Hulu’s Elizabeth Holmes series The Dropout tells a dramatized version of the Theranos founder’s humble beginnings, including how she met Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her former boyfriend and Theranos president/chief operating officer. But if you’ve watched the first episode of the series starring Amanda Seyfried and Naveen Andrews as said dynamic duo, you may be wondering — did they really meet in the dorms of a Stanford Mandarin language immersion program in Beijing, China way back in 2002, when Holmes was a senior in high school?
The answer is, surprisingly, yes.
In The Dropout, the pair have an odd meet-cute in the dorm’s tiny kitchen, where Holmes is struggling to make instant ramen soup and Balwani is sitting at a table nearby. Holmes, an awkward 18-year-old who attempts to speak Mandarin with other students her own age but is constantly getting made fun of, is startled when Balwani, then 37, begins conversing with her in the language. From there, an unlikely friendship begins. They address their 19-year age difference early on, and Holmes confronts Balwani about why he’s staying in a dorm with a bunch of teenagers (he became a multi-million after selling shares from a software company years ago and now wants to learn Mandarin, he explains).
According to John Carreyrou’s book about Holmes, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, the exchange in the show is pretty accurate — though Hulu may have had a little fun with the ramen noodle banter.
“Sunny had been a presence in Elizabeth’s life since the summer before she went to college. They’d met in Beijing in her third year attending Stanford’s Mandarin program. Elizabeth had struggled to make friends that summer and gotten bullied by some of the students on the trip. Sunny, the lone adult among a group of college kids, had stepped in and come to her aid. That’s how Elizabeth’s mother, Noel, described the genesis of their relationship to Lorraine Fuisz,” Carreyrou writes in Bad Blood.
Lorraine Fuisz, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub in The Dropout, is a family friend of Holmes’ mother, Noel Holmes, who is played by Elizabeth Marvel. The Fuiszes lived in the same neighborhood as Elizabeth’s parents and had begun to take interest in Elizabeth’s nascent company, Theranos. But Lorraine’s husband, Richard Fuisz, an embittered medical device inventor played brilliantly by William H. Macy, soon grew jealous of Elizabeth’s perceived success and decided to snag a patent that she’ll need later on for Theranos in an attempt to secure possible profits down the road. All of that is confirmed in Carreyrou’s book as well, which was made into an accompanying podcast called Bad Blood: The Final Chapter.
As for when Elizabeth and Sunny became, well, more than friends, Carreyrou says it isn’t exactly clear, but that it’s most likely they became a couple after Holmes dropped out of Stanford in 2004. When the two first met in Beijing, Balwani was still married to Japanese artist Keiko Fujimoto, though they were divorced by the time Holmes moved into Balwani’s condo in Palo Alto, California in July 2005.
The first four episodes of The Dropout, based on ABC’s podcast of the same name, are now streaming on Hulu.
Main Image: Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) and Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) in Hulu’s The Dropout. Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu.