Uber and the Troubling Ethics of Silicon Valley

Image credit Forbes

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (Image credit: Forbes)

That Uber is a brilliant innovation and has brought about much needed disruption into the taxi and transportation industry is not in question. But how their CEO runs the company, the culture he has created and the business practices he promotes are an issue that investors, customers and the press have turned a blind eye to for far too long.

For years, it has been an open secret in Silicon Valley that Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, is a completely unethical man who also lacks integrity and leadership skills. That he runs Uber like a misogynistic frat house is a well-documented fact. Kalanick has boasted to GQ magazine about how Uber helped increase his sex appeal; he deflects with a wisecrack about women on demand: Yeah, we call that Boob-er.

Now, I am a whole hearted capitalist pig and an ardent advocate of being competitive and winning by all means but not at any cost. It should be done through innovation, improving your products and services to beat your competitors fair and square; but we should never condone winning by cheating or using unethical and underhand tactics like Uber has also done to try and derail their competitors.

Uber employees ordered and cancelled more than 5,000 rides from rival Lyft since last October. This was done in an effort to reduce availability of Lyft cars, and thus push their users towards Uber. There have been reports of abuse of rider location information through a technology called God View, which allows Uber to track the movements of every single vehicle and the passenger. Former employees have confirmed that God View was easily accessible to staff across the company.

In 2011, venture capitalist Peter Sims penned a blog post about being tracked and sent text messages from someone he barely knew; all this was done without his knowledge or consent. When Sims expressed his outrage, he was told by an Uber employee “to calm down, and that it was all a ‘cool’ event and as if I should be honoured to have been one of the chosen. Turns out his movements were being projected on a large screen at an Uber event and nobody at the company thought this was wrong.

However, while all this information has been in the public domain for many years, it has done nothing to slow down the company’s growth or attract investors. Investments have continued to pour in from the biggest names in venture capital to investment banks and even governments all over the world. Everyone seems happy to turn a blind eye to the company culture and willing to dismiss unethical practices, blatant violations of privacy and misuse of personal information; as long as it helps Uber’s commoditized offering stay ahead of its competitors. Even the tech press has remained silent or looked the other way as the company became the darling of Silicon Valley and a unicorn, a start-up valued at more than one billion dollars. Uber’s current valuation stands at around $66 billion.

For me the last straw came when Uber personally threatened a female journalist who had been writing about the consistent pattern of misogynist behaviour at the company and their unfair and possibly illegal business tactics. Her revelations followed a dinner party where a senior executive at Uber was caught on the record, boasting to his guests that the company should consider hiring a team of opposition researchers to dig up dirt on its critics in the media — and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company.

Ironically, the first time Uber faced any backlash from customers was for something Travis Kalanick did, which I actually applauded – being part of Trump’s advisory council. I believe the best way to safeguard democracy is by having diverse and opposing viewpoints around the President, but that is a conversation for another blog. What is ironic and tragic is that, irrespective of people’s polarising views about President Trump, prior to this point nobody seems to have had any moral, ethical or principled objections to all the things that have been openly transpiring at Uber for years.

Nobody cared about the sexist and misogynist culture Kalanick has routinely boasted about. Nobody cared about the silencing of a female journalist and others in the media. Nobody cared about violating every code of competitive ethics or unfairly hurting the income of drivers. Nobody cared about Uber’s repeated violations of privacy, and abuse of personal information to stalk and intimidate people the company did not like.

It seems that now, only when it is no longer conscionable to look the other way that people are finally expressing some shock and outrage. This follows a perfect storm of events, from seeing a video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver, to a NY Times story about Uber using a tool, called Greyball, to identify, track and evade law enforcement officials, and a compelling blog post by a former female engineer. She writes about her harrowing experiences of constantly being berated and sexually harassed by senior managers, and Uber HR and senior management’s reluctance to take action despite her repeated complaints.

It seems perfectly clear that everyone was aware, and has been complicit in encouraging this culture by doing nothing to object to it; despite the repeated and many lines crossed. The bottom line is that they were all protecting their investment and hoping that these things could be ‘handled or contained’ until an IPO happened and they were free and clear, having made hay on their initial investment.

In response to the video’s release, Uber’s CEO has said he needs leadership help, and Uber has hired former attorney general, Eric Holder, to investigate the claims of sexual harassment by the former female engineer. As of last week, only one investor publicly penned an open letter, saying that the company needs to change its ‘toxic’ culture.

The problem is that all this is too little, too late. The fact that nobody felt the need to act before, despite being aware of all these issues indicates that what is happening now is nothing more than a PR exercise to do damage control on a prized unicorn investment; now that they have absolutely no choice due to the growing negative PR.

If Travis Kalanick, or his investors, had genuinely felt the need for him to grow up, it would have happened after he called his company boob-er. If investors had truly wanted to clean up the company’s act, surely the last straw would have been Uber threatening a female journalist.

At this stage, promising to fight to change Uber’s culture and all other talk that results in no real consequences for the CEO and others in management with whom the buck stops, are totally meaningless. It is akin to letting a murderer go scot-free because he apologises and promises never to murder anyone else in cold blood.

