Diversity Uber Alles

Over the past few years, various executives of blue-chip corporations have taken to writing articles on LinkedIn. I rather like them, not because I think executives can write or that speaking directly to the masses is a good idea, but because of what they unintentionally reveal. Yesterday I came across this article by Bo Young Lee, who is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Uber.

Now before I begin, a little history. Uber’s entire business model was to go into cities worldwide and disrupt powerful, vested interests – namely, the licensed taxi industry – by exploiting grey areas and loopholes in the law. They were quite happy to kick over apple carts which had stood unshaken for decades, and brazenly face down or shrug off the inevitable outrage that followed. Acting in this manner takes a certain type of character, and you can be sure the original founders of Uber were shitlords of the first water. They saw an opportunity to make money providing a service people were denied yet crying out for, and they didn’t care who they upset along the way. If they’d been any different, the company would have fallen at the first hurdle.

It was therefore unsurprising that in 2017, eight years after its founding and by then a household name worth billions, revelations emerged that the culture in the company was one of a bunch of shitlords acting as they pleased. As Wiki puts it:

In early 2017, Uber was described by insiders as having an “asshole culture”.

Well, yes. What followed amid allegations of sexual harassment was a shakeup of the management, including the departure of CEO and founder Travis Kalanick. The board, eager to gain the approval of America’s moral guardians, decided the asshole culture was problematic and needed to change. To this end, they hired Bo Young Lee, an Asian lady who started her professional life as an Accenture consultant and thereafter spent 15 years working in diversity-related positions, in the new role of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer. Now, a few months later, they’ve let her write an article on LinkedIn. Let’s take a look:

The first thing I do when presented with a new job opportunity is assess an organization’s potential for change—that’s more important to me than the amount of change that’s required.

Modern executives like to foist major changes on organisations whether they’re required or not, because this makes it easier to justify their appointment and hefty salary. Ms Lee has been well schooled.

I look for a few key markers: a commitment from leadership, an understanding of the business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I), and a mutual agreement that D&I must and will touch every facet of the business. It cannot simply be a silo that lives within HR.

In other words, she tries to identify which organisations are ripe for totalitarian reform along progressive principles that were until recently restricted to the lunatic fringe of American academia.

Throughout the process, I saw an organization that was clearly committed to change but could use help on how to accomplish those changes. Despite some uncertainty around the “how,” when I spoke with Dara and learned about his passion for the “what” and “why,”

So the company wanted to change, but didn’t know how, so they created the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.

I knew quickly Uber was a company where I’d want to be.

I bet you did.

That’s not to say the process didn’t come with its challenges. In many ways I’m a classic introvert, so when news of me joining leaked to the press, I wasn’t quite ready for the influx of questions about me.

Such as what value you bring to the stakeholders.

The attention accompanying my announcement forced me to give some serious thought to whether I wanted to introduce that level of scrutiny into the work I was doing.

So you know you’re a grifter. I find your honesty refreshing.

In order to understand the dynamics of D&I, you have to look at the underlying drivers of exclusion. Organizations have challenges with D&I because society has challenges with it.

Want to promote more women working in East Asia? You need to start with the history and entrenched gender norms women face in Korea, Japan and China.

Another frank admission: this is less about improving workplace conditions and shareholder value than social engineering on a global scale.

On a practical level, it’s important to not just redesign a system or a process, but to give employees real developmental opportunities that will help them expand their skill sets to promote inclusivity. Otherwise, they’ll simply find ways to undermine the new system.

Translation: it’s important we don’t adopt systems and processes whose benefit is self-evident; instead we’ll put in whatever makes us look good and force our employees to accept them.

Too often, we tell people to be inclusive without really showing them what that looks like.

Perhaps because every example of inclusivity put forward doesn’t appear very inclusive to those who aren’t willfully blind.

For example, many companies (Uber included) have expanded parental leave to create more equitable policies for mothers and fathers. While well-intentioned, when a company changes a policy without addressing the surrounding cultural norms, it can backfire.

