Fall of the House of Uber: What Kalanick’s Exit Means


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Ivan Gushchin — Strelka Institute | Flickr

It took a shareholder revolt on the part of investors representing roughly 40 percent control of Uber to force out its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, (Mike Isaac in The New York Times). VC and Uber board member Bill Gurley led the effort to oust Kalanick, despite the CEO’s close grip on a majority of the company’s voting shares (The Washington Post has the details).

After a season of relentless scandal, Kalanick’s departure gives the company its first real chance to press “reset” and see how much can be rescued from his legacy: a wreckage of toxic management and ethical lapses — along, of course, with the creation of a transformational ride-hailing service that has begun to reshape our cities.

As David Mattin writes in NewCo Shift, Kalanick’s fate may have been inevitable in an era when every corporation’s brand is open to continuous public inspection and referendum. Don’t forget that Uber’s annus horribilis began with the publication of one female engineer’s blog post, which social media transformed into a ballistic missile aimed at Uber’s sexist heart.

As the tech press reads the tea leaves on Uber’s post-Kalanick future (the former CEO is retaining a board seat), much will depend on who ends up filling the CEO’s shoes. Picking a woman, for instance, might send a strong signal one way; picking a Kalanick crony would send a different one.

On the larger stage, Kalanick’s fall carries a broad significance in the context of age-of-Trump crystal-ball-gazing. Yesterday saw the Trump opposition narrowly lose a special congressional election in Georgia, giving fans of the president a boost. But the departure of Uber’s CEO might well be a more significant bellwether for the troubled state of Trumpism.

No tech CEO seemed to embody the spirit and tactics of the new president more than Kalanick, which was why his initial participation in Trump’s advisory council was so predictable — and raised so many hackles (Kalanick later left the group). Kalanick’s playbook parallels Trump’s: break rules whenever possible, prioritize winning over doing good, exhibit sexist behavior, and promote phony populism while selling out the little guy.

It’s not a surprise that a Trump-hostile tech industry would be acting to reject this ethos so decisively — but it’s not a given, either. Each new example of change makes a difference in the continuing fight for the conscience of the companies that are building our future.

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