BUSI­NESS It will take more than Uber head’s de­par­ture to change Sil­i­con Val­ley

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JOSIE COX

FOR those fol­low­ing the awk­ward twists and turns of the Uber story in re­cent months, chief ex­ec­u­tive Travis Kalan­ick’s res­ig­na­tion an­nounce­ment was prob­a­bly the least sur­pris­ing morsel of news this year.

Kalan­ick was al­ready on leave from the top role and most Sil­i­con Val­ley ex­perts ap­peared to agree that the 40-year-old en­tre­pre­neur was des­tined for the door. Pa­pers had prob­a­bly pre-writ­ten the head­lines: “Taxi for Travis”. “Uber and out”.

In Jan­uary, the #DeleteUber move­ment swept across so­cial media in re­sponse to Kalan­ick’s ties to Pres­i­dent Donald Trump. Hundreds of thou­sands quit the app un­der his vig­i­lant watch.

In Fe­bru­ary, a for­mer en­gi­neer, Su­san Fowler, posted a tell-all blog that de­tailed the grim sex­ual ha­rass­ment she en­dured while work­ing at Uber, failed to tell those who hired him that he had left Google a year ear­lier in the wake of al­le­ga­tion of sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

In a more re­cent blow, Uber di­rec­tor David Bon­der­man last week re­signed af­ter being ac­cused of hav­ing made a sex­ist re­mark at a meet­ing specif­i­cally set up to dis­cuss how Uber can trans­form its cul­ture amid that dis­crim­i­na­tion probe. It’s a clas­sic busi­ness-school case study of a com­pany that’s cul­tur­ally get­ting it all wrong and Kalan­ick, as such, has served as a con­ve­nient poster child for the much broader twisted and sick­en­ing bro- cul­ture that’s dom­i­nat­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley’s boom­ing start-up scene.

Yes, his res­ig­na­tion cer­tainly sends the right sig­nal and proves that Uber does in­deed possess some form of moral com­pass. But will it do much to sus­tain­ably erad­i­cate the frat-boy men­tal­ity thriv­ing in the world of tech? Un­likely.

Firstly, Uber, un­der Kalan- ick, is easy to point to as an ex­am­ple of start-up cul­ture gone awry be­cause of its me­te­oric rise and global dom­i­nance. Ev­ery­one knows Uber and it’s easy to level crit­i­cism at the com­pany be­cause so many have paved the way al­ready and are stand­ing by, ready to join the cho­rus of con­dem­na­tion: lo­cal taxi driv­ers who say Uber is de­stroy­ing their liveli­hoods, ac­tivists be­moan­ing a lack of worker’s rights in the econ­omy, any­one con­cerned about in­ad­e­quate back­ground checks on driv­ers. The list goes on. I’d never want to down­play the se­ri­ous­ness of any of these con­cerns and it’s para­mount that we keep talk­ing about them, but it’s equally im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that Uber has blazed a trail for other bud­ding en­trepreneurs and dis­rup­tors. So the is­sues we’re fac­ing ex­tend well beyond Uber. Scores and scores of hy­per-in­tel­li­gent, am­bi­tious, wannabe en­trepreneurs are striv­ing to em­u­late Kalan­ick’s suc­cess.

Yes, he’s left the top spot for now, but they’ve seen that his strat­egy and style made it pos­si­ble for him to cre­ate a be­he­moth of a dis­rup­tor and earned him a bil­lion- dol­lar for­tune. He’s also still got a spot on the board. Per­haps the Kalan­icks of to­mor­row are to­day’s Uber fresh-out-of-univer­sity hires and any­one who has worked at a big com­pany for a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time will know how hard it can be to shake cor­po­rate cul­ture, prac­tices and at­ti­tudes.

Sil­i­con Val­ley is also some­what an echo cham­ber. Fel­low Ivy League alumni sit on the boards of each other’s com­pa­nies or act as ad­vis­ers, con­sul­tants and men­tors to each other. Men­tal­i­ties, be­liefs and opin­ions are shared. There’s an­other Kalan­ick out there who will prove just as fee­ble when it comes to stamp­ing out a cul­ture of dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­equal­ity.

In 2014, one of the founders of Tin­der, an­other roar­ing start-up suc­cess, sued her co-founder ac­cus­ing him of pub­licly call­ing her a whore. She claimed at the time that the chief ex­ec­u­tive had dis­missed her griev­ances and that her male col­leagues had stripped her of her founder ti­tle, say­ing that hav­ing a woman on the found­ing team would “make the com­pany seem like a joke”.

In 2015, Kelly Ellis, a soft­ware en­gi­neer at Google made head­lines when she tweeted about re­cur­ring sex­ual ha­rass­ment at the com­pany. Ex­am­ples are abun­dant, and those are just the ones that made it into the pub­lic realm.

The numbers speak vol­umes too. At Face­book, Google, Twit­ter & co, work­forces are still ho­moge­nous and mi­nori­ties ac­count for a pa­thetic pro­por­tion in the up­per ech­e­lons of lead­er­ship. It’s hard to shut down a sex­ist or racist joke if you’re the only woman or black per­son in a board room full of guf­faw­ing white men.

Ef­forts are being made and high-pro­file women like Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton are being roped in to try to al­ter the course of de­vel­op­ments and sal­vage what’s left to be sal­vaged. Get­ting rid of Kalan­ick as top dog is a praise­wor­thy move, but for the wider Sil­i­con Val­ley, his de­par­ture may be lit­tle more than a tiny step in the right di­rec­tion. Brace for more of the same. – The In­de­pen­dent

Travis Kalan­ick

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