How Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi got comfortable with reinvention

As a child, ...

Posted: Nov 27, 2018 1:52 PM
Updated: Nov 27, 2018 1:52 PM

As a child, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wasn't a fan of his own last name. Khosrowshahi, who was born in Iran, would introduce himself to people as his alter ego — Darren K.

"That was me figuring out where to go," he told CNN Business recently. "And that was me not being comfortable with my identity at the time."

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Decades later, Khosrowshahi, now 49, has become comfortable with his name, and himself. Now he's also trying to get comfortable in what could be a very uncomfortable role: One of Silicon Valley's highest-profile CEOs, charged with playing clean-up at Uber at a time when the stakes for the company couldn't be higher.

When Khosrowshahi left Expedia for Uber in 2017, Uber had been through more than a year of ups and downs. Once a company seen as a rocketship, an incredible force disrupting the transportation sector, it had been tarnished by a win-at-all costs reputation and multiple scandals including a high profile harassment scandal that led many women to speak out against sexism and Silicon Valley's "bro culture."

But, Khosrowshahi says, his own experience as part of a family that fled Iran in 1978 has helped him understand reinvention.

"When you personally experience rebuilding from losing everything, you realize that fear isn't gonna help you one way or the other. And, you don't get that many chances to do something great," he told CNN Business.

That experience as an immigrant has also helped guide him as a CEO during a time when tech leaders are being asked to take moral stances on policies, including immigration. Doing so is necessary, but uncomfortable, he said.

"This is not something that they teach you in CEO training school," Khosrowshahi said. "It's a CEO taking his or her personal beliefs and translating them into the actions of a company, because in the end I'm here to build this company. I'm here to serve our constituencies, our drivers, our riders, our customers, and ultimately our investors. Why should I let my personal feelings get in the way or affect the direction of the company?"

But those lines are blurring. Many Uber drivers are immigrants who have directly been impacted by the Trump administration's immigration policy — and increasingly, Uber and other tech companies are being forced, by their employees and by public pressure, to make more conscious decisions about and take responsibility for who they do business with.

"It is part of the agenda of this company to provide an environment of success for them. Where these issues come up that affect our business, that affect our constituencies, that's where I feel more free to speak out," he says. "Sometimes you should keep it to yourself or keep it to dinner conversation, but these public-private borders, they're blurring. I think it's a relatively uncomfortable time for CEOs and we gotta figure out how to change. I'm figuring it out as we go."

Khosrowshahi says that means there are companies Uber won't do business with. He wouldn't name names, but pointed to what he says are now the company's core values.

"The number one value that you're gonna hear around these halls is we do the right thing, period," he said. "You've got to do your best in every situation. Hopefully, we'll get it more right than wrong."

One of the company's most high-profile missteps to date was its treatment of former engineer Susan Fowler, whose blog post alleging deeply rooted sexism at Uber was a pivotal moment in Silicon Valley, sparking a movement of women across the industry to speak out and playing a key role in the removal of Khosrowshahi's predecessor at Uber, Travis Kalanick.

Asked what he would say to Fowler, who sued Uber earlier this year, he responded, "I think I'd say that she did good. It must've been tough for her to come out like that...I think she was a part of a wave of change that has been difficult for this company. It's been difficult all over, but it's an incredibly important wave. I think that what I'm hoping is that we can finish what she started."

Leading Uber at what may be a pivot point for all of Silicon Valley on a number of issues, including diversity, means leaning into the uncomfortable conversations that have to be a part of that. "It's ultimately gonna be good," Khosrowshahi said. "But when you're going through periods of change, there's gonna be pain, and I think right now, we're right in the middle of the grinding."

Moving forward, Khosrowshahi is hoping for more open discourse regarding the movement toward equality in Silicon Valley, though he realizes that might lead to him and others making mistakes along the way.

"I'm going to say stupid things, and I need to get feedback, 'that was dumb,' learn, get better, and I think that we're at a particular point of time where we don't have a lot of understanding for mistakes, or mistaken views, especially as they pertain to gender or race," he said. "And I think that you've got to make mistakes to learn, so if there's one thing that I'd wish for is for there to be more open discourse... And for that discourse to ultimately help us get to a better place as a society."

Diversity is not the only issue the tech industry has to deal with right now, and in the coming wave of change, the industry must fundamentally shift its mindset, Khosrowshahi said.

"I think the hypothesis in the past was we're building a platform and there are good people and bad people, and we're not responsible for what they do on the platform," he said. "We didn't wanna be responsible because we don't wanna be the censor. We don't wanna tell you what to say... It was an ethical decision."

But at a time when social media companies have seen their platforms used to meddle in democracy, and when investigations — including one by CNN — show an alarming number of customers who've been assaulted in Ubers, there is suddenly no question that Silicon Valley's biggest players have to grapple with their roles and the negative ways in which they can disrupt society.

"The platforms are extending into every part of our life and creating superpowers within them," Khosrowshahi says. "If you communicate something in the old world, you can get it to five people. These platforms allow you to communicate to a million. That realization has created, I think, now the responsibility for all of the platform builders to take responsibility for the content on your platform."

For Uber, responsibility means getting on top of its safety issue, an ongoing problem as the company grows. Under Khosrowshahi, the company is investing millions in safety and — following a string of assaults — plans to post a safety transparency report regarding sexual assaults and other incidents that have occurred on the platform.

Khosrowshahi knows he has many challenges ahead, but he believes the professional risk he accepted in taking on the job at Uber has paid off.

"A year later, I'm really happy here," he said.

And he's optimistic. This era of tech, according to Khosrowshahi, will be defined as one of the greatest eras of change — one in which "technology companies truly understand that we are one and intertwined with society."

"I think that tech leaders become real leaders and they grow up, and I'm in the middle of it."

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