So rather than running a business in a manner suited to prevailing cultural norms, Uber will henceforth attempt to change society.

If fathers don’t feel encouraged to take advantage of longer leave—but mothers do—these policies can have an unintended negative outcome and reinforce existing inequalities.

Previously we ignored social norms in order to pursue progressive policies, but we only made things worse. So we’re going to double our efforts while still ignoring reality.

To change attitudes toward something like parental leave, companies can (and should) do things like recognize managers that have promoted equality between male and female parental leave.

I don’t have a problem with this, actually. The time when managers were recognised for experience, competence, consistency, honesty, transparency, and integrity has long gone. They therefore might as well recognise whatever the hell this woman is trying to describe.

From my first few weeks at Uber, I’ve been encouraged by the amount of pride people take in what they do and their genuine desire to do right by fellow employees, drivers, riders, and cities.

Where do investors sit in this hierarchy of charitable feelings?

There’s also a sense of humility at Uber that’s unexpected; no one seems to be defensive about the past or makes excuses for what happened.

I expect anyone who was involved in them left, pockets full, along with the CEO.

My vision is to help make Uber a place where amazing talent from every corner of society can thrive and grow and where each employee has the ability to achieve to their highest potential. I want colleagues from different backgrounds feeling safe enough to share their real world experience.

These corporate visions remind me of Communists describing the utopias they intend to build, and they’re about as achievable.

I want employees who are equipped to have tough, challenging, and constructive conversations with one another

I’m sure James Damore heard similar sentiments at Google, right before he sent his memo.

and I want leaders who can speak truthfully to the fact that our diverse teams are our greatest asset and a competitive advantage—because they are what drive our innovation.

Erm, the company’s greatest and most ground-breaking innovation came long before the position of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer existed. Its one and only competitive advantage was a management team that really didn’t give a shit what anyone thought and was prepared to take on deep-rooted vested interests, and they’ve since been fired. If diverse teams were such a great asset, competitive advantage, and driver of innovation companies wouldn’t need to ram totalitarian diversity and inclusion policies down the throats of their employees.

In order to do this, D&I needs to be something that every single employee at the company has a stake in. We talk about D&I in such abstract ways that teams don’t have a sense of what they can do, but I want to teach every Uber employee that inclusion (or exclusion) happens every day, in both small and large ways

Compulsory, ongoing diversity and inclusion training for every employee. I bet they can’t wait.

Simultaneously, I want to utilize data to make big, bold moves.

I suspect this means quotas.

Like many first-generation immigrant families, my parents wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer, or an accountant. When I made the choice to work in D&I after completing my MBA, my parents just couldn’t wrap their head around the career choice.

I can understand their disappointment.

For many years my father would say, “so you fly around and teach people how to be nice to each other?” When I took the job at Uber, the announcement was picked up by Korean news and my parents were inundated with phone calls from friends and relatives.

Including Kim-Jong Un, asking if you’d be interested in a position in his government.

I’ll admit that I was happy that, for the first time, my parents understood what I do.

Oh, I’m sure they understand it by now. Whether they’re pleased about it is another matter.

Meanwhile, mainstream perceptions have also evolved during the nearly two decades that I’ve been working on D&I. When I finished my MBA in the early 2000s, the field wasn’t considered a serious thing to devote your career to, and it certainly wasn’t a role that would ever warrant a “Chief” in the title.

That’s because they’ve invented these jobs to keep the over-qualified but largely useless products of the American college system in employment.

And while we’re still at the very beginning of creating real change, I’m proud that this is now a topic that’s being prioritized.

I’d have thought returning investor value, providing the best possible service, and avoiding costly lawsuits and city-wide bans would be prioritised, but what would I know?

Apparently Uber is planning an IPO sometime in 2019, but my guess is it won’t happen: the smart money got out a long time ago, and only a complete idiot would invest in it now.

