Dara Khosrowshahi: A massive void where Uber's values should be
Last week while I was traveling in Seattle, I stopped off at Geek Wire’s offices to appear on their (excellent) weekly podcast.
One of the many things we talked about was whether or not Uber’s would-be savior Dara Khosrowshahi is changing the culture at Uber.
Khosrowshahi has a great reputation in the Seattle area, where his former company Expedia is based. There’s a real sense there of, well, Expedia didn’t have this culture, so clearly Khosrowshahi can’t be cut from the same cloth as Uber's ousted bro-founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, right?
I’m hard pressed to think of any company aside from Uber that has so abdicated the benefit of the doubt but keeps getting it nonetheless.
A few things...
- Look at what we’re watching play out in American politics right now. Just because you didn’t run on an atrocious platform of xenophobia, hate or bigotry, doesn’t mean you won’t endorse or enable it. And just because you won’t explicitly endorse something, doesn’t mean you'll actively stand against it.
Khosrowshahi has yet to repudiate Kalanick in any meaningful way. Instead, he’s mugged for social media photos with his disgraced predecessor. Just because Khosrowshahi didn’t create the culture of toxic masculinity at Uber, doesn’t mean he takes issue with it. Not least because, if he did, I find it hard to believe he would have taken the job that so many others turned down. Remember: There was a petition thousands of people inside the company signed saying they wanted Kalanick to stay. This was not a company that is universally hungry for change.
- Look at the latest out of Uber. Head of HR Liane Hornsey finally stepped down after an investigation into how she handled complaints of racial-discrimination. Khosrowshahi had “nothing but praise” for her in his memo about her departure. Days after that story broke, it was reported that Khosrowshahi’s own COO hire, Barney Harford, has made disparaging comments about women and minorities while on the job. These aren’t the actions of a CEO trying to change a culture. When you seek to change a culture, you over-correct for the opposite. You over-correct for even the appearance of toxicity remaining.
- Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the EEOC is investigating Uber for gender discrimination. On stage a few hours later at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech Conference, Khosrowshahi was asked about all of this and, again, he disappointed, saying, the news leaking out of Uber was “a symptom...of a company that doesn’t yet-- at all levels-- trust that we’re going to do the right thing…” Perhaps that’s because there are zero signs so far that you are. If Khosrowshahi’s major concern is he’s not getting enough benefit of the doubt for fixing things, he’s more delusional than even I feared.
- Maybe you're thinking: Well, hold on, people are gonna say things that get taken wrong in meetings. “What can a CEO do, amirite???” In fact CEO can do what Reed Hastings of Netflix did: He fired Jonathan Friedland for using the N-word and displaying “unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity.” The context for the word didn’t matter. That’s how you telegraph zero tolerance around sexism and racism.
Khosrowshahi may have fooled everyone in the Valley who desperately wants to feel OK about the money they've made from Uber. Or rather, he might have given them enough plausible deniability so they can at least start taking Uber again without their standard "I know they're evil, but..." caveat.
But the facts speak for themselves: Uber is still Uber, and there remains a massive void where its, and Khosrowshahi's, values should be.