How Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi got comfortable with reinvention

As a child, ...

Posted: Nov 27, 2018 1:52 PM
Updated: Nov 27, 2018 1:52 PM

As a child, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wasn't a fan of his own last name. Khosrowshahi, who was born in Iran, would introduce himself to people as his alter ego — Darren K.

"That was me figuring out where to go," he told CNN Business recently. "And that was me not being comfortable with my identity at the time."

Business executives

Business figures

California

Companies

Continents and regions

Dara Khosrowshahi

Immigration

Immigration, citizenship and displacement

International relations and national security

Labor and employment

North America

Silicon Valley

Southwestern United States

Technology

The Americas

Uber

United States

Workers and professionals

Decades later, Khosrowshahi, now 49, has become comfortable with his name, and himself. Now he's also trying to get comfortable in what could be a very uncomfortable role: One of Silicon Valley's highest-profile CEOs, charged with playing clean-up at Uber at a time when the stakes for the company couldn't be higher.

When Khosrowshahi left Expedia for Uber in 2017, Uber had been through more than a year of ups and downs. Once a company seen as a rocketship, an incredible force disrupting the transportation sector, it had been tarnished by a win-at-all costs reputation and multiple scandals including a high profile harassment scandal that led many women to speak out against sexism and Silicon Valley's "bro culture."

But, Khosrowshahi says, his own experience as part of a family that fled Iran in 1978 has helped him understand reinvention.

"When you personally experience rebuilding from losing everything, you realize that fear isn't gonna help you one way or the other. And, you don't get that many chances to do something great," he told CNN Business.

That experience as an immigrant has also helped guide him as a CEO during a time when tech leaders are being asked to take moral stances on policies, including immigration. Doing so is necessary, but uncomfortable, he said.

"This is not something that they teach you in CEO training school," Khosrowshahi said. "It's a CEO taking his or her personal beliefs and translating them into the actions of a company, because in the end I'm here to build this company. I'm here to serve our constituencies, our drivers, our riders, our customers, and ultimately our investors. Why should I let my personal feelings get in the way or affect the direction of the company?"

But those lines are blurring. Many Uber drivers are immigrants who have directly been impacted by the Trump administration's immigration policy — and increasingly, Uber and other tech companies are being forced, by their employees and by public pressure, to make more conscious decisions about and take responsibility for who they do business with.

"It is part of the agenda of this company to provide an environment of success for them. Where these issues come up that affect our business, that affect our constituencies, that's where I feel more free to speak out," he says. "Sometimes you should keep it to yourself or keep it to dinner conversation, but these public-private borders, they're blurring. I think it's a relatively uncomfortable time for CEOs and we gotta figure out how to change. I'm figuring it out as we go."

Khosrowshahi says that means there are companies Uber won't do business with. He wouldn't name names, but pointed to what he says are now the company's core values.

"The number one value that you're gonna hear around these halls is we do the right thing, period," he said. "You've got to do your best in every situation. Hopefully, we'll get it more right than wrong."

One of the company's most high-profile missteps to date was its treatment of former engineer Susan Fowler, whose blog post alleging deeply rooted sexism at Uber was a pivotal moment in Silicon Valley, sparking a movement of women across the industry to speak out and playing a key role in the removal of Khosrowshahi's predecessor at Uber, Travis Kalanick.

Asked what he would say to Fowler, who sued Uber earlier this year, he responded, "I think I'd say that she did good. It must've been tough for her to come out like that...I think she was a part of a wave of change that has been difficult for this company. It's been difficult all over, but it's an incredibly important wave. I think that what I'm hoping is that we can finish what she started."

Leading Uber at what may be a pivot point for all of Silicon Valley on a number of issues, including diversity, means leaning into the uncomfortable conversations that have to be a part of that. "It's ultimately gonna be good," Khosrowshahi said. "But when you're going through periods of change, there's gonna be pain, and I think right now, we're right in the middle of the grinding."

Moving forward, Khosrowshahi is hoping for more open discourse regarding the movement toward equality in Silicon Valley, though he realizes that might lead to him and others making mistakes along the way.

"I'm going to say stupid things, and I need to get feedback, 'that was dumb,' learn, get better, and I think that we're at a particular point of time where we don't have a lot of understanding for mistakes, or mistaken views, especially as they pertain to gender or race," he said. "And I think that you've got to make mistakes to learn, so if there's one thing that I'd wish for is for there to be more open discourse... And for that discourse to ultimately help us get to a better place as a society."

Diversity is not the only issue the tech industry has to deal with right now, and in the coming wave of change, the industry must fundamentally shift its mindset, Khosrowshahi said.

