Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is not the first exec to deal with sexual harassment and sexism issues. And he’s not the first to be accused of stealing technology. He’s also not the first to anger customers through cloddish statements. And he’s not the first to face significant doubts about his ability to manage a fast-growing startup.
But he is the very first speaker in the 15 years we have been putting on our tech and media events to cancel his interview due to the many embarrassing issues at his company. In this case, because the report from former Attorney General Eric Holder on Uber’s culture and management problems has been delayed until the week of Code at the end of May.
“Due to the delay of the Holder review, Travis is unable to attend this year’s conference,” said an Uber spokesperson. We have been told that Kalanick needs to be with employees at Uber’s offices in Northern California and cannot manage to travel an hour by plane to Southern California to appear at the conference, as he had promised.
We booked Kalanick before the explosive publication of a blog post by former employee Susan Fowler on pernicious sexual harassment and sexism issues at the car-hailing company. But, even after that, Kalanick confirmed his appearance, allowing us to announce it.
Last week, Kalanick’s reps started to waver and then said he could not attend. In his place, they have offered — and we have accepted — director Arianna Huffington, who has been leading the investigation for the Uber board.
Since we also wanted to talk about the business, we asked for venture capitalist and Uber board member Bill Gurley to join her, as he has been deeply involved in Uber’s operations since its founding and has opined publicly about it until recently. He has thus far declined the Code invitation. Gurley also did not respond to a text and an email he was sent, which he has never done before.
Also a “no” so far per Uber were requests for key Kalanick colleague and SVP Emil Michael, board chairman Garrett Camp and board member David Bonderman. One possible person that Uber has said might be able to join Huffington is human resources head Liane Hornsey, but that is currently unconfirmed until closer to the event.
In other words, replacing Kalanick and manning up to address serious gender issues at Uber when the men could not bring themselves to, could be two women.
Yeah, classic Silicon Valley, and all you need to know to understand the problems at Uber.
But understand this, too: We are obviously surprised and disappointed, because this does not happen. In fact, we have had a lot of tech and media executives who have been under pressure appear at our Code and also All Things D events over the years and none has canceled due to those moments of crisis.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates came despite the Vista disaster; Apple’s Steve Jobs came despite the stolen iPhone prototype debacle; various Yahoo chiefs came despite heaps of bad publicity and takeover rumors; Steve Case came soon after the utter humiliation of AOL’s failed merger with Time Warner. Even Ralph de la Vega of AT&T came during controversial network failures.
And then there was Groupon’s Andrew Mason, who managed to make everyone laugh while answering questions despite the deep troubles at his company. (By the way, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes appeared at the Wall Street Journal conference just days after the Journal published a devastating investigation of her business.)
We should note that there have been two speakers in the past who did not attend our event after committing to do so, but both cases were due to sudden and serious family illnesses. They are Zynga’s Mark Pincus and Comcast’s Brian Roberts, who then sent his No. 2 Steve Burke in his place.
Kalanick does not have a COO as yet, as most know, and has been on a search for one amid attrition and also some forced departures of top Uber execs.
We get it, he has his hands full and employee concerns are critical now. But avoiding tough questions from tough interviewers is not a good sign. There’s no doubt that Kalanick owes the public an explanation in his own words and we’re eager to hear it when he deigns to give it. It’s just too bad that he won’t keep his commitment to sit in our red chairs and discuss Uber’s issues there as he said he would.