The only company experiencing worse bad press than Eskom, or any related to the Guptas, is rail-hailing app Uber. The world’s most valuable start-up at US$69bn has undergone a slew of disastrous revelations about its executives’ conduct, corporate culture including pervasive sexual harassment, and intellectual property theft for its autonomous car project. Then there’s the ongoing revelations about bad behaviour from its CEO Travis Kalanick, who announced last week he’s taking an open-ended leave of absence.
It has evolved into a perfect storm for Uber, whose misogynistic culture was revealed in February by former female engineer Susan Fowler’s blog post about the sexual harassment and discrimination she experienced. Even attempts to mitigate against this sexism have devolved into scandal. Last week, as another female board member was announced to join Arianna Huffington, a male board member made a sexist comment and himself resigned.
The list of own goals is long and astounding. From a way to keep law enforcement officials from getting an Uber ride (called Greyball and exposed earlier this year by The New York Times), to testing self-driving cars in San Francisco without permission; then lying about the car jumping a red traffic light (originally saying it was human error until it was discovered the only error was the human driver did not take control when they saw the infraction was going to happen). Then there was the Uber executive who illegally got hold of the medical report of a woman who was raped by an Uber driver in India, and shared it with other executives including Kalanick, seemingly in an effort to discredit her.
Kalanick stood down after a report into the company’s chauvinistic “tech bro” culture was released last week; which was pre-empted by 20 people being fired for sexual harassment. One of the recommendations is to get rid of Uber’s “always be hustlin'” motto. Kalanick himself has been his own worst enemy, having been caught on camera berating an Uber driver and controversy around going to a South Korean escort bar.
In a way Uber is a victim of its own success. Despite revenues of US$6.5bn last year, it also had losses of $2.8bn. Uber, which operates in over 70 countries, has had to grow rapidly and take on stiff competition, including Lyft in the United States but mostly its costly fight with Didi Chuxing in China.
It has revolutionised how we get around as it has commoditised transport and started killing off the metered taxi industry (not a bad thing, especially in South Africa). But, by calling itself a ride-hailing company and its drivers “partners,” it has attempted to argue it is not an employer and therefore doesn’t need to provide healthcare and other benefits. This is an argument it is never going to win, and multiple law suits in the States are beginning to unravel that.
Perhaps the most revealing – and damaging – of the blunders was Kalanick himself, in that angry encounter with an Uber driver, when he ranted that people “blame everything in their life on someone else”. The irony is outstanding.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail