Uber vows to change direction, become more humane company

Uber is vowing to head down a new road and become a more humane company following a wave of ugly developments, including allegations of rampant sexual harassment and a video of a profanity-laced confrontation between the ride-hailing company's CEO and a disgruntled driver.

The pledge came in a contrite conference call held Tuesday with some of the reporters who have been covering the incidents that have painted an unflattering portrait of the company, threatening to trigger a backlash among the riders and drivers who have propelled its rapid rise.

Even as it acknowledges past mistakes, Uber says the fallout hasn't damaged its business yet. Ridership in the US during the first 10 weeks of this year is up from the same time last year, according to Rachel Holt, who oversees Uber's operations in the US and Canada.

Holt was one of three women who handled Tuesday's damage control, joining Uber's only female board member, Arianna Huffington, and Liane Hornsey, the company's head of human resources.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was conspicuously absent from Tuesday's call, though he is in the eye of the storm thrashing the company. Company representatives said Kalanick couldn't attend because he was busy interviewing the candidates vying to become the company's chief operating officer, a helping hand that Kalanick has said he needs to "grow up" at the age of 40.

Besides berating an Uber driver last month for complaining about the company's pay scale, Kalanick also has been skewered for creating a boorish culture that culminated in a former female engineer alleging management looked the other way after she and other women reported being propositioned by their male colleagues.

Last month, Kalanick hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an investigation into the sexual harassment charges leveled by the former engineer, Susan Fowler. Holder's report will be completed and publicly released by the end of April, Huffington said Tuesday.

A separate report breaking down the number of men, women and minorities in key jobs at Uber will be released for the first time by the end of this month. Other tech companies have been releasing similar demographic reports for several years.

Huffington said Uber's board wouldn't have allowed Kalanick to remain on the job, unless he had apologized for his mistakes and agreed to hire a chief operating officer.

Kalanick "started as a scrappy entrepreneur and now he needs to bring the changes in himself and in the way he leads," Huffington said. "I am personally a big believer in leaders and companies being allowed to evolve. I have seen personally Travis' evolution, having spent a lot of time with him over the last five weeks. I know this is real for him."

Without identifying any candidates, Huffington said the applicants to become Uber's chief operating officer are "truly world-class leaders who have worked in very complex organizations already. What's clear, whatever Uber's challenges the best of the best are coming to the table."

San Francisco-based Uber remains a highly attractive destination largely because the rapid growth of its ride-hailing service around the world has turned it into a prized investment less than a decade after Kalanick started it. The privately held company has been valued at nearly US$70 billion by its early investors, a list that includes a venture capital fund started by Google. Uber is widely expected to go public within the next few years in an offering that will enrich Kalanick and many other executives.

Nevertheless, the backlash to the recent revelations about Uber's culture has resulted in management defections, including the recent resignation the company's president, Jeff Jones, after just six months on the job.

"I will be holding their feet to the fire," Huffington said of Kalanick and the rest of Uber's management. "Uber must change to be as successful in the next decade as it has been in the last seven years."

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