Can Uber become a 'just' workplace? CEO Travis Kalanick lays out the plan

It’s been a rough spring for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, or TK. 

Both he and his company have been reeling from a workplace harassment and sexism scandal hit his company back in February, which also came shortly after the #DeleteUber movement began. 

Since then, Uber’s CEO has mostly avoided public appearances, not that he was a particularly public figure before now. Kalanick barely ever talks or shares much personal insight in public forums. Unlike Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, you don’t typically hear updates from Kalanick or see him on TV.  In fact, Kalanick backed out his commitment to be questioned by Recode’s Kara Swisher during a conference later this month.

But in a previously unnoticed video released last month, we can hear some apparently honest words from the 40-year-old CEO. The talk and proceeding question-and-answer session was a part of “Uber Technology Day,” a day-long event at Uber’s office in Palo Alto on March 10. 

Margot Grabie had shared the video on Twitter over the weekend, which Kalanick then retweeted:

It’s not the most humble affair, and you may be annoyed by his ability to walk around questions or give answers that really leave you asking, “Wait, what?” Within the more than an hour-long video, you’re able to see and hear from a man that now employs 13,000 people. It had me, a reporter who has previously called Kalanick “kind of an asshole,” drinking some Uber Kool-aid.  

The presentation wasn’t just for Uber employees, something that Kalanick was informed of about 13 minutes already into his presentation, a part where you’ll see him freak out, laugh, and slowly attempt to regain his composure. 

Kalanick chooses the topic for his presentation to be what it means to have a “just workplace,” an idea that’s clearly been on his mind since former Uber engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti wrote about her negative experiences and mistreatment within the company. 

Even though this was a few weeks after that exposure, Kalanick said he just threw together his thoughts in an SUV on the way to Palo Alto and put them in a PowerPoint presentation. Sure, Kalanick is a busy man. But it’s a bit strange to not already have these principles and these ideas running a bit earlier and a bit more formalized. 

He begins with an analogy: the fearless girl, a bronze statue placed in front of the “Charging Bull” statue of Wall Street earlier this year. 

“It’s not just about the sort of optimism and strength even with the vulnerability. It’s also about all of those things in the face of that [the bull],” Kalanick said. “What you don’t want is to have to be facing that all the time? … We can’t live that way.”

Kalanick said that the workplace at Uber has that standing up to a bull mentality, which he admitted is not healthy. 

“I think that’s partially why the last few weeks have him so tough,” Kalanick said. 

But Kalanick is looking to change that. The CEO talks about “Uber 2.0” and describes it as “the most just place to work” in the world. For him, it’s in part just a good business decision. 

“Imagine if we could create the most just workplace in the world. What would happen when all the great minds in all the other companies out there who see injustice everyday … They are going to go from the unjust place to the just place. We would be a magnet,” he said. 

“We would be a magnet.”

His principles for a just workplace include meritocracy, praising the best ideas, and not having unhealthy competition within the company. That’s one flaw in the culture, with performance-based reviews, that Uber is working to change. Previously, Uber only seemed to care about the external competition like the taxi unions and Lyft. 

Kalanick shares a few other interesting details. For example, his favorite historical figure is Alexander Hamilton (his Twitter profile picture). Me too, TK! He cautioned that it was before Hamilton took off as a famous musical. 

He also said that Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who he has spoken to recently, wrote her company’s unconscious bias training. He also apparently doesn’t like The New York Times, as he makes a few jabs and faces when it’s brought up in conversation.

Something Kalanick said he hoped would not be quoted is him comparing his job as a problem solver to being a math professor or an emergency room doctor. Not sure why. 

The presentation seemingly ends back where this piece and this presentation started: Why is this conversation so rare? A female engineer at Uber asked about why they keep having to put out fires in the press rather than share their own stories. 

“If I had all the answers we would have figured this one out,” Kalanick said. “But I’m working on the answers. I’m super myself when I think this is just ‘Uber peeps’ … Maybe we haven’t spoken out enough about the things we do care about … and we need to figure out how to do it at scale.” 

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