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23 thoughts on “Diversity Uber Alles

  1. (…) make Uber a place where amazing talent from every corner of society

    Err … so driving a car requires “Amazing Talent”, eh? Who’d a thunk it?

    It’s as bad as New Zealand where the term “superstar” is bandied around in job adverts for such things as petrol station forecourt attendants where they are looking for amazing superstars to pump petrol and wipe windscreens.

    I wonder if they have University PhD’s to train people to be car drivers and petrol forecourt attendants?

  2. “…a place where amazing talent from every corner of society can thrive and grow”

    They drive taxis. There are laws of the road and the drivers are required to follow them.

    Er, that’s it.

  3. Is there anywhere in the corporate world a diversity chief who is not themselves ‘diverse’? Positive discrimination much?

  4. Err … so driving a car requires “Amazing Talent”, eh? Who’d a thunk it?

    Oh no, this is nothing to do with the drivers: this is about the exponentially increasing numbers of paper-pushers they’re employing in global and regional HQs. The drivers are probably looked upon as scumbag contractors, if that.

  5. You confirmed my suspicions, Tim. How big of a back office does an operation like Uber really need? It would be interesting to see how many layers existed between top and bottom under the old management and the new.

  6. How big of a back office does an operation like Uber really need?

    You’d be surprised. Writing software that scales to millions of active users, and can handle billing etc in real-time, takes quite a large team. This isn’t the couple-of-guys-in-a-bedroom operation that it could have been when it was just in one city.

    As for the article: this person has managed to get a presumably well-paid job that is high profile and basically failure-proof: their success rests not on making money (which Uber can’t do, it doesn’t have a viable business model, and has only been able to operate so far because it’s been subsidising running costs out of investment capital [users are charged less for a ride than the drivers are paid; the difference comes out of Uber’s venture capital funds; and even then, the drivers are making a loss, if they would account for wear & tear on their cars]) but on improving diversity stats. So if the company goes bust, she can say she didn’t get the chance to implement her changes. If the stats go in the right direction, she claims success. If they go in the wrong direction, she blames an entrenched culture of all the isms, that she tried her best but was unable to shift.

    So in any of those cases, she’s well-placed to get another even higher-paid job.

    You can doubt the value of the game, but what you can’t doubt is that this person is one smart cookie who, unlike the many many people with similar academic backgrounds who are begging for shifts at the local takeaway, has played it spectacularly.

  7. People who believe ‘diversity’ at a company adds some sort of measurable business/investor/monetary value should put their money where their mouth is and invest in the Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE: US). Of course, they would be worse off than if they had just gone for the more generic SPDR S&P 500 Index ETF.

  8. Nomura just launched a new ETF that tracks the MSCI Japan Empowering Women (WIN) Select Index, which is a stock price index thart comprises Japanese companies that promote gender diversity. Be interesting to see how it performs compared to ETFs that track broader Japanese market. But to my point – I’ve never seen anyone in the “D&I” racket talk about investing in these sort of ETFs.

  9. I thought you were kidding about that ETF called SHE:US.

    the smart money got out a long time ago, and only a complete idiot would invest in it now

    As an investment strategy, picking companies run by sociopaths – or even just companies devoid of diversity statements – would probably beat the market. Maybe we need an ETF called EVIL:US.

  10. In other news, I see that Amber Rudd has promised to change the culture of the Home Office.

    Just Like That! as Tommy Cooper would say.

  11. Tom
    “Nomura just launched a new ETF that tracks the MSCI Japan Empowering Women (WIN) Select Index, which is a stock price index ”

    Please tell me this is true, there has to be one of these for the US, please!
    That has to be the best shorting vehicle to ever existed in investing history.

  12. That’s because they’ve invented these jobs to keep the over-qualified but largely useless products of the American college system in employment.

    In the U.S., you’re finding more MBA programs are adding sub-specialties which cater to progressive/SJW sensitivities. Diversity is one; “Sustainability” is another. The graduates get hired by the larger companies, because the companies are large enough to camouflage the costs from the shareholders and the existence of the various new SJW departments serve as a suitable shield from the slings and arrows of the leftwing Twitterati.

