Tony West had a rough first day at Uber.
Instead of setting up his office, getting familiar with the computer system, or locating the restroom, West was making calls to attorneys general all over the country to disclose a 2016 data breach that had not been reported by the company previously.
West is no stranger to complex problems. He was executive vice president at PepsiCo and high-ranking Justice Department official in the Obama administration before taking the job of chief legal officer at Uber in 2017. Cleaning up messes like these and turning around the company’s toxic reputation have been top priorities for CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and his leadership team since the former Expedia chief executive took the top job at Uber in August 2017.
“I knew there would be days when I’d open up the closet and a skeleton that I hadn’t anticipated might tumble out, but luckily those days don’t happen as often as they did when I first started,” West said at the 2018 GeekWire Summit Tuesday.
Uber earned a reputation as a scofflaw, frequently running afoul of local regulations as it grew to become one of the world’s most valuable startups. Soon after Khosrowshahi came on board, the company had lost its license in London, in another low-point, following several simultaneous scandals over the previous year. It has since been restored on a conditional basis.
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 CEO Travis Kalanick to resign from his post, clearing the way for Khosrowshahi to take the top job.
Khosrowshahi’s tenure hasn’t been without problems of its own. In March, Uber pulled its self-driving test fleet off the road for several months after a woman was struck and killed by an autonomous car in Arizona.
West couldn’t promise that such an incident would never happen again, but he did say Uber has put in place a culture of safety that should minimize the chances of future crashes.
With an IPO coming promised sometime next year, the new leadership team is working to get the company on the straight and narrow. West listed off a series of former government officials Uber has hired to ensure the company protects customer data and stays on the right side of the law.
The company plans to publish a report about sexual harassment and assault against its riders, and West said, “the numbers are going to be disturbing.” Uber thinks by publishing the numbers it can start the conversation of how to reduce such encounters.
These moves are all part of a plan to show the world that Uber isn’t all talk in terms of making changes.
“If you deleted Uber, give us another chance; we’ve got new leadership in the company,” West said. “Look at not just what we say, but look at what we actually do and judge us by our actions as well as our words. I think you’ll be pleased with what you find.”
As the leadership team looks to turn the page on the company’s scandal-filled past, West doesn’t think Uber’s new era as a law-abiding citizen will force it to sacrifice innovation and the “magic” that made it one of the most recognizable and valuable companies in the world.
“It’s really a matter of harnessing that magic, harnessing that determination, yet recognizing that because we are now a global company, a company with a brand that has become a verb, it requires us to act a different way in the world,” West said.