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NY Times, Feb. 3 2017
Uber C.E.O. to Leave Trump Advisory Council After Criticism
By MIKE ISAAC
SAN FRANCISCO — Travis Kalanick needed everyone to take a deep breath.
The chief executive of Uber was holding a regularly scheduled all-hands
meeting on Tuesday at the ride-hailing company’s San Francisco
headquarters when he faced an onslaught of questions from upset employees.
Uber was under attack — unfairly, many staff members believed — after
people accused the company of seeking to profit from giving rides to
airport customers in New York during weekend protests against President
Trump’s immigration order.
But there was another matter disturbing the employees: Mr. Kalanick
himself. He had joined Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council in
December. After the immigration order against refugees and seven
Muslim-majority countries, many staff members wondered why Mr. Kalanick
was still willing to advise the president.
“What would it take for you to quit the economic council?” at least two
employees asked at the Tuesday meeting.
On Thursday, Mr. Kalanick gave his answer, stepping down from Mr.
Trump’s economic advisory council. “There are many ways we will continue
to advocate for just change on immigration, but staying on the council
was going to get in the way of that,” Mr. Kalanick wrote in an email to
employees obtained by The New York Times.
Mr. Kalanick’s exit from the advisory council underscores the tricky
calculus facing many Silicon Valley corporate chieftains who try to work
with the new administration. On one hand, many tech executives have
openly tried to engage with the president, a path that is typically good
for business. Yet Mr. Trump’s immigration order has been so unpopular
with so many tech workers — many of whom are immigrants themselves and
who advocate globalization — that they are now exerting pressure on
their chief executives to push back forcefully against the administration.
Thirty miles south of Uber’s headquarters, for example, Facebook
employees have voiced frustration that Peter Thiel, the billionaire tech
investor and adviser to Mr. Trump, still has a seat on the social
network’s board. At Google, employees have staged protests against the
immigration order. At Twitter’s headquarters, some employees have said
they are uneasy about the president’s heavy reliance on their service to
send divisive messages.
The tension over continuing to work with Mr. Trump reached a breaking
point at Uber because Mr. Kalanick was, until Thursday, one of the most
vocal proponents among tech chiefs of engaging with the president. As
recently as Saturday, Mr. Kalanick had publicly said in a blog post that
the best route forward was to have “a seat at the table.” He had added,
“We partner around the world optimistically in the belief that by
speaking up and engaging we can make a difference.”
Outside of the internal pressure, Uber faced other fallout from Mr.
Kalanick’s stance. More than 200,000 customers had deleted their accounts.
In addition, Uber rivals had seized the moment to attack the company and
bolster their own businesses. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance sent
emails to the news media calling attention to Uber’s ties to Mr. Trump,
and organized a protest at Uber’s New York office for Thursday. Lyft,
another ride-hailing service, pledged to donate $1 million to the
American Civil Liberties Union and has seen its app shoot toward the top
of the download charts.
Uber drivers, many of them immigrants who work for the ride-hailing
company on a freelance basis, were also upset.
“There would be no Uber without immigrants,” said Jim Conigliaro Jr.,
founder of the Independent Drivers Guild, an organization that
represents and advocates protections for nearly 50,000 Uber drivers
serving New York City. “As a company whose success is built on a
foundation of hard work by immigrant workers, Uber can and should do
better to stand up for immigrants and their workers.”
Uber has set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support
drivers, offering help with translation services and round-the-clock
telephone access to legal aid.
For Mr. Kalanick, the moment was especially fraught. Other corporate
chiefs, including Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, and Mary Barra of
General Motors, are also on the president’s economic advisory team. Mr.
Musk said on Twitter this week that the group of economic advisers
planned to come to some sort of “consensus” on immigration, and to
influence Mr. Trump by engaging directly with him rather than cutting
off ties completely.
“Travis and the other C.E.O.s are on that (presidential) board for one
simple reason: To advance their business interests,” said Dan
O’Sullivan, a writer from the Chicago area who helped to spread the
#DeleteUber campaign on social media.
Internally, Uber staff members also began piling on the pressure.
According to nearly a dozen current and former Uber engineers and
product managers who attended or were briefed on the Tuesday all-hands
meeting, employees said they were concerned that Mr. Kalanick’s
willingness to work with Mr. Trump after the immigration order would
color Uber as a soulless company that cared only about its bottom line.
Some told Mr. Kalanick that they had suffered a personal cost — a
stigma, they said — of working at Uber. One staff member asked him to
present the benefits of working at Uber that could outweigh that
Mr. Kalanick replied that he believed that change could be best effected
through engagement, and through the work they did every single day.
Many employees were not satisfied with his answer. On Wednesday, Uber
staff members followed up by circulating a 25-page Google document
titled “Letters to Travis” to tell the chief executive how and why his
willingness to engage with the administration had affected them.
By Thursday morning, Mr. Kalanick had reversed his position on engaging
with Mr. Trump. His participation in the economic advisory council had
created what he called a “perception-reality gap between who people
think we are, and who we actually are.”
In his email to employees, he said his participation was being
interpreted as a sign that he had endorsed the president and the
administration’s agenda. In fact, Mr. Kalanick said, the immigration
order was hurting many people across America.
“Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our
country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s,” he wrote.
Mr. Kalanick said he had spoken briefly with Mr. Trump to let him know
he was withdrawing from the advisory council.
“Please know, your questions and stories on Tuesday, along with what I
heard from drivers, have kept me resilient and reminded me of one of our
most essential cultural values, Be Yourself,” Mr. Kalanick wrote.
The full text of Mr. Kalanick’s email to employees is below:
Earlier today I spoke briefly with the President about the immigration
executive order and its issues for our community. I also let him know
that I would not be able to participate on his economic council. Joining
the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the President or his
agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this and mapping it to our values.
There are a couple that are particularly relevant:
Inside Out - The implicit assumption that Uber (or I) was somehow
endorsing the Administration’s agenda has created a perception-reality
gap between who people think we are, and who we actually are.
Just Change - We must believe that the actions we take ultimately move
the ball forward. There are many ways we will continue to advocate for
just change on immigration but staying on the council was going to get
in the way of that. The executive order is hurting many people in
communities all across America. Families are being separated, people are
stranded overseas and there’s a growing fear the U.S. is no longer a
place that welcomes immigrants.
Immigration and openness to refugees is an important part of our
country’s success and quite honestly to Uber’s. I am incredibly proud to
work directly with people like Thuan and Emil, both of whom were
refugees who came here to build a better life for themselves. I know it
has been a tough week for many of you and your families, as well as many
thousands of drivers whose stories are heartfelt and heart-wrenching.
Please know, your questions and stories on Tuesday, along with what I
heard from drivers, have kept me resilient and reminded me of one of our
most essential cultural values, Be Yourself. We will fight for the
rights of immigrants in our communities so that each of us can be who we
are with optimism and hope for the future.
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