How Hulu’s ‘The Dropout’ Exemplifies Toxic Startup and Work Environments

June 3, 2022 • Shannon Flynn


On March 3, 2022, Hulu, one of the top streaming services, released ‘The Dropout,’ a limited series drama. The show zeroes in on the life of Elizabeth Holmes, the infamous founder of Theranos, a consumer health technology startup, highlighting toxic startup culture.

‘The Dropout’ stars Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, Naveen Andrews as former Theranos president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani and a myriad of other standout actors such as Elizabeth Marvel, William H. Macy and Dylan Minnette.

Aside from recounting Holmes’ college years, the Stanford dropout who used tuition money to fund Theranos in 2003, the series also highlights how Theranos employees faced ongoing challenges in bringing Holmes’ vision to life.

Overview of Hulu’s New Series ‘The Dropout’

‘The Dropout’ is more than just a true-crime series — it begs the audience to try and understand what’s going on behind the scenes of Theranos operations and what Holmes was willing to do to make her dream come true. 

Holmes fooled the world into believing that she and her team created a new blood collection vessel called a “nanotainer” and a revolutionary blood-testing device called “Edison” that could be used at home.

The tech founder claimed this portable diagnostic device could use a single drop of blood to provide instant analysis, allowing doctors and patients to detect diseases and a variety of ailments early on. Holmes enlisted the help of engineers and scientists, who spent years trying to create the device. 

After discovering that building this device would be challenging and costly, Holmes began presenting it to investors and providing successful diagnostics from previous test runs. At the time, the device was still not working properly. However, Holmes did receive funding for Theranos and its team of scientists. 

Unfortunately, Holmes and her story with Theranos is not an isolated incident. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, several types of fraud have occurred during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, such as health care fraud, supply fraud and vaccination card fraud, for example. 

How ‘The Dropout’ Highlights Red Flags in a Toxic Startup

Assuming that ‘The Dropout’ is an accurate depiction of Holmes and her time running Theranos, it’s clear that Holmes had zero empathy for her employees and the patients who would benefit from Edison. 

There are plenty of stories detailing how Theranos operated, including a secretive and outright toxic work environment that trickled down from Holmes’ leadership. 

The company could never show customers that the device worked properly, but Holmes used deceit, manipulation and lies to make it seem as if Theranos would deliver on that promise.

Behind the scenes, employees feared Holmes and felt worried about the startup’s false claims about a technology they knew was not operating properly. Whether it was pointing the blame at her scientists or striking fear in her employees, it’s clear that Holmes created a toxic workplace for her employees. The limited series makes this toxicity more transparent and shows how detrimental a toxic culture can be for employee well-being.

How to Identify a Toxic Workplace

There are many cases where startup founders push their employees to the limit. WeWork, THINX, Oyo and Away Luggage have all come under fire for toxic cultures. A toxic workplace can interfere with productivity, lead to employee burnout, slow business growth and even cause health-related issues for leaders.

Here are some ways to identify toxicity in the workplace:

  • Communication Problems: Poor communication is one sign of a toxic workplace. Not receiving clear answers to crucial questions or a lack of communication can be problematic.
  • Declining Employee Motivation: It’s common for employees to feel unmotivated at times, but a persistent lack of motivation could be due to toxic work culture.
  • Cliques or Favoritism: When select employees receive perks or are being treated as superior, it could be a good sign that the workplace is becoming toxic.
  • Ongoing Disgruntlement: Negative communication and signs of disgruntlement from employees can also signify a toxic workplace. 
  • Cautious Employees: Employees should be able to air their grievances, not walk on eggshells when they’re around certain employees.

Startup culture has unfortunately become synonymous with toxic workplace culture. It may be because the millennial generation feels adamant about proving their success early on. Regardless, ‘The Dropout’ does a solid job of highlighting some of the characteristics of a toxic workplace and how it can eventually lead to an organization’s demise.

‘The Dropout’: Spotlighting Toxic Startup and Work Environments

You would need to watch this show or read up on some of the headlines that dominated the news cycle to learn more about Holmes and the dramatic rise and fall of Theranos. However, from early on, the show’s dialogue and character interactions harp on the stereotype of the corrupt tech founder and how one leader’s ill decision-making can impact an entire organization.