Susan Fowler did this
When I woke up on Sunday morning, I saw rumors of the news that I’d hoped to see for three years.
Frankly, that I never thought would come. It was confirmed in an email to staff this morning: Emil Michael is gone from Uber.
I’d heard rumors that he might choose to leave in recent weeks, getting out before more shit hit the fan, like so many other senior execs have of late. But if his plan was to save face, then yet another one of his Frank-Underwood-tribute-band schemes has failed.
Multiple outlets have reported that firing Michael was one of the main recommendations of the Eric Holder investigation. The New York Times reported that Uber’s general counsel and several board members had already suggested Michael take a leave of absence from the company until the Holder results came out. He refused and Kalanick backed him, as usual. Even last night, he appeared to be trying to spin the inevitable. A source is quoted in the New York Times print story today saying Michael “has not resigned, nor has he been asked to do so, according to a person familiar with the matter, but he was evaluating his options.”
Clearly, Michael had dug in his heels and was fighting to stay. Or at least fighting to save face. Both efforts failed-- a feeling that should be familiar to Michael given his Uber tenure.
Michael appears to have left Uber kicking and screaming and utterly disgraced. Sure all the bro-network are making excuses for him today, saying he’s “a good guy” and “running a company like Uber is hard.” But we’ll remember Michael as the former Dept of Defence staffer turned Uber smearer-in-chief who (amongst other things) threatened journalists families, pressured women close to the company to cover up other wrongdoing, and reportedly acquired a rape victim’s medical records in the hopes of discrediting her. Multiple outlets have long described Michael as Kalanick’s bro-enabler, bringing out his worst instincts and paranoia.
But let’s be clear: Even when he wasn’t behaving like a monster, his skills as a “VP of Business” were pretty horrible too.
Michael was in charge of Uber China, which he assured everyone would be Uber’s largest market… before it burned through billions of dollars and capitulated. He was also responsible for M&A… and there’s only been one meaningful acquisition in Uber’s history, Otto. The very deal that has brought it into a nasty lawsuit with Waymo, and now threatens Uber’s future in the autonomous vehicle market, which Kalanick has called “existential.”
Even a somewhat fawning profile in the Information a few months back painted him as a Hollywood dealmaker, but detailed his work on deals that ultimately never actually came to fruition. Blogs like Recode who today compliment his deal making and impact at Uber list Otto as one of his signature achievements… the deal that might bring down Uber, and certainly threatens its future. With dealmakers like those…
We all know what happens next. Michael will not be ostracized from the Valley’s bro-family, and he’ll wind up somewhere with a face saving title and a well-paying job. But it’s not because of his “accomplishments” at Uber. It’s in spite of them. And it’s another sign of just how many chances men like Michael get once they’re “in.”
Still - it’s Michael’s position in the Valley’s “protected” class that makes his sudden and humiliating ouster so significant.
The Holder report, remember, was not expected to offer much in the way of a harsh investigation. Interviews with “fiduciary cool girl” Arianna Huffington and Liane Hornsey insisted that there was no systemic sexism problem at Uber, just a few bad apples, that the company was no worse than any other company in the Valley.
But as Paul detailed last week, you couldn’t have a more rotten apple than Emil Michael. Holder’s findings seems to have agreed. That Michael was not allowed to leave in a way that saved face shows that someone close to the board wanted to make sure the world knew it.
It’s a fitting end to Michael’s tenure, a clumsy attempt to save face that no one is buying.
Paul accurately described him as a monster last week, but he’s like a monster who comes in the night and bangs his knee into the nightstand, waking up the entire neighborhood before falling backwards out of the window and giving himself a black eye.
Shooting off his mouth about his scheme to go after my family in ways that would never be traced back to Uber…. to a table full of journalists was even mocked in a bit by Seth Meyers. Calling up Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend Gabi Holzwarth to pressure her not to speak about that night in a Korean brothel had the exact opposite effect. She hadn’t planned to until he so oafishly tried to silence her.
If Uber continues this downward spiral, the public will rightly blame the arrogant CEO, Kalanick. And rightly blame the board who did nothing. But insiders will know one thing that made this ongoing self-immolation of 2017 inevitable: Kalanick’s refusal to fire Michael three years ago when his clumsy monstrous soul was first displayed to the world, thanks to Ben Smith.
Kalanick’s stubbornness ultimately hurt his own company, caused Michael far more embarrassment in the long run, and may well even wind up costing Kalanick his job. As of now, he’s said to be likely to take a leave of absence to be with his family after a devastating boating accident. But Reuters reports that his future as the CEO is uncertain.
Even if Kalanick returns, Michael’s departure signals a change in the way Uber has been allowed to operate and the way it will operate going forward. Clearly, someone is suddenly holding Kalanick accountable. I doubt it’s investors or his board level chums Garrett Camp and Ryan Graves. Perhaps it’s the fear of not being able to raise future cash, a mounting munity of a senior staff that have been departing month-on-month, an embarrassing inability to hire a top level COO, or even just watching his company self-destruct before his eyes. Perhaps it’s revelations yet to come out. Plenty of people will try to leak their way to the credit.