  13. Of course, it’s possible this person has been hired to write meaningless drivel ‘virtue signalling’ on social media, while being kept away from doing anything in the real company.
    Well let’s hope so.
    And I agree with S above: that level of realtime billing software for millions of transactions is not a small task. People that can do that name their price and have little time for such ‘seagull’ managers.
    If the role has real power, Uber is done for: but that’s really the point of the Leftie attacks isn’t it?
    Up the Guild of Amalgamated Lamp Lighters!

  14. a suitable shield from the slings and arrows of the leftwing Twitterati.

    So, an honest question. I have for several years operated under the rubric that nothing that happens on Twitter matters in the real world. Twitterstorms do not, AFAICT, actually translate into any loss of sales for the people they attempt to influence. While they do often result in scalps being claimed, this always appears to be pre-emptive on the part of nervous nellies in corporate HQ.

    I would argue the Chick-Fil-A effect indicates that I am right about the real-world impact of Twitter, but I welcome any counter-evidence.

    Has there ever been a documented instance where a company was targeted by Twitter, ignored the demands of the howling mob, and suffered for it?

  15. It’s not just real-time software.

    There’s multiple languages in multiple alphabets (the Arabic version even has to read right to left). That’s a major hassle, but you have to do it or others will conquer other languages and then, secure in their base, be able to move in on you.

    There’s significant issues about improving the maps and the routes (you’ll lose all your business if competitors have better routes, especially in big cities).

    Then a huge PR department to put out flames. There have been some quite serious fights between Uber drivers and taxis across the world.

    It’ll make money, but only after standard taxis are driven out of the market.

  16. It’ll make money, but only after standard taxis are driven out of the market

    No, it won’t, because the taxi business has a low cost-of-entry and has very little consumer loyalty, so even if it does succeed in bankrupting every existing taxi firm, in order to recoup its investment it will have to raise prices so much that it will become attractive for local firms to spring up again to undercut them, and so Uber is right back to where it was before, having to subsidise its prices.

    This is why predatory pricing basically never works, whether it’s supermarkets trying to drive local suppliers out of business or Uber doing the same: to recoup the investment after the predatory period you have to raise prices so much you are incredibly vulnerable to being undercut.

  17. The one advantage Uber has over local taxi firms is that, if it operates in enough markets, a visitor to a town doesn’t have to bother finding out the number of the local taxi firm: they can just use Uber as soon as they get off the train (I know people who use it like this). They might be willing to pay more for the convenience, even if they could get the ride a bit cheaper with a bit of local knowledge.

    However:

    (a) what proportion of taxi rides are by visitors, as opposed to locals? I honestly have no idea but I suspect it’s not that high.

    (b) it will depend a lot on what the price discrepancy is. If Uber is 20% more expensive than calling the local firm, fair enough. But if it’s two or three times as expensive, then a lot more people are going to find it worth looking around the station for the local taxi number.

    (c) if it matters, local taxi firms in a given territory could easily get together and launch an app’ which determines where you are and automatically calls the local taxi firm. That would be very simple — it wouldn’t need to do billing, as the local taxis would do that as they do now, it wouldn’t need to do routing, it wouldn’t need to do multiple languages because it wouldn’t be trying to be multi-national, etc etc, so the costs could easily be covered by charging taxi firms a subscription to have their numbers on it. So they could still undercut Uber.

  18. The one advantage Uber has over local taxi firms

    They have several massive advantages, all of which could be – and are being – nullified by taxi companies getting their own app. They are:

    1. No need to explain verbally where you are and where you’re going, eliminating language barriers.
    2. Less scope for being ripped off by a driver taking a deliberately long route.
    3. No arguments about the fare, fare is known in advance, no money exchanged between driver and passenger.
    4. Rating system and traceability.

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