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There is no question that Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani played a pivotal role in Elizabeth Holmes’ life, for better or worse. But, was she really still a teenager when she met him?
“The Dropout,” Hulu’s new series based on the life and crimes of Elizabeth Holmes, depicts the pair meeting when Holmes was just 18 and Balwani was well into his thirties. In the series, Balwani and Holmes meet while on a 2002 trip to Beijing, China; the trip was part of a Mandarin immersion college program in which both were enrolled.
In the series, when Balwani tells Holmes that he sold a software company for $40 million, young Holmes — who idolized Steve Jobs — perks up. They began a platonic friendship which continued through Holmes’ time at Stanford University. Balwani became a mentor to Holmes, talking to her on the phone for hours at a time, advising her own how to be successful in business.
“I talked to him about wanting to start a company that I tried to build in high school, and asked for his advice,” she testified during her recent trial last year, Mercury News reported.
Ultimately, Holmes and Balwani’s relationship turned romantic, and Holmes testified that he controlled her, coaching her on how to act, look and spend her time. She said he also had control over how she ran Theranos, the medical technology company she built, which offered a blood testing device that Holmes claimed could perform dozens of tests using minuscule amounts of blood.
“Balwani told me that I didn’t know what I was doing in business and that my convictions were wrong, that he was astonished at my mediocrity and if I followed my instincts, I was going to fail," she testified.
She said that under Balwani’s influence, she “needed to kill the person that I was to become what he called ‘the new Elizabeth,’ to become a successful entrepreneur.”
Holmes’ defense team accused Balwani of intimate partner violence and argued that Holmes was deceiving investors at the behest of her former romantic partner.
Holmes testified at her trial that Balwani “impacted everything about who I was and I don't fully understand that."
Balwani has rejected all accusations of abuse.
As he told Holmes in the dramatized version, Balwani did work in software in the 1990s as a sales manager for Microsoft. He then joined a start-up called CommerceBid.com, the New York Times reported in 2021. It was bought out by Commerce One within a year for $225 million. Within weeks, Commerce One was worth $20 billion. According to that report, Balwani made about $40 million from the deal.
Balwani is expected to go on trial later this year for fraud charges stemming from his role of the chief operating offer at Theranos.
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