"I think the hypothesis in the past was we're building a platform and there are good people and bad people, and we're not responsible for what they do on the platform," he said. "We didn't wanna be responsible because we don't wanna be the censor. We don't wanna tell you what to say... It was an ethical decision."

But at a time when social media companies have seen their platforms used to meddle in democracy, and when investigations — including one by CNN — show an alarming number of customers who've been assaulted in Ubers, there is suddenly no question that Silicon Valley's biggest players have to grapple with their roles and the negative ways in which they can disrupt society.

"The platforms are extending into every part of our life and creating superpowers within them," Khosrowshahi says. "If you communicate something in the old world, you can get it to five people. These platforms allow you to communicate to a million. That realization has created, I think, now the responsibility for all of the platform builders to take responsibility for the content on your platform."

For Uber, responsibility means getting on top of its safety issue, an ongoing problem as the company grows. Under Khosrowshahi, the company is investing millions in safety and — following a string of assaults — plans to post a safety transparency report regarding sexual assaults and other incidents that have occurred on the platform.

Khosrowshahi knows he has many challenges ahead, but he believes the professional risk he accepted in taking on the job at Uber has paid off.

"A year later, I'm really happy here," he said.

And he's optimistic. This era of tech, according to Khosrowshahi, will be defined as one of the greatest eras of change — one in which "technology companies truly understand that we are one and intertwined with society."

"I think that tech leaders become real leaders and they grow up, and I'm in the middle of it."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 47432

Reported Deaths: 2687
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11546683
Lake5104242
Elkhart321144
Allen2737129
St. Joseph190866
Cass16389
Hamilton1538100
Hendricks1390100
Johnson1256118
Porter72037
Tippecanoe6948
Madison65564
Clark64044
Bartholomew58244
Howard56557
LaPorte56326
Kosciusko5354
Vanderburgh5026
Marshall4823
Jackson4693
Noble46928
LaGrange4677
Hancock44035
Boone43743
Delaware43150
Shelby42325
Floyd37144
Morgan32731
Montgomery29320
Grant29126
Clinton2882
Monroe27628
Dubois2666
White26010
Henry25815
Decatur24932
Lawrence24225
Vigo2318
Dearborn22823
Harrison21222
Warrick21229
Greene18532
Miami1822
Jennings17411
Putnam1688
DeKalb1604
Scott1607
Daviess14216
Orange13623
Wayne1366
Steuben1282
Perry1279
Franklin1248
Ripley1157
Jasper1142
Wabash1122
Carroll1102
Fayette987
Newton9810
Starke923
Whitley905
Randolph784
Huntington742
Jefferson722
Wells711
Fulton691
Jay680
Washington681
Gibson672
Knox640
Pulaski641
Clay604
Rush563
Adams501
Benton480
Owen471
Sullivan441
Brown381
Posey380
Blackford372
Spencer371
Crawford300
Fountain302
Tipton301
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Vermillion140
Warren141
Union130
Pike100
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 56183

Reported Deaths: 2907
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin10023420
Cuyahoga7571372
Hamilton5770197
Marion273038
Lucas2700302
Pickaway218841
Summit2110206
Montgomery193126
Mahoning1818231
Butler154744
Columbiana129560
Stark1091112
Lorain99767
Trumbull92565
Warren82321
Clark7659
Delaware55315
Belmont54422
Fairfield54316
Tuscarawas54110
Medina50832
Lake49218
Licking46612
Miami45531
Portage43258
Ashtabula43144
Wood41251
Geauga40042
Clermont3946
Wayne36051
Richland3325
Allen30840
Mercer2808
Greene2489
Darke24625
Erie23622
Holmes2263
Huron2112
Madison1938
Ottawa14323
Crawford1355
Washington13120
Putnam12715
Sandusky12714
Hardin12012
Ross1183
Morrow1161
Auglaize1064
Coshocton942
Monroe8817
Jefferson872
Union821
Muskingum811
Hancock781
Hocking788
Preble731
Williams692
Clinton680
Guernsey683
Lawrence680
Shelby654
Fulton610
Ashland581
Carroll583
Logan581
Wyandot586
Brown561
Defiance503
Athens491
Knox481
Fayette460
Highland441
Champaign391
Scioto380
Van Wert340
Seneca332
Perry321
Henry290
Adams231
Paulding230
Pike230
Jackson220
Vinton222
Gallia161
Harrison121
Meigs120
Morgan110
Noble110
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 81°
Angola
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 80°
Huntington
Clear
78° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 80°
Decatur
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 79°
Van Wert
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 81°
More Heat & Humidity Sunday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events