawned her idea of a patch that would dispense a drug while monitoring a patient’s blood, as well as sending the results to the patient and doctor.

“I knew she was different,” says Robertson. “The novelty of how she would view a complex technical problem—it was unique in my experience.”

His initial hesitancy about Holmes dropping out of school was overcome once he understood why she wanted to do it. In her own words, “Systems like this could completely revolutionize how effective health care is delivered. And this is what I want to do. I don’t want to make an incremental change in some technology in my life. I want to create a whole new technology, and one that is aimed at helping humanity at all levels regardless of geography or ethnicity or age or gender.”

Robertson was sold. “I realized I could have just as well been looking into the eyes of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates.” And so, Robertson encouraged Holmes in her decision.

The student emerging from an elite university to become a prominent entrepreneur is a familiar tale associated with legendary names. In fact, another recent “Famous Protégé” post also had Stanford origins, when Hewlett-Packard was founded with mentorship of the company’s namesakes by professor Fred Terman. While those two decided to stay on through graduation, Holmes opted to use the funds her parents had saved for Stanford tuition to start her own business.

Well beyond that initial investment, Theranos (derived from “therapy” and “diagnosis”) went on to raise more than $400 million and complete an IPO. Its patented device transforms a painless finger prick to as many as 70 tests run within hours at a fraction alternative costs. The company is expanding through a Walgreens partnership spurring nationwide rollout to wellness centers.

Team Effort

Throughout this process, Robertson has provided his business and technical expertise, and leveraged his personal prominence. The board of directors on which he once served now includes people whose prior experience includes three cabinet posts, two senate seats, a general, an admiral and a director of the US Center for Disease Control.

Last year Robertson became a full time employee of Theranos. “I gave up two endowed chairs to do this,” he says. “I think that’s a statement.”

Holmes stated that team building has been the most fundamental element of Theranos’ success. She believes that the company is only as good as its people. “The people you choose to work with absolutely determine the success or the failure of the company that you may start.” Throughout her entrepreneurial journey one of those people, in a variety of capacities, has always been the mentor whose teachings and consultation were key to her getting started.

Lessons From Elizabeth Holmes

  • Responsibility to develop a mentoring relationship often resides with the protégé, evidenced here by Holmes proactively approaching Robertson about starting a company together.
  • While not everybody can aspire to revolutionize healthcare, ambitious goals do help attract great mentors.
  • A mentor can validate the potential of a protégé who’s not yet sufficiently experienced to fully grasp that herself, as Robertson did in starting to see comparable qualities to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
  • Mentoring relationships can encompass multiple disciplines in this case spanning several aspects of both science and business.
  • Relationships between mentors and protégés can remain vibrant while transforming over time, as it has with Robertson’s connection to Holmes evolving from professor to company director to employee.

Could you be mentoring the next Elizabeth Holmes? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.



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