Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The Uber CEO’s wild ride has ended. Who should get the next turn behind the wheel?
Travis Kalanick’s temporary leave of absence as Uber’s CEO became permanent on Tuesday, after a group of high-stakes investors sent a letter insisting that the company install new leadership. Now, Kalanick has officially resigned.
In eight years of existence under Kalanick’s watch, Uber has built up a nearly $70 billion valuation as the world's largest ride-hailing service. Along the way, the company made a lot of enemies—with drivers, labor leaders, the taxi industry, and especially government officials at the local, state, and federal level. In furious pursuit of growth, the company has burned through billions of dollars of capital subsidizing rides. Doubts about long-term viability have always encircled this unicorn disruptor among unicorn disruptors.
Then came #deleteuber in January. Then former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published nauseating claims of sexual harassment and discrimination inside the company, which prompted two investigations (and one scathing report, so far). Next, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, sued Uber for stealing its intellectual property, and the feds kicked off an inquiry into the company’s law-evading software tactics. Taken together, a string of scandals grew into a single vast outrage that embodied the Uber founder’s brash, combative leadership.
Kalanick’s resignation will not end his involvement with the company—he’ll still sit on the board, and remains the largest holder of voting shares. But it marks a major turning point in a tumultuous, transformative era. Vile antics and all, Uber has almost single-handedly created a market for shared, on-demand mobility that anticipates a future driven by shared, autonomous vehicles. Kalanick’s replacement will inherit a company that has remade the landscape of transportation. Besides determining Uber’s place in it, this successor may also determine whether this transformation is for better or worse.
A source with connections to Uber board members tells me there are no certainties at this point—some advisors want Uber to promote from within, with a focus on the company’s (scant) female ranks. Others hope to draw a fresh but familiar face from the outside, who might be able to legitimize the company’s vision of transportation revolution. Others are looking toward the tech and auto industries, with an eye on autonomous vehicles.
Whoever the perfect Next Uber CEO is, she/he will have some serious messes to clean up. Here are some thoughts on personalities who might fit the bill.
Someone who knows a few things about toxic masculinity
As the company has struggled in recent months, the influence of board member Arianna Huffington as an Uber advisor has reportedly grown. The New York Post reports that Huffington sees Sheryl Sandberg—the COO of Facebook, former Google executive, and famed author of Lean In—as the best candidate to replace Kalanick.
Sandberg would check off a few of the qualities Uber will need in its future leader: She oversees a hugely profitable tech company, clearly knows how to deal with adversity, and wrote an international bestseller on taking risks. She’s also female—which Huffington and others reportedly see as an important quality in a leader capable of reshaping the firm’s post-Travis public persona.
Recode’s Kara Swisher and the Hill report that Sandberg is unlikely to budge from her current post—but Huffington’s apparent preference towards her is useful for thinking about who else might appealing. Rachel Holt, who runs Uber's North America operations, could be a contender. If it was up to Twitter, the choice might be Bozoma Saint John, Uber’s recently hired chief brand officer who’s one of few C-suite executives still standing. She is an extremely successful marketing executive; as a woman of color, she could send a powerful signal that Uber is now taking diversity and inclusion seriously. (Not that putting a woman of color at the head of the company is guaranteed to solve any problems, in the absence of further structural changes.)
Someone who puts the “sharing” in the sharing economy
Uber calls its drivers “partners,” but its misleading wage advertisements, unilateral pricing changes, and lack of driver support services and benefits don’t bear out that description. (Indeed, it was only this week that Uber announced that it would roll out in-app tipping in a few cities.) Even with the company’s plans to automate its fleet, human drivers are critical to Uber’s business model for the foreseeable future. What if the company knew how to treat them as, for example, Airbnb treats the people who list their properties on its platform? As the Harvard Business Review wrote about Airbnb’s first convention for hosts in 2014:
Along with... community-building exercises, [the convention] featured a number of sessions on how to be a better provider. Airbnb facilitates host groups for knowledge sharing, integrated into a host application that also embeds hospitality standards and guidelines, as well as standalone meetups for hosts to exchange information.
Right now, you’re much more like to see Uber drivers gathered together to protest their employer rather than schmooze with them at a convention. What if the ride-hailing giant brought aboard an executive from Airbnb who knows how to thread the feeling of collaboration through a corporation’s practices? Laurence Tosi, Airbnb’s CFO, was formerly groomed to take over as Blackstone’s CEO—he might be an interesting contender.
Someone who knows about transportation—specifically, how to make it very profitable
If Uber ever plans to move through an IPO, it’ll need someone with experience running a public company. Google or Apple might be obvious places to look. Silicon Valley has historically preferred to ignore expertise from the industries it disrupts. Still, some old-school transportation expertise might help Uber at this point; for that, the traditional auto industry is the place to look. Until recently, the former CEO of Ford, Mark Fields, was leading the car-making mammoth into a future as a “mobility company,” looking beyond Mustangs and F-150s as solutions to transportation challenges in cities the world over.
Ford’s sales haven’t been so hot in recent quarters, but Fields may not have had quite enough of a chance to make his mark. Car manufacturers are all about the bottom line. Someone with a close watch on margins would be very, very useful for money-bleeding Uber. Fields (or any auto exec) would also bring experience dealing with transportation lawmakers and regulators on an international stage without too much acrimony (unless you’re Volkswagen). Other mobility companies, namely Lyft, have chosen to partner, with rather than alienate, the public sector. If Uber is going to continue to compete, a leader who works with a spirit of cooperation will probably be handy.
On a similar front, Scott Griffith, the former CEO of Zipcar, would make an interesting candidate—Griffith scaled a relatively small U.S. start up into the world’s largest car-sharing company with an international presence, and figured out how to make it profitable.
Or what if Uber looked to the skies? David Cush, the former CEO of Virgin America and longtime American Airlines executive, was reportedly a contender for the chief operating officer spot at Uber before Kalanick said adieu. Cush helped build Virgin’s well-regarded brand as the airline of the young and hip. He might bring a mix of transportation know-how and human savvy.
Someone with a serious vision for the future of transportation
Long shot, but here’s a name that would fit in with Uber’s previous hiring of former Obama adviser David Plouffe—Anthony Foxx. The ex-DOT Secretary would be a compelling choice if the company rebrands itself as a mobility revolution people actually want. Before he becoming Americas’s car-and-transit czar, Foxx was the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina. He advocated for projects aimed at closing gaps created by bad transport policies of the past, led the creation of the DOT’s landmark first guidances for regulating autonomous vehicles, and supported public-private partnerships of all kinds. He also recently said he wanted to be a Robert Moses working for good—a power broker “who can figure out how to untangle the web of things that connect us,” rather than divide. That might be the kind of vision Uber could use.