Arianna Huffington now the public face of Uber
Her role at firm has been part peacemaker and part public relations strategist
‘Huffington Post’ founder Arianna Huffington was close to Travis Kalanick
That gesture has been ridiculed by her detractors inside Uber, who see it as reinforcing sexist stereotypes. But the story is also revealing of the close friendship that developed between Ms Huffington, 66, and Mr Kalanick, 40. Their relationship has been central to how events at Uber have played out in recent weeks, after an investigation into widespread sexual harassment claims led to dozens of firings, a board shake-up and Mr Kalanick’s departure.
When investors ambushed Mr Kalanick with the news that they wanted him to resign, it was Ms Huffington who he called for advice. “I felt that neither he nor the company should go through a protracted public fight. But it was entirely his decision,” she said.
“Had Travis fought the investors, you would have had a civil war, and she helped prevent that,” said one shareholder.
Ms Huffington has emerged as the public face of Uber as the company has lurched from one crisis to the next. In some ways, it is an unlikely turn for the Greek-born media entrepreneur who recently wrote a book about sleep. But in other ways, her skills as a self-marketer are well suited for the task of selling the narrative that Uber can change.
Ms Huffington’s pitch rests in part on her own brand, which she has cultivated throughout a career marked by reinventions. She entered US public life as a conservative commentator in the 1980s, but eventually distanced herself from the political right, briefly running as an independent for governor of California before moving further left.
The Huffington Post, which she co-founded in 2005 as a liberal counterweight to the Drudge Report, provided a platform for her free-ranging interests and global aspirations, becoming at its peak one of the web’s most-read news and entertainment sites.
In recent years she turned her attention to the importance of sleep and work-life balance, prescribing digital detoxes even as she ran a website built on insatiable demand for people’s attention. Last year, she left the Huffington Post to work full time on Thrive Global, her health and wellness start-up.
Ms Huffington was the first independent director appointed to Uber’s board - a move that ruffled feathers at the Huffington Post, where she was still editor-in-chief at the time. When she took her seat last year, all the other members were either shareholders or early employees, and all were men.
The board has since gained a second independent director and a second woman. Uber plans to add two more independent directors, as recommended by a report by Eric Holder, the former US attorney-general, about its culture, management and governance.
Ms Huffington’s role at Uber has been part peacemaker and part public relations strategist. She stepped in following allegations of sexual harassment and sexism from Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, who published her account in February. Ms Huffington led the board’s response, fielding calls from reporters asking whether directors would stand behind Mr Kalanick, meeting employees in person and over the phone, and handing out her email address.
“As the only woman on the board it was important for me to make myself available to employees, to listen, and to make it clear that the board would hold management’s feet to the fire and that we were committed to fundamental changes. These were also issues I had written and spoken a lot about,” including how hard-charging workplaces like Uber’s take a particular toll on women, she said.
While Ms Huffington initially denied sexual harassment was “systemic” at Uber, the problem turned out to be far larger than the story of one 25-year-old engineer. Ms Fowler’s account, the subsequent investigations, and a separate trade secrets lawsuit eventually took out much of Uber’s top executive leadership. As Uber’s crisis widened, Ms Huffington became ever more visible, flying from her New York home to address all-hands meetings in San Francisco.
Among Uber staff, the view of her is mixed. Some see her as an outsider, cynically joking on the anonymous chat app Blind that the only thing she contributes is “omelettes”. Others are more supportive. “It seems like Arianna is running Uber right now,” one employee wrote in the same thread.
Her close ties to Mr Kalanick have raised eyebrows, with some shareholders questioning whether she is truly “independent” as a director. When the board deliberated Mr Kalanick’s future in early June, Ms Huffington supported Mr Kalanick, who chose to go on grief leave following the sudden death of his mother while remaining chief executive. (A week later he was ousted by investors, who bypassed the board.)
Now, as Uber sets about rebuilding its top ranks, Ms Huffington remains in a pivotal position. She is on the board subcommittee conducting the search for a new chief executive and the subcommittee overseeing the implementation of Mr Holder’s report.
The choice of a new leader needs to reflect the company’s future, she said. “It’s important for the new CEO to be able to have that entrepreneurial spirit, while also recognising that Uber is at a different stage now, where structures and processes are very important.”
While best-known as a media figure, Ms Huffington has longstanding ties with the tech world, including close relationships with Twitter’s founders. She said the turmoil at Uber highlights the need for broader change in Silicon Valley and an end to tolerance of what she described at an Uber staff meeting as “brilliant jerks” – men whose bad behaviour is excused because of their superior performance.
“The goal should be not just to fix Uber but to fix the systemic culture of Silicon Valley. Otherwise, every year we will produce new reports asking why aren’t women advancing?” she said.
“There is such an incredible emphasis everywhere in the Valley on top performers, and just because they deliver in a narrow sense, they’re forgiven again and again. And even if their behaviour leads to them being let go, it’s largely done quietly and they’re quickly rehired by another company, where the behaviour continues.”
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017