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Uber had four female leaders reassure people that it has everything under control

Arianna Huffington
Reuters/Lucas Jackson
Arianna Huffington is the only woman on Uber’s board.
By Alison Griswold
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When Uber finally addressed its recent spate of troubles in a call with reporters on March 21, the company let four women do the talking.

Uber board member Arianna Huffington, human resources chief Liane Hornsey, and US and Canada business head Rachel Holt held a wide-ranging press call Tuesday afternoon to discuss Uber’s leadership, its corporate culture, and its business performance and treatment of drivers. Rachel Whetstone, Uber’s head of communications and public policy, also appeared on the call. The absence of any male voice stuck out at a company rarely touted for its female leadership, and accused by its own employees of having a “systemic problem” with sexism.

“They are the women running Uber. It’s not like we got them from central casting,” Huffington said, when asked why only women appeared on the call. “I think we should take it as a really good sign of how women are valued at the highest levels of Uber.”

Holt has been in a management role at Uber since 2011; Whetstone since May 2015. Huffington, the only woman on Uber’s nine-person board, took her seat in April 2016. Hornsey joined the company this past January.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick missed the call because he was “busy interviewing COO candidates,” Whetstone told reporters. (“He’s actually learning to delegate to his team and to those people around him that are experts,” she added.) Other notable absences included Thuan Pham, Uber’s chief technology officer; Ryan Graves, its board member and SVP of global operations, and Bill Gurley, the venture capitalist and Uber board member who is helping to lead the company’s search for a chief operating officer, which was announced on March 7.

The press event was the first time Uber had publicly addressed the controversies and scandals that have flooded it since late February, when former engineer Susan Fowler published a detailed account of the sexual harassment she allegedly suffered during her one year at the company. The call seemed designed to reassure listeners both that Uber is taking its problems seriously, and that its business has been unaffected by the ongoing and highly visible meltdown.

“We are in the fortunate position that the business remains healthy, allowing us the time to focus on all the changes that are necessary,” Holt said. “Last week, riders in the US took more trips with Uber than ever before.”

Over the last month, Uber has been hit with additional allegations of sexual harassment and stories about an unrestrained and Machiavellian culture. The company watched as embarrassing dash-cam footage of Kalanick berating a driver went viral, and details of ”Greyball,” a tool it used to identify and evade law enforcement in cities around the world, came to light. Uber is also facing a lawsuit filed in late February by Waymo, the self-driving car project spun off by Google parent Alphabet. The suit alleges that Uber and Otto, a startup Uber acquired last summer, conspired to steal trade secrets from Waymo.

Most recently, Uber has suffered an exodus of senior talent. Since late last month, the company has bid farewell to SVP of engineering Amit Singhal, VP of product and growth Ed Baker, famed Jeep hacker Charlie Miller, senior self-driving engineer Raffi Krikorian, director of AI labs Gary Marcus, and VP of maps Brian McClendon. Some of those people resigned; others were fired. On March 19, ride-sharing president Jeff Jones quit after less than six months at the company.

The COO search is being led by Gurley, along with executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles, Bloomberg reported earlier today. People of interest include Thomas Staggs, former COO at Walt Disney; Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL; and John Martin, CEO of Time Warner’s Turner.

A COO position at Uber, the world’s most valuable startup, would normally be an attractive proposition. But some worry that Kalanick’s poor reputation as a leader and colleague, Uber’s resistance to outsiders and an establishment status quo, and the intense negative attention the company has received could deter qualified applicants.

It remains unclear what an Uber COO would mean for Kalanick, whose ability to lead a $68 billion company is being scrutinized now more than ever. In prepared remarks, Huffington said Uber needs an executive ”with the strength and smarts to work alongside a founder as a true partner.” Huffington also dismissed a question on whether Kalanick would step down as CEO if asked by Uber’s board or otherwise necessitated as “completely hypothetical.”

“It has not taken place,” she said. “The board has confidence in Travis and we are proceeding ahead with a search for the COO.”

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