“The party’s over here; I’m over here,” says Bozoma Saint John. She’s joking, of course.
The former Apple marketing executive made headlines when she was appointed Chief Brand Officer at Uber earlier this month, trading in her coveted gig for a challenging role in what has been described as one of Silicon Valley’s most aggressive workplaces. But as Saint John explained to Refinery29, she always trusts her gut. And while it’s hard to think of Uber as a place where any kind of celebration is currently taking place, the ridesharing company does seem ripe for a turnaround. Former US attorney general Eric Holder's investigation is done and its recommendations approved by Uber’s board. Now, a small — but mighty — group of women are at the forefront of reinventing its culture.
In addition to Saint John, who headed up global consumer marketing for Apple Music and iTunes, other recent hires of note include Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei as SVP of Leadership & Strategy, and Chief HR Officer Liane Hornsey, a former VP at Google. Massive failures, such as Uber has experienced, demand radical changes that may not have been realised otherwise. If these women manage to fix Uber, it won’t just be a victory for the company; it will be one for the tech industry at large.
“This is our burning platform moment,” Rachel Holt, Uber’s regional general manager for the US and Canada, says of the company’s chance for action. She has been with Uber since 2011, and oversees Uber's business in over 200 cities.
It may seem counterintuitive that women would want to take leadership risks at Uber, a company where evidence of inappropriate behaviour towards women has stacked up. But the female Uber executives who spoke to Refinery29 for this story each stressed that they joined because they see an opening.
“The organisation hit rock bottom,” Frei tells Refinery29. “And organisations can do a couple of things when that happens. One is, they can get defensive, they can go into a hole, and they can argue the facts. When I look at the immediacy and urgency with which [Uber] reacted when Susan Fowler’s situation was surfaced...holy cow has the organisation reacted with enormous speed and vigour.”
“When we look at situations like this, the only way that you win is by having the right perspective,” Saint John adds. “My perspective is that this is not a challenge, it is an opportunity to show that the brand will turn around. We want to prove that we can.”
Hornsey admits that recruiting women has become a challenge: “We need to put our money where our mouth is now that the Holder recommendations have been released. The only way to recruit great talent is to become a great company...I understand that people have reservations. We have made mistakes. But Uber is the most interesting company in the world, and anyone coming in now will be part of change. That’s an experience you wouldn’t get anywhere else right now.”
It’s important to remember why so many people, inside and outside Uber, are hoping that the company really will change. Despite all of its present faults, Uber has become close to a necessity that makes life much more convenient. This is partly why Saint John and Hornsey signed on: They want to change Uber because they understand Uber’s value as users.
“As a consumer of Uber, I find the product to be magical,” Saint John says. Hornsey, who joined Uber without any hesitations, emphasised the company’s work on an international level. “There’s no other company like Uber in the world solving the problems we are, and doing it on our same scale,” she wrote in an email. Even Frei — who had no plans to take leave from her full-time role as the Senior Associate Dean for Executive Education at Harvard Business School — has been surprised by the reality of walking the halls at Uber every day: “I was expecting to be fist bumped and slapped on the back and I found mostly really intelligent, earnest people wanting to do the right thing and really open for change and help.”
While it might not be the bro-fest Frei was imagining, it's not all good news. The company’s propensity for problem solving has been at least partly attributed to its aggressive and problematic culture, which Susan Fowler revealed in her now ubiquitous blog post this past February. Arianna Huffington called this Uber’s practice of hiring “brilliant jerks,” and it’s these very company values that the Holder report says needs to be eliminated. It’s evident now that the company has to change this fundamental part of itself to survive. (Refinery29 reached out to Fowler for this piece. She declined to comment.)
Changing the world’s perception of Uber is part of Saint John’s job. As the company’s Chief Brand Officer, she has the momentous task of “creating a new, evolved brand.” She plans to do so by telling stories, though she adds that she doesn't yet know what these stories are. While she believes the Uber brand is currently a great service, there just isn’t much of an emotional connection to it. (In fact, some begrudgingly use it.) The simplest way to change that, in her view, is to tell meaningful stories about riders and drivers.
“I don’t think that has happened yet because we’re still eclipsed by other news,” Saint John says.
One recent example of “other news” happened when board member David Bonderman interrupted Huffington during a presentation of the Holder findings. (Holt calls his remark an “incredibly unfortunate comment.”) Bonderman resigned from the board within hours, and Hornsey says that immediacy is progress. She also points to other changes she’s introduced since joining the company: “We have traditionally underinvested in HR. But since I joined in January, I’ve since doubled the size of my team and now we have many more processes in place so people can come to us quickly and more importantly, we can take swift action. For example, we have a new employee relations team, who are solely dedicated to addressing people’s concerns. We have a zero tolerance for bad behaviour at Uber now.”
Another key factor in Uber’s transformation will be the executive who is hired as the company’s CEO — as well as the still unfilled COO position. Now that Travis Kalanick has stepped down, Uber’s board will need to invest significant effort into finding the person who has the right qualifications and is committed to creating the workplace envisioned in the Holder report. Although the decision is ultimately up to the board, Frei says they have made it clear that they want input from the executive leadership team, at all stages of the process — from sourcing candidates to interviewing them.
While Uber would not confirm to Refinery29 who the company is considering, Recode’s speculative list of candidates includes former Disney COO Thomas Staggs, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, former eBay CEO John Donahoe, former Ford CEO Alan Mulally, and Dave Clark, who heads up Amazon’s global operations. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s name has also been tossed around.
Whoever the successful candidate is, they’ll have a mammoth task. “We need someone who can take us through this next chapter,” Hornsey wrote to Refinery29 over email. “Someone who has a global perspective, is mission obsessed and can make this company a great place to work. We obviously have a lot ahead of us, and change does not happen overnight.”
For now, Uber’s new guard of female leadership is optimistic that change is well within reach. The company faces enormous pressure with the world watching, and investors, who pushed for Kalanick’s resignation, are closely judging every move. If Uber can make the changes that are needed — and avoid glossing over the mistakes of the past — it could prove that bro culture and Silicon Valley need not be synonymous and mark a major turning point for women’s voices and impact in the tech industry. Fowler cracked open the door. Now, the one thing everyone, including Uber’s critics, can agree on is that it’s time for change.