Could Uber’s Travis Kalanick Be Replaced By a Female CEO?
In the early hours after CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from Uber, the ride-hailing company he helped found, rampant speculation about his replacement was already underway.
Kalanick’s decision to step down, first reported by The New York Times, followed months of turmoil at the $70 billion startup that erupted in earnest after ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a scalding blog post in February that accused the startup of systemic sexism. The scandal snowballed after that, as high-profile executives departed, a video of Kalanick berating an Uber driver went viral, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation into Uber’s use of a secret, police-evading software tool, and further evidence of Uber’s toxic workplace culture became public
Underlying all that are fundamental questions about the viability of Uber’s business model.
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Against that backdrop, it’s hard to overstate the challenges facing Uber’s next CEO. Who could it be? The rumor mill is a-churning and so far it’s spit out some pretty high-profile possibilities. As Fortune‘s Erin Griffith reported in the Term Sheet newsletter, these outside names have already come up:
- Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer
- Former Ford CEO Mark Fields
- Outgoing GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt
- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
- Hewlett Packard Enterprise President and CEO Meg Whitman
- Former Twitter COO Adam Bain
It’s also worth looking back at the candidates Uber was reportedly considering as COO. The company started its search for a No. 2 while Kalanick was still at the helm, and had, according to The Wall Street Journal, targeted these prospects:
- Former Disney COO Thomas Staggs,
- Former Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell
- CVS Executive Vice President Helena Foulkes
(Though the Journal also reported that Foulkes and Staggs had been taken out of consideration.)
In addition to Staggs, Bloomberg also reported that investors had floated these folks as possible COO targets:
- AOL CEO Tim Armstrong
- Turner (of Time Warner Inc.) CEO John Martin
Another name that circulated during the COO search was:
- Nikesh Arora, the former Google and SoftBank executive
Uber did not immediately return a request for comment on whether these execs are under consideration.
The CEO search will likely be watched as closely as the blow-by-blow that ultimately led to Kalanick’s knock-out, but the prospect of Uber hiring a female CEO is especially intriguing since it would be a bold response (and possible antidote) to reports of Uber’s macho culture. This month alone, three new episodes have pointed to just how deep the problem runs. Eric Alexander, then Uber’s president of business in the Asia-Pacific region, was fired for reportedly obtaining the medical records of a woman who was raped by her Uber driver in India in 2014 and then showing them to other top Uber officials. Recode published a 2013 company-wide email from Kalanick in which he set ground rules for using drugs and having sex with other employees during a company retreat. And Uber board member David Bonderman resigned after making a sexist remark during a meeting to address sexism at the ride-hailing company.
Yet hiring a female CEO would be in line with a series of recent moves Uber made as its scandals ballooned. Earlier this month, Uber announced it was hiring academic Frances Frei as senior vice president of leadership and strategy. It also brought in Bozoma Saint John, an Apple executive, as chief brand officer and Nestle’s Wan Ling Martello as a director. The latter two additions were, in part, the handiwork of Arianna Huffington, who joined Uber’s board in April. The New York Times reports that the media mogul’s growing influence has helped to fill Uber’s leadership void.
Uber’s string of female hires was notable, not just because it’s facing allegations of sexism. The company’s first-ever diversity report, released in March, showed that women accounted for 36% of the company’s global employee workforce and just 22% of its leadership.