With Kalanick Gone, Uber's Great Reset Can Begin

Travis Kalanick is out at Uber despite de facto control of the Board of Directors and an objectively remarkable resume in building the company from a lark of an idea to a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut

Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber.
Photo: Dаn Tаylor/Heisеnbеrg Mеdiа/Wikipedia
Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber.

Let those words ring in your brain for a moment. It was a mere four months ago when a former employee, the brave Susan Fowler, published "Reflecting on one very strange year at Uber." Like the butterfly flapping its wings, Fowler's post on her personal blog would eventually unleash a hurricane of a chain reaction that would shake Uber to its core and eventually claim its founder/CEO among the casualties.

Yes, there was more to the story. Kalanick's presence on a council advising President Donald Trump and Uber's seeming effort to break an airport taxi strike designed to help thwart the president's attempt at banning Muslims from several countries harmed the company's reputation. And certainly the short, bizarre tenure of former COO Jeff Jones, who came to the company with big plans only to fold up almost immediately didn't help. But even when separate scandals claimed the jobs of self-driving car executive Anthony Levandowski and VP of Product and Growth Ed Baker, with a half dozen other senior leaders departing in the same time frame, it was impossible to see the cycle wasn't nearly complete. Kalanick's most trusted executive, business chief Emil Michael was pushed out by the board only to have board member David Bonderman push himself out with an ill-timed sexist remark. And now Kalanick too has been shown the door.

“Change doesn’t usually happen without a catalyst," Uber board member Arianna Huffington wrote in a blog post this February shortly after Fowler's revelations came to light. Category 5. Nuclear blast. Pick the metaphor. Now it's time to sort through the wreckage and try to salvage enough to truly reset and move forward.

The carnage in the executive ranks gives Uber a rare opportunity that few companies will ever have. It can now hire a new CEO, COO, and CFO. It gets to remake the board of directors with new outsiders, ideally not members of the old-boys club. It gets another chance because it has become a "colossus," as Mike Isaac wrote in breaking the story for the New York Times. Thanks to Michael and Kalanick, that colossus has raised billions, much of it still remaining in the bank (and provided by the very investors who literally demanded Kalanick go, according to Isaac's NYT story). But that frothy funding environment also meant Uber would find its competitor in China also cash rich and effectively unbeatable -- Uber had to eventually admit it couldn't beat rival Didi there.

That Uber walked away from China, despite spending billions trying to fulfill one of its corporate values of "winning", offers a template for the company from here. A first step in that process could be a similar strategic retreat from India. Indian rival Ola isn't quite the "colossus" Didi has become but it too has raised prodigious sums. And it shows little sign of cowing in Uber's presence.

India's antitrust law is a different animal from China's and it might require the government's intervention to allow a similar deal to the China exit (Uber wound up with about 1/5 of Didi's stock). But if there's any way to achieve that, now is a good time for Uber to stop bleeding cash in a nation where relatively low per-capita income (112th globally, per the World Bank) makes the opportunity smaller than the population suggests.

The next piece of the puzzle is arguably more sensitive. During the Holder and Perkins Coie investigations, rumors flew that CTO Thuan Pham and former CEO Ryan Graves, who ran global operations, were going to be pushed aside. Though neither was, the time is ripe for both to move on. Again, this isn't about achievements: Both men did remarkable things at Uber, where Pham's technical teams made Graves' ever-growing operations possible.

But they are part of a leadership team that is now mostly a memory. With Michael, Baker, and Kalanick gone, arguably those two represent the strongest ties to the "old Uber". And fairly or not, that old Uber is an organization which is considered to have shown little regard for women or drivers. While Pham's teams were certainly not the only place women at Uber felt uncomfortable, they were very likely the least hospitable in the company. Graves was the man Kalanick famously hired over Twitter to be the first CEO.

Mark Rogowsky, Contributor (The author worked for Uber in 2015. Opinions expressed herein are his own)

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