Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek
Last year, the CEO of Quintillion, an Alaskan company trying to build a trans-Arctic undersea cable, was charged with wire fraud after forging contracts to help raise more than $250 million from investors. This week, Bloomberg posted a captivating feature about how that CEO nearly pulled off the scam of a lifetime. It’s a fascinating story of how someone tried to fake it ‘til they almost made it — but also a cautionary tale about big ambitions can push people to make disastrous decisions.
Elizabeth Pierce apparently had huge ambitions to build an undersea cable to give Alaskans (and eventually, parts of Japan, the Pacific Northwest, Greenland, Iceland, and London) better internet access. It was a noble cause. Internet for much of rural Alaska is slow and depends on expensive satellites, and an undersea cable could bring much faster speeds at cheaper prices for consumers. (Undersea cables are also being explored by big tech companies. Microsoft and Facebook jointly own a 4,000 mile transatlantic cable, and Google has invested in some as well.)
To get investors to back the project, Pierce needed to prove that she had completed contracts that would guarantee some revenue. So, to show investors that the business was solvent, she went right ahead and forged signatures on contracts that, if they’d been legit, would have been worth more than a billion dollars in total.
“You wanted to believe in the good she was doing. How many people were putting together billion-dollar projects in Alaska?” one investor told Bloomberg.
Pierce protected the made-up contracts with an iron fist, once reportedly telling a customer, “I am the only person at Quintillion to authorize or otherwise accommodate customer requests or alleged contract issues.” She apparently kept the contracts she “negotiated” on a personal Google Drive. When she started to realize her sham was falling apart, she apparently just decided to try to delete them by moving them to the trash of her Google Drive.
Most surprising? Despite Pierce’s crimes, Quintillion actually laid some cable, leading to better internet for some Alaskans. And two other telecom companies have recently announced multimillion dollar plans to lay Arctic cables, so she may have kicked off competition for a new market.
The story itself is worth reading in full — it’s 15 minutes well-spent.