Things are über-shitty these days over at the Randian-themed car service that lives on your phone.
Once plagued only by whispered questions about its batshit pre-IPO valuation, Uber is now being bombarded by a news cycle churning out story after story about revealing deeper and deeper flaws in the leadership ability of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick. Faced with a mountain of evidence that Uber corporate is a misogynist tech bro cultural wasteland and that serious adults are no longer interested in working there, Kalanick did what any clearheaded Silicon Valley celebrity would do; further piss off Kara Swisher.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is not the first exec to deal with sexual harassment and sexism issues. And he’s not the first to be accused of stealing technology. He’s also not the first to anger customers through cloddish statements. And he’s not the first to face significant doubts about his ability to manage a fast-growing startup.
But he is the very first speaker in the 15 years we have been putting on our tech and media events to cancel his interview due to the many embarrassing issues at his company. In this case, because the report from former Attorney General Eric Holder on Uber’s culture and management problems has been delayed until the week of Code at the end of May.
“Due to the delay of the Holder review, Travis is unable to attend this year’s conference,” said an Uber spokesperson. We have been told that Kalanick needs to be with employees at Uber’s offices in Northern California and cannot manage to travel an hour by plane to Southern California to appear at the conference, as he had promised.
Whatever people think of her, Swisher is an inordinately powerful voice in tech and has been nothing if not borderline messianic that the kind of behavior purported to be going on over at Uber should be treated like a plague upon Silicon Valley, and the people engaging it have their heads put on spikes along Sand Hill Road as a warning to burgeoning tech titans. Swisher has no real opposite number in finance (especially now that Bess Levin finally left that garbage website and turned her attentions to Trump) so it's hard for Wall Street to grasp what an unforced error this is on Kalanick's part. Flaking on Swisher this late in the game is pretty ballsy, but not as ballsy as what Travis and his team did next:
Last week, Kalanick’s reps started to waver and then said he could not attend. In his place, they have offered — and we have accepted — director Arianna Huffington, who has been leading the investigation for the Uber board.
As a publication that thrives on dumb spectacles, may we say "Umm, yes please!"
The idea of Arianna Huffington taking a break from her grueling napping schedule to sit down with Swisher and defend a company that she really doesn't know much about on a day-to-day basis is the stuff of which snarky blogger dreams are made. To imagine that Swisher won't jump all over this switcheroo as a galling example of tokenism is the most wishful kind of thinking. In fact, Swisher is already letting Uber know now that's almost definitely what's going to happen:
Since we also wanted to talk about the business, we asked for venture capitalist and Uber board member Bill Gurley to join her, as he has been deeply involved in Uber’s operations since its founding and has opined publicly about it until recently. He has thus far declined the Code invitation. Gurley also did not respond to a text and an email he was sent, which he has never done before.
Also a “no” so far per Uber were requests for key Kalanick colleague and SVP Emil Michael, board chairman Garrett Camp and board member David Bonderman. One possible person that Uber has said might be able to join Huffington is human resources head Liane Hornsey, but that is currently unconfirmed until closer to the event.
In other words, replacing Kalanick and manning up to address serious gender issues at Uber when the men could not bring themselves to, could be two women.
Yeah, classic Silicon Valley, and all you need to know to understand the problems at Uber.
The money culture of Silicon Valley is predicated on managing public perception of your startup by feigning total devotion to higher forms of business and human nature. So boldly theatrical is the whole thing that it verges on kabuki. To pretend that he can just blow off this kind of opportunity to publicly voice a "mea culpa" to the moral arbiter of Silicon Valley gender dynamics is the kind of terrible decision making that we usually only see from, well, Uber.
Sure, this all reads like a little too "Valley Insider" for Wall Street readers, but it's not when you consider that Uber is still widely considered to be the biggest looming IPO anywhere. To see Kalanick make these kind of tone-deaf moves should give Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and everyone else who does huge tech IPOs (haha, it's only Goldman and Morgan) a moment of pause not just about Uber, but about all the other mega-startups being led by other untested mega-CEOs, like Evan Spiegel at Snap and Brian Chesky at Airbnb. Very few of the guys demanding huge commitments from investors have more experience than Kalanick at running a huge company and there's no way to ensure that they won't deal with crisis management in a similarly batshit way.
This whole notion has become a comic trope surrounding tech for awhile now, but we're finally starting to see it come to life in guys like Kalanick and former Tinder CEO/Dealbreaker Hall-of-Famer Sean Rad. No Trumpian corporate tax break can make unqualified CEOs ready for the glare of media attention when you're in the heat of a public meltdown. Perhaps the real problem with the possible tech bubble is that these guys aren't getting out enough.
On the bright side, we'll definitely be trying to get a ticket to the Code Conference this year.