Uber's Missteps Should be a Cautionary Tale to the Tech Industry

Op-Ed: This week, news broke that Uber's investors demanded and got CEO Travis Kalanick's resignation. The company has been embroiled in controversy from the get-go, and Kalanick should have been let go much sooner. The fact that the company's investors backed Uber with astounding $15 billion and tolerated its behavior for so long speaks volumes about their lack of leadership. Some of Silicon Valley's most powerful people backed an illegal enterprise — which is exactly how the Harvard Business Review describes it — that willfully and systematically broke the law, racked up over $150 million in fines, lied to the public, strong armed local governments around the world, abused employees, exploited drivers, violated users' privacy, and triggered thousands of sexual harassment complaints.

These investors rewarded criminality, and may have emboldened those who find civility and the law inconvenient. The company's "don't ask permission, ask for forgiveness later" strategy is now part of the Silicon Valley startup playbook. Thousands of entrepreneurs now likely believe that breaking the law is fine for the sake of disruption. I think many people underestimate the damage that Uber has done because they look mostly at the individual actions of the company, and not at the long-lasting, toxic impact of its example. 

By choosing to back such an enterprise, investors have attacked the common good. Like Uber's ex-CEO himself admitted that he needs to "fundamentally change as a leader and grow up," they need to do the same — as does the tech industry in general. Tech leaders need to start acting like states persons because that's the level of power they now wield on the national and global stages. Tech is now the establishment, but the greed, insularity, insensitivity, and hubris exhibited regularly tower over whatever wisdom there is in this space.

Firing the CEO doesn't solve the systemic problems that run rampant not just at Uber, but other companies that emulate it and Silicon Valley's startup ecosystem in general. It doesn't redeem the company's chronic wrongdoing. Investing isn't just a financial decision, it's also a moral one. Deciding to back Uber so lavishly despite its criminality is a moral failure of epic proportions. Users can #DeleteUber. Pundits can call Uber what it is — an illegal enterprise. Reporters can investigate Uber further. Or regulators can just shut it down

But no one is beyond redemption. Investors can do a thorough job of reforming the company (if that's even possible). As for Kalanick, he's a product of his environment. He's responsible, but so is the ecosystem he's part of. It enabled him. He can turn a new leaf. 

Society can do better too. People can can support and create alternatives, like platform cooperatives, where all stakeholders can have a say and a share in a tech enterprise. There's RideAustin in the U.S., Stocksy United in Canada, and Fairmondo in Germany, all examples of enterprises that put people and community first. We can also create alternatives to Silicon Valley's wealth-concentrating ecosystem, like the Emilia Romagna region in Italy, where wealth-spreading cooperatives produce 30 percent of its GDP. More than a possibility, it seems a necessity if we value freedom, fairness, and a future worth having.

Header image of Silicon Valley by Patrick Nouhailler via Flickr

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