But this-- finally-- is a new Uber. At some point yesterday, investors decided their fiduciary duty was owed to Uber, not Kalanick himself. Up until yesterday’s board meeting, those two entities were seen to be indivisible. Suddenly, everyone is imagining an Uber without Travis Kalanick, something that was unthinkable even after Susan Fowler’s letter first surfaced. That shows how bad things are for the company that on paper is still the most highly valued in Silicon Valley history.
When we saw the news yesterday morning, Paul said to me, “Can you believe it took Eric Fucking Holder to finally get rid of Emil Michael?”
He’s right. It shouldn’t have taken a former attorney general of the United States to realize the obvious: That a man who was at the heart of so many scandals, wasted capital, and an acquisition that may have been a smokescreen for stealing documents... should probably not be at Uber any more.
But it wasn’t Holder who deserves the credit. This win goes to one person: Susan Fowler. And she isn’t nearly getting her due in the reporting I’m seeing so far.
I tried for years to hold Michael accountable for his actions. Detailing what he’d threatened to do to my family, in seemingly every major news outlet, and continuing -- despite those threats-- to detail where he was failing as an executive. I refused to let the news cycle move on and in many ways, Pando and I both paid a steep price for that.
But it was Fowler whose actions ultimately held Michael and Uber accountable… finally.
It took an engineer, an insider, someone with unimpeachable credentials and credibility, who had tried to play by all the rules. Who had documented all Uber’s offenses for HR, who’d tried to go through all the channels, and who, so the company would have you believe, was just “unlucky” to experience such a jaw-dropping amount of sexism and sexual harassment in just one single year at Uber.
It was Fowler’s account-- more than that of every journalist covering Uber combined -- who finally triggered an investigation on this scale.
The courage and heroism of Susan Fowler is the thing that gives me the most hope we may yet wrestle the Valley’s soul back from the swamp. She is part of a sea change of women demanding that everyday micro-aggressions that apologists like to say are just part of being in tech are not OK.
That change started with Ellen Pao. When she filed suit against Kleiner Perkins it changed the Valley forever. I -- like many-- remarked at the time that Pao wasn’t a “perfect witness” and that there was no smoking gun in the case. If Ellen Pao wins, I wrote, than every working woman in America has a case.
She didn’t win…. But the consciousness that has spread through the Valley since that trial has been, “Hey… maybe we do all have a case. Maybe this is just wrong.” We haven’t yet gotten better treatment, but we’ve started to demand it.
When Pao’s case was first filed, I had countless off the record conversations with women that we all face these things, but you just don’t make waves. Pao’s willingness to make enormous waves didn’t get her justice, but it changed everything. It ripped the Handmaid’s style blinders off of senior women here, making us face the bias all around us.
More importantly, as more women began to talk about the trial, we started to realize we weren’t alone. Abusers want you to feel like the problem is you, not a rigged system and certainly not them. We no longer allow people like Mike Moritz to dismiss a lack of diversity by blaming a “pipeline.” We talk openly about unconscious bias. Things that happen in every company every day are coming out in the open now. Finally.
It’s similar to how Anita Hill didn’t get justice, but put a clear definition around “sexual harassment,” as a thing that was wrong. It became something that you had to watch training videos on. We had a language and a shorthand for it. It wasn’t just women not knowing “how to take a compliment.”
Anita Hill also inspired women to take action: There was a steep uptick in women running for political office the year after the hearings were televised.
So here we are in June of 2017. Pao didn’t get justice, but the dysfunction of Kleiner was certainly on display and the firm is not at its strongest. Pao meantime, has become a more formidable symbol, with a book out in September, an organization called Project Include, and a role at Kapor Capital.
I certainly didn’t get justice when Michael threatened my family. So many others haven’t either. It felt for a while-- especially watching the far more gruesome miscarriages of justice in the cases of Brock Turner and Abhishek Gattani that no woman would. It seemed at first Fowler wouldn’t. Huffington and Hornsey were downplaying sexism at Uber, and no one expected the Holder report to be damning. This all seemed to be fading into Internet outrage memory.
And then the stolen files of the rape victim-- or maybe something worse the Holder investigation turned up that we don’t know about-- appeared to finally be Uber’s final straw. Susan Fowler did get justice. And with the ripples from the Holder report still not clear, she may get even more vindication.
I know -- for a fact-- that there are women inside Uber right now who are hurting, afraid to come forward. I know-- for a fact-- that there are women inside other major Valley companies right now who are hurting, afraid to come forward.
And let me be clear: Taking on the bro patriarchy of the Valley sucks in the short term. But things are changing, and every new Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler who has the courage to come forward, changes things even more for women in the Valley now and those in the future.
Both still have careers here. Both are considered heroes now. Both have made the Valley a better place, even if it may not have felt like it at the time.