Austin Geidt: Rehab helped me thrive at Uber

In a short time, Austin Geidt has cut a remarkable path at Uber. She joined in 2010 as employee number 4; technically a marketing intern, the unstructured, immersive, grab-any-hat-and-wear-it culture of the booming startup suited her, and as the company grew, Geidt’s role did, too: she took on driver operations, became interim general manager in New York as the company faced regulation challenges, and, after running the company’s entry into Paris, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles and Melbourne, she built out a team and became “head of launch,” authoring and scaling the model for Uber’s city-by-city expansion into another 300-plus markets, including new global frontiers like Europe and Asia. In October 2013 she added the role of head of PRO (process, resource and optimization). Now, at 30, Geidt is one of the company’s top and most seasoned executives and a key adviser to CEO Travis Kalanick. “They all love her,” says an Uber insider.

Geidt’s rise at the company is all the more remarkable given the personal challenge she had overcome before joining Uber that she spoke about publicly for the first time today at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in San Francisco. Well before walking in the door at Uber, Geidt had fought a drug addiction. “The last five years have been all about Uber, and it’s been incredible,” she told Fortune. “But the few years before were all about getting sober.”

Geidt was in college at Berkeley when she “got into trouble,” as she describes it. (Geidt is hesitant to discuss details, including the substances she was addicted to, but it was a drug addiction, she says.) She sought help at age 19 and got sober just shy of her 20thbirthday, but her journey to recovery, including both time in rehab and time “reintegrating,” took a few years. “I spent a few years just getting back to basics,” she says. She then went back to Berkeley, graduating at age 25.

“I was a sober 25 year old senior,” Geidt added on stage. “But it was so imporant to get that part of my life right so I could get the rest of my life right,” she said. “And then right after I finished school, I applied to Uber.”

At the time, as Adam Lashinsky has reported in his oral history of Uber, Geidt, who followed a few tech influencers on twitter, had seen some tweets about Uber including mention that the company was looking for an intern. She reached out to then-CEO Ryan Graves, who agreed to see her after she put together a slide deck and convinced him to give her a shot (for more on Geidt’s hiring and early days at Uber, see Lashinsky’s piece here).

She got the job, but Geidt says she felt self conscious of her age. “I felt behind as a 25 year old intern,” she says. It didn’t matter: once she realized everything was fair game she started taking on anything that needed to be done: handing out flyers at the Moscone Center, cold-calling drivers, becoming the support desk when the first call came in. It was the beginning of her rapid ascent at the fast-growing company.

Conventional wisdom might say that the stresses of a 24/7 startup culture might have been a lot to take on given what she’d been through, but Geidt says the process of getting sober is precisely what gave her the tools and perspective that helped her thrive at Uber. “I immersed myself at Uber,” she says. “But I am also able to step back considerably. I love what we do, but I also have perspective on what’s really important to me.” She adds that while she’s incredibly proud of her work and teammates at Uber, “it’s not the proudest thing I’ve done. I’m more proud of being sober.”

Other tools she says she credits to the recovery process: an ability to be honest and direct with herself and her team; a sense of humility; and the ability to tackle big problems in smaller, incremental steps instead of getting overwhelmed.

Internally and with colleagues, Geidt is open about her experience. “There were four of us when I started and I’m so direct, that they knew within a month of me being there,” she says. “It’s such an important part of my story.”

The reason why she’s speaking publicly now, she says, is she sees it as a story of hope. “For me, it’s more of a hopeful story,” she says. “I think Uber has been great for me.”

By all indications it has. Right now, Geidt is focused on building out the PRO team, a key part of Uber’s future growth. Created when the company realized it was recreating the wheel too much each time it ventured into a new market, Geidt and her team “playbook” out the best practices for basic business and operational needs, creating tools and guidelines including a standardized design request system for local marketing teams, an internal training and knowledge portal, and guidelines around mobile messages, data definitions and more. Geidt is also spearheading the company’s initiative announced in March to create 1 million jobs for women globally on its platform by 2020.

But she is convinced she would not have been able to thrive the way she has had she not gone through her path to recovery. “If I had the chance to go back change anything about my journey,” she says, “I wouldn’t.”

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