In the year since joining Uber as chief legal officer, Tony West has talked repeatedly about trust.
“Uber survives only if people trust us,” he said in an on-stage interview with Bloomberg. “You have to trust us with your data. You have to trust us with your safety or the safety of your loved ones. And we have to earn that trust every day in the way that we operate.”
For Uber users disenchanted by the scandals, legal woes, and controversies that have defined the company’s most recent chapter, that trust will be hard-earned. But West is determined to turn a new page, under the leadership of former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over as Uber CEO shortly before West joined the team.
West will discuss Uber’s efforts to right the ship, lessons learned from serving in the nation’s highest judicial office, and share other insights during the closing fireside chat at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 2, 2018. Tickets for one of the country’s premier tech conference are on sale here.
Khosrowshahi recruited West in 2017. The Uber board had just named Khosrowshahi CEO after the departure of the company’s founding chief executive, Travis Kalanick. Under Kalanick, Uber sped ahead of the competition by rapidly expanding to new markets, often without permission from city officials, and avoiding law enforcement, in some cases using custom software to do so.
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That aggressive posture had its costs. London declined to renew Uber’s license to operate in the city in 2017 and only recently issued a temporary permit to return. Uber found itself in similar disputes in Austin and other cities.
Uber’s challenges extended beyond the regulatory arena. In February 2017, Susan Fowler, an ex-Uber engineer, published an essay detailing a culture of systemic sexism and a lack of accountability for bad behavior that led many women to leave the company. Fowler’s exposé, data breaches, and other scandals led to several internal and federal investigations. Those scandals eventually forced Kalanick to resign from his role as CEO.
West brings experience from the very agency investigating Uber to his new role as legal chief. He joined the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama and by 2012, he was associate attorney general, the third-highest position at the department. Before joining Uber, West led PepsiCo’s legal and public policy teams.
Inheriting a company plagued by such controversy forced West and Khosrowshahi to start their Uber careers on a charm offensive. In discussions with government officials and media interviews, the two talk often about Uber’s new safety priorities and changing company culture. In May, Uber ended the practice of mandatory arbitration, which forced sexual harassment and assault claims to be mediated in secret.
Despite the efforts of Uber’s leadership team, the company’s troubles escalated in March when an autonomous Uber killed a pedestrian. Uber suspended testing for self-driving cars in cities across North America.
“After the incident, Dara ordered a top-to-bottom safety review of our practices … I’m very pleased with some of the very strong recommendations that look like they’re coming out of that,” West said in the Bloomberg interview.
As Uber prepares to go public by the end of 2019, the future of the autonomous vehicle program remains unclear.
But Uber is prioritizing safety in new features and its messaging to the public. In September, Uber unveiled a number of new safety features including location sharing with law enforcement and loved ones and a panic button for drivers.
Uber seems to be making progress toward rehabilitating its image in other areas too. The company’s first diversity report under Khosrowshahi showed slight improvements. While Uber is still considering which direction to steer its self-driving car operation, the company is doubling down transportation and micro-mobility.
“We still have work to do, West told Bloomberg. “We still have to earn that benefit of the doubt.”
He added that it’s imperative that Uber follow the model of other “good, strong public companies” so that “when a mistake happens, regulators look at that as an aberration instead of a way of doing business.”
We’re looking forward to welcoming West to the GeekWire Summit stage, where we will discuss many of these issues and the path ahead for one of the world’s most valuable transportation companies.