Brooke Steger has been through a lot since she became Uber’s Seattle general manager in 2013. Back then, the ride-hailing company employed around 150 people total and just three folks in Seattle, where it was only offering its black car service — far, far from the $70 billion behemoth the San Francisco-based company has become.
Steger reflected on her four-plus years running Uber’s Seattle operations during a fireside chat at the Seattle Interactive Conference on Tuesday, looking back on a tumultuous ride that continues to evolve.
“We grew much faster than any of us ever expected, and I think we made some mistakes along the way,” Steger noted. “It’s a really great time to refresh and to start focusing on everything that we need to, rather than just growing.”
Uber has made headlines for the wrong reasons over the past year, beginning in February after a blog post from former engineer Susan Fowler described harassment and sexual discrimination at the company. That led to an investigation into Uber’s culture by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and departure of Uber co-founder and ex-CEO Travis Kalanick in June.
Steger called Fowler’s story “extremely valid” and said it shone a light on teams that were having problems. When moderator Gareth Jones of Possible asked Steger what it’s like to be a woman at Uber, she said she’s felt “extremely supported.”
But Steger admitted that Uber grew too fast. As her team did everything to recruit more drivers to meet demand in the early days, it was easy to forget about internal HR processes or overall company structure. That type of mindset exposed the company to internal problems, Steger said.
“We were a very operations-heavy company, and less a brand-focused company,” she explained. “I see a lot of those things changing now. We were cranky teenagers and now we’re growing up to be adults. It’s a good transition and one that probably needed to happen earlier.”
As part of a cultural overhaul, Uber in August replaced Kalanick with former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. The company’s traditionally brash and aggressive tone has already been curbed a bit, as shown by Khosrowshahi’s open letter apologizing for the company’s past conduct in London, where the city’s transportation authority said last month it won’t renew Uber’s license to operate.
Khosrowshahi stopped by the Seattle office last week — Uber now employs hundreds at its Seattle engineering hub, in addition to thousands of drivers working as independent contractors on the platform — and visited with Uber’s local team and drivers.
“I’m looking forward to him making some changes within the company,” Steger said. “He’s a phenomenal leader. He’s a listener — he wants to hear about what’s going on first before making decisions, which I think is much more grown up than we were acting before.”
At the GeekWire Summit last week in Seattle, Benchmark Capital General Partner Sarah Tavel — Benchmark is an Uber investor — said she and her team are enthusiastic about Uber’s direction under the leadership of Khosrowshahi.
“Thanks Seattle for this wonderful export,” she said. “I feel kind of guilty being here, having stolen him from the Seattle ecosystem but we’re so thrilled to have him as the CEO of Uber. He’s just the right person for this company at this time and now we’re tapping that good governance. We are optimistic.”
On Tuesday, Steger also talked about the pending ordinance in Seattle that could let Uber and Lyft drivers unionize. The law, passed in 2015 and now tied up in court, gives drivers the ability to band together to negotiate pay rates and employment conditions, among other conditions.
“It has huge implications and not just for Seattle … but across the country,” Steger said.
Currently, these drivers are considered independent contractors and are not protected by traditional labor standards — including Seattle’s $15 per hour minimum wage law. They also do not have collective bargaining rights covered by the National Labor Relations Act
The distinction of which drivers get to vote on collective bargaining continues to be the key issue for many opponents of the law, which includes Uber. Drivers who signed up with their respective ride-hailing companies after Oct. 17 of last year, three months before the law went into effect in January, do not get a vote. Drivers also need to have made 52 trips starting or ending in Seattle during any three-month period in the year prior to the January onset date.
Uber and Lyft favor giving every driver a vote, without the type of restrictions in Seattle’s rules. In a blog post, Lyft said that these rules would disenfranchise approximately 70 percent of its drivers, and for Uber, that number is about half.
Steger said that drivers, who earn a median salary of $19 to $21 per hour before expenses in Seattle, value having flexibility for when and where to work.
“If we’re disenfranchising 9,000 drivers who can’t actually vote but then have to pay monthly dues for that representation, that’s a really uncomfortable place to be in for drivers, for us, and for the city to force someone into that representation,” she said. “I think we will see a lot of those part-time drivers choose not to drive it this goes through.”
In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order to block the law until an appeal from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can be completed. Steger said she expects a decision sometime next year.