Safety first

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi addresses ‘absolutely unacceptable’ company culture

The new Uber CEO hopes to reform an ‘Animal House’-style corporate culture that had consumers rallying to delete the app

If years were defined by hashtags, 2017 would likely be marked by #MeToo, which rocked an entire industry—and its predominantly male gatekeepers—to its very core.

But months before #MeToo took root in Hollywood, an equally damning (if far more granular) hashtag brought down a prominent Silicon Valley CEO and inflicted serious damage on his world-renowned “unicorn.”

#DeleteUber first surged on social media in the early days of 2017, primarily in response to public perception that the company and its then-CEO Travis Kalanick were profiteering from President Trump’s new travel ban. The immediate impact of the campaign was severe—in less than a week Uber lost 5 percent of its market share. But Kalanick’s ultimate undoing was triggered just a few weeks later, when a blog post written by Susan Fowler, a former Uber software engineer, detailed an “unrelenting” and “chaotic” corporate culture of unbridled misogyny, exacerbated by an alarming lack of internal accountability. The post went rapidly viral, and by the summer of 2017 Kalanick was forced to resign.

When Dara Khosrowshahi, previously CEO of the travel site Expedia, was announced as Kalanick’s replacement, even he admitted that the Uber board’s choice was a “bit of a lark.” A first-generation Iranian American whose family had fled the revolution, Khosrowshahi is a conciliatory, fairly low-key executive, respected for his ability to sustain relationships and build consensus from the ground up—qualities hardly associated with his brash predecessor and ones that have not historically been valued in an industry still defined by disruption.

Sitting down with Tina Brown at the Women in the World 2018 Summit to discuss how Silicon Valley’s “bro culture” can be reformed, Khosrowshahi came across as polished and thoughtful—if still somewhat unsure about how to handle the corporate moral reckoning he’s been saddled with in his new role. When asked what he found the “most disturbing” in the still-confidential report commissioned by Uber’s board in response to Fowler’s post—the contents of which one consulting analyst compared to “Animal House”—Khosrowshahi was quick to say, “All of it.”

“It was one thing after the other … you read one thing and it’s bad, you read another and another and another and another,” he said. “I had to take breaks reading this. Because it was this poor culture that had to do with power, allowing behavior that is absolutely unacceptable.”

Brown pressed Khosrowshahi further on how the company planned to increase leadership opportunities for women at Uber. “We’re always hearing about these big swinging male conferences where they go around talking about this ‘great pipeline’ of women, but that pipeline seems pretty congested,” observed Brown, to a roar of approval from the audience. “And so my question is: How is your pipeline, Dara, and when is the oil going to start gushing?”

The company’s plan, he responded, is to focus on development, rather than showy displays around recruitment (“a little bit of a sugar high”), which don’t necessarily result in opportunities for promotion. “Everybody needs development, everyone needs mentorship,” he said. Uber will focus on women already at the company and ensure they gain seniority, he vowed.

When asked to address Uber’s controversial past, Khosrowshahi looked to the company’s future. “Safety” for drivers, customers and cars was touted often as a company priority—and apparent buzzword—for 2018, though Khosrowshahi also acknowledged that such safety can only be cultivated within a culture that is supportive and inclusive. And while challenging choices remain, Khosrowshahi was adamant about one decision that, given the chance, he would make without hesitation: If Susan Fowler applied for a job today, he would “definitely” hire her.

Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.

Additional reporting by Karen Compton.

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