I will only be convinced that Uber’s investors are serious when they ask Travis Kalanick to resign or they fire him. In my book, this is the only way to send a strong and clear message that this type of behaviour will no longer be tolerated by Silicon Valley.

Business success devoid of integrity and ethics is a failure for all of society.

Why We Should All Love Female Bosses

In a career spanning more than two decades and three continents, I have reported to bosses of various nationalities, personality types and a solid mix of both sexes. My bosses have also run the gamut in ability and lack thereof. I have had smart, helpful and wise bosses as well as mean, incompetent, lazy and insecure ones. However, I can say without hesitation that given a choice I will always work for a female boss, despite the fact that I have had a few mean and incompetent female bosses.

Sure, I love the fairer sex but it has nothing to do with male-female attraction and chemistry and everything to do with management skill and competence. In my experience, women have time and again demonstrated vastly superior decision-making, judgement and people skills to those of their male counterparts; and it has little to do with aptitude, business intelligence or experience.

When I started working it was rare to find senior female executives within the management ranks, apart from in the advertising industry. My generation also grew up in a society where men served as the career role models and breadwinners, while mothers were predominantly homemakers. Even mothers who worked did not have ‘power’ jobs and it was very rare for them to harbour serious career ambitions.

Even though advertising had a larger percentage of women, there was still a stigma attached to reporting to a woman, something that was routinely discussed in hushed tones during male bonding and late night drinking sessions. Women were simply not taken as seriously as the men. While I never viewed women as inferior or lacking in ability, I had never experienced having a direct female boss either, so had no idea what to expect when I did for the first time in my second year. Despite the realities of a male-dominated world, I can say that I had no personal bias and approached my female boss on the same merits that I had every male boss. Perhaps this helped me where most of my peers struggled, but the point I want to make is not about having an open mind but about hard scientific evidence for the reasons women make better bosses and leaders.

I could wax eloquent about why I think female bosses are better than their male counterparts, but rather than have you take my word for it I want to reference the vast research now available to support my personal experiences.

A 2012 research study titled ‘Women vs. Men in Leadership’ featured in the Harvard Business Review found that “at every level, more women were rated by their peers, their bosses, their direct reports, and their other associates as better overall leaders than their male counterparts.” The study, based on 30 years of research, measured competencies used to define management traits required for ‘overall leadership and effectiveness’.

It further found that “…two of the traits where women outscored men to the highest degree — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been thought of as particularly male strengths.” (Source: Are Women Better Leaders than Men?).

Even in one of the last remaining bastions of male domination and chauvinism, the world of technology start-ups, a recent study by Illuminate Ventures finds that hi-tech companies run by women are more “capital-efficient than the norm” and companies “that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE.” (Source: Illuminate Ventures).

Another analysis done by Dow Jones VentureSource of more than 20,000 VC backed companies in America between 1997 and 2011 found that the successful start-ups had more women in senior positions. “They had more than twice as many women in top jobs like C-level managers, vice presidents, and board members than their unsuccessful counterparts did.” (Source: Bloomberg BusinessWeek).

As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe this success is due to the fact that women are smarter than men, or that they possess some innate management skill that men lack; competence and experience in management vary with people but are possessed by both women and men. In my estimation the single most important reason women excel and make more effective leaders boils down to one fundamental difference between the two sexes: ego.

Here is how I can most simply explain it; the majority of my male bosses (and most men) are unable to take ego out of any equation. The male ego always gets in the way of better judgement and making a better decision. For the vast majority of men, anybody questioning a decision they have made is seen as a direct challenge to their authority. God forbid that a man has to admit that he was wrong; this is considered a cardinal sin and perceived by men as a sign of weakness. Even the notion of listening to other people’s ideas or changing their view based on input from their team can be construed as an inability to lead.

In fact, I would say that most men would rather be seen to be sticking to their guns than doing the right thing, especially if it means admitting they were wrong. The male ego is conditioned to be more concerned about projecting a powerful image and less about achieving the right outcome. This to me is the reason women excel and will continue to thrive.

The majority of women are able to put their egos aside when they need to and as a result also show genuine empathy toward co-workers, subordinates and direct reports. They are willing to admit when they are wrong and ask for help – all in the interest of achieving a better outcome. Women are not shy about seeking guidance from their teams or asking the advice of superiors when they believe it will help them make a better decision and lead to a better result.

This is not about not being tough. All the women I worked with could be tough as nails when necessary. It is about not needing to constantly project power the way men feel they must. In short, a man will do the wrong thing knowingly rather than admit he is wrong.

Interestingly, a new study in the field of psychology supports my theory and personal experiences about women in the workplace; “…in times of stress male subjects become more egocentric and less able to properly respond to social situations. Women react in exactly the opposite fashion, becoming more “prosocial,” and able to relate to others in times of stress.” (Source: PBS Newshour).

Many experts have opined that in order to break the corporate glass ceiling, women need to become more like men. I completely disagree.

I believe women need to continue being true to themselves and show men a better way to lead, one that empirical evidence shows can lead to healthier, happier and more productive work environments and employees, AND better business results.

p.s. my apologies to the male species for blowing the lid on the 200,000 years male created, perpetuated and dominated world!