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You Can Thank Whistleblowers for Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s Resignation

An avalanche of negative press eventually forced investors’ hands

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It was just a little more than four months ago that Susan Fowler published a reflection of her year working as an engineer at Uber. Her claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at what was supposed to be a techno-utopia wasn’t new. But it was the utter detail of how she said it happened that caused a stir: being propositioned for sex by her supervisor on the first day she’d joined his team. The hostile nature of the HR employees whose jobs were supposedly to help her. That her department awarded men with free leather jackets but withheld them from its six female employees. Fowler knew this behavior was wrong and meticulously documented each encounter. Still, when it came time to recount her experience, she described it as only “strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying.” The amused distance in her tone suggested a pessimism that even a story as harrowing as hers wouldn’t be enough to change a startup as powerful as Uber.

But it did — in at least one key way. Late Tuesday night Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned. His decision to leave the company, which comes after the company announced he would take an indefinite leave of absence in light of his mother’s death, was reportedly driven by five of the company’s major investors. They banded together to write a letter titled “Moving Uber Forward,” which demanded Kalanick leave immediately to make way for new leadership. “I love Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors [sic] request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight,” Kalanick said in a statement given to The New York Times. Even firing 20 employees amid an investigation of sexual harassment and other workplace malpractice claims and unanimously accepting every recommendation made by an independent law firm hired to evaluate office culture was not enough. In order to distance itself from the toxic culture that was raised by Fowler and then relentlessly chronicled by the press, Uber needed to shed the very man who’d set the tone for it.

Why did the resignation happen? The immediate answer is money. The investment firms that united to oust Kalanick don’t want to risk the billions they’ve thrown into Uber. And even if the company appears to still be on the uptick, there’s no denying that the near-constant flow of negative press about Kalanick has hurt the Uber brand. Prior to Fowler’s blog post, a controversy related to Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and Kalanick’s then-advisory role with the president spurred frustrated customers to launch a campaign against the company, which prompted more than 200,000 people to delete the app. “For some people looking to dump Uber, the #deleteUber campaign simply sealed the deal,” one Recode headline read. It’s no doubt that, even this winter, investors were monitoring the situation. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley spends millions on marketing campaigns and PR armies: Perception matters just as much as the product does.

Fowler stepped up at a crucial moment in the Uber narrative. Her description of the company’s unhealthy management structure and “game-of-thrones political war” catalyzed a flurry of media investigations. Revelations of the companies cavalier attitude toward the law, “Hobbesian environment,” misogynistic upper management, and questionable history with trade secrets all led back to Kalanick’s leadership style. A leaked video and emails showed that Kalanick himself exemplified the fraternity-esque culture for which Uber had earned a reputation. Fowler was brave enough to tell her story, and then reporters stepped in to prove that Uber’s bad publicity was inextricably linked to Kalanick himself. The information that came out in their combined efforts was enough to chip away at the shield his powerful position afforded him.

We’ll have to wait and see whether new leadership and the company’s internal revamp make Uber a better, safer place to work. But the fact that Kalanick is now barred from helming the world’s most powerful startup is a major victory for female tech workers everywhere. Going public with a story of sexual harassment or discrimination is rarely rewarding. And doing it in the tech industry — where belief in meritocracy remains strong, damage control is ruthless, and the potential for trolling is magnified — can be particularly damaging. After so many women in tech screamed into an empty void over the years, Fowler’s voice was heard. Whistleblowing works. Just ask Kalanick.