Probably the last thing Uber needs right now is to have someone recount its recent setbacks, but the company's quick, Icarus-like fall from grace tells us much about how tech companies going through hyper-growth can go wrong.
By 2016, the ride-sharing firm was a segment leader, present in 570 cities worldwide with 12,000 employees. Yet since the beginning of the year, Uber's company culture, marked by "sharp elbows," has rapidly become a liability. The key is to preserve the parts of the culture that drove its market leadership and relentless focus on results but augment it for larger scale; that is, add an appropriate level of processes and gender rebalance.
First there was the video of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick chewing out one of the company's drivers. Then there were lawsuits alleging a company culture of sexual harassment.
The past few weeks saw attempts to clean up the company's work environment. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was hired to study the cultural woes at Uber, and he released a 13-page list of reforms. Kalanick took a leave of absence (before quitting on June 20). And several new board members are on the job, including Arianna Huffington. But any steps forward saw a step back when, at a corporate meeting unveiling the Holder report, board member David Bonderman made a joke about women directors, for which he later resigned.
As a woman who's served on many major tech company boards, much of this sounds like old news. Women in technology industries still push against a silicon ceiling when it comes to career advancement and cultural issues. Research by the Society of Women Engineers found that 20 percent of today's engineering school graduates are women, yet just 11 percent continue working in the field. Women in IT leadership roles (such as chief information officers or technology vice presidents) are just 9 percent of the total, according to a survey by Harvey Nash/KPMG.
Within Silicon Valley's boardrooms, the numbers are also bleak. Among the 150 largest tech firms there, only 15 percent of board members are women (versus 21 percent in the S&P 500). A Korn Ferry study of the top 100 U.S. tech firms revealed just three with women who were CEO/chairman and five with a woman as the board's lead director.