Pando

I owe one man in Silicon Valley an apology: Marc Benioff

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 21, 2017

From The Travis Shrugged Desk

Today, I have something rare for you: I am going to apologize to a wealthy, powerful man in tech.

Since September 2015, I have given Marc Benioff-- one of the industry’s most celebrated advocates for equality whether it’s LGBTQ rights or equal pay for women-- absolute shit for this interview he did with Travis Kalanick at Dreamforce.

Uber’s misogyny was hardly a secret back then. This was almost exactly full year after the piece I wrote detailing the systemic misogyny that caused me to delete the app. Things like Uber executives telling our reporters-- and who knows who else-- that women sexually assaulted in their cars were essentially asking for it because they were drunk or dressed provocatively. Things like that Lyon campaign that likened Uber drivers to hookers.

And it was almost a full year after Emil Michael threatened to silence me by going after my family in ways that would never be traced back to Uber. (Things they were caught red-handed doing and planning to do to other critics. Even rape victims.) It was well after Uber walked back its apology to me, and then attempted to smear me anyway.

It was about six months after UN Women cancelled a partnership with Uber-- so clearly toxic was their brand when it came to female empowerment.

And there was no shortage of press on any of these stories.

And yet, there Travis Kalanick was on stage with equal rights advocate Benioff, in what Dan Raile described as an attempt to “soften” Kalanick’s image.

As a woman in tech, I felt what’s becoming a common emotion reading that: The anger that comes when someone talks all about how important gender equality is, but doesn’t call out blatant misogyny in the industry when it’s inconvenient for them. I know he has done great things for thousands of women who work for him, but still, when it comes to men who say one thing on Medium or on stage to get applause and live another-- I am the one who knocks.

This past week, I let Benioff have it again about this on Twitter. (Yes, two years later. Regular readers will know, it’s a land war with us.)

This time, Benioff contacted me privately, asking essentially what he’d done to upset me. I won’t quote the exchange because it wasn’t explicitly for publication, but after I railed against the importance of having principles when they aren’t convenient, he noted that he had subsequently called Kalanick out, in a recent interview in China with CNBC.

It hardly got headlines here, but still: I owe him an apology, because he (eventually) did exactly what I’d been saying he should do.

From the interview:

I think because equality is more dominant in our industry than ever before, you saw that when (Kalanick's) employees started to write a very strong narrative about how that was not valued inside that leadership team, when Miss Fowler started to talk about what was going on at Uber, that just amplified that people in our industries and other industries want to see more equality. It became a crisis of equality.

That will not be the last crisis of equality that you will see in the tech industry. I think it's just one at the beginning of several.

Benioff and I still disagree on that 2015 interview. He says he wasn’t giving Kalanick cover then, and didn’t think Uber’s sexism was as known then. So it’s easy to say the recent statements are too little too late. I mean, Kalanick is out. It’s become cool to #deleteuber. Is this stance so hard now?

Astoundingly, yes.

Since Kalanick’s ouster we’ve seen several prominent figures, taking to the stage to give him cover. We’ve grown to expect it from Uber’s “fiduciary cool girl” Arianna Huffington, and no one should be surprised that Ashton “What’s wrong with targeting a shady journalist’s family?” Kutcher spoke up for Kalanick too, saying:

'I know there were cultural shortfalls within the company that happened along the way. I don't know that removing him is the best answer, but I think, you know, optically, things have to happen like that sometimes.' 

But Kutcher-- who happily makes several times what his female co-stars do--  is notoriously tone deaf on gender issues, and doesn’t actually know first hand what is entailed in building a massive tech company. More disappointing was Marissa Mayer’s statement on his tenure. Via BusinessInsider:

"Scale is incredibly tricky," Mayer reportedly said at the annual Stanford Directors' College education event. "I count Travis as one of my friends. I think he's a phenomenal leader — Uber is ridiculously interesting."

Mayer, who may be campaigning for the Uber CEO role, added: "I just don't think he knew. When your company scales that quickly, it's hard."

Now that is giving someone cover. That’s Vinod Khosla level of “What sexual harassment?”

I missed the part of “scaling” and “phenomenal leadership” that involves a protected class of bros who HR can’t touch, smearing rape victims, or major trade secret theft. Funny how few other high growth companies have fallen into the ol’ DOJ investigation rite of passage. As excuses go, it’s right up there with excusing the “misogyny” phase that some people feel like boys go through in college-- or in their 40s-- that they can simply grow out of.

As much shit as I’ve given Benioff for two years, his interview was at least before Susan Fowler’s revelations about what it truly like to work there. It was before there was a Department of Justice investigation. It was before news came out that Uber executives had considered smearing a rape victim. It was before Uber was being sued for stealing trade secrets from Mayer’s former employer. It was before a board member made a sexist joke at the meeting about how they were going to change all that sexism. It was before 1,000 employees begged for Kalanick to come back, so enamored of his toxic world view were they.

Because Mayer’s endorsement of Kalanick was so…. Glowing and jaw dropping and unnecessary, plenty of folks have theorized that she was auditioning for the top job. Henry Blodget for one, endorsed her:

After Kalanick’s ouster I described the three paths for the company going forward:

  • Hiring a “Travis-lite” who would only talk about changing the culture, but actually believe the multi-year enabling schtick that it’s part of what made the company so successful.
  • Hiring a big tech name. Bonus points for X chromosomes!
  • Hiring a boring operational or logistics wizard.

At the time, I put Mayer in the second camp, so much so that I referred to it as “a Marissa” in my piece. After those statements, it’s clear I was giving her too much credit. She’s at best a Travis-lite. Which is the worst possible of the three routes. As I wrote at the time:

Choosing anyone who has been an enabler of Kalanick becoming CEO will not represent a fresh start. And it will mean that Uber 2.0 is actually weaker than Kalanick’s Uber.

For all of Kalanick’s many-- MANY-- flaws, he had strengths. This isn’t an accident the company is valued at $70 billion. The problem is his flaws and strengths were indivisible. I’d submit there’s not more brilliant jerk than Kalanick if “brilliant jerk” is the route you are going. Putting in a Travis-lite means nothing changes in the culture, and you don’t have his strengths. The culture will never be reset, in fact it could become resentful and more bro-y. Uber will Yahoo/Groupon away into something that eventually has an exit in the billions, but low billions. It will be deemed a failure, even as it makes a lot of early insiders rich.

I mean, she is used to trying to resurrect a company whose Asian assets are its only business worth a huge valuation. Uber is another 5-10 years of horrible management away from that.

So we have Mayer on one end, undebatably giving Kalanick cover. We have Benioff on the other end -- in a much greater position of success-- (finally) actively calling Uber’s toxicity out as a “crisis.” Most CEOs and tech leaders are still somewhere in the middle, staying dead silent.

Credit where it’s due: Benioff is walking the walk in doing what should be easy and obvious-- even opportunistic in the current climate-- but somehow, isn’t.

As a female entrepreneur, I genuinely appreciate him finally speaking out. I hope more major CEOs do the same.