In early February, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick removed himself from President Donald Trump’s economic advisory council, comprised of business leaders from various industries, in response to criticism against the company from its users. A few days prior, stories had leaked that Uber attempted to profit on airport rides in New York during widespread protests against Trump’s now-infamous travel ban. (Even those stories might pale in comparison to those just coming through the pipeline).
Within days, hundreds of thousands of people expressed their collective disappointment in the ride-sharing company’s Trump association by deleting their Uber apps and turning their backs. The sample size was small, but it was a chilling example of what the market—comprised of individuals who at this point, like everyone else, have political opinions in some form or another—can do to alter a company’s behavior, particularly when that company uses the power of the internet to connect with its users.
Brad Stone, longtime technology journalist and author, has written about how Uber has uprooted the transportation industry with its revolutionary business model and litigious undertaking. His new book “The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of Silicon Valley are Changing the World” chronicles the difficulties these companies have faced, from legal battles to changing age-old perceptions (seriously—getting in a stranger’s car?).
One thing that likely wasn’t anticipated, however, was how these companies would respond in a continuously dividing political environment where even centrist opinions are read as “for” or “against” something. The reaction to Trump’s travel ban was a shift from many corners of corporate America, and predictably silence in others. The question begs, though: Is corporate social awareness a one-off, or a new trend? BTRtoday sat down with Stone to discuss.
BTRtoday (BTR): Do you think that social consciousness is part of corporate America’s future, or at least with tech companies?
Brad Stone (BS): I think it’s important, I would think particularly for some of these California companies, even more so when they’re in San Francisco. Their employees–for Uber they’re contractors in various cities, many of them immigrants– want to see the company take a stand. I think these companies are playing to their base. Not that they’re being disingenuous with this message, but they are certainly playing to their base to make a statement. I don’t know that it’s a perpetual requirement of companies now. I think it’s an outgrowth of this unusual time we find ourselves in with this new administration that has done things so far that, at least in the blue-leaning states, are unpopular.
BTR: The fear of alienating potential users/customers has to come naturally when a company decides to take a stand on a given social issue. How prevalent do you think that fear is?
BS: It definitely exists. These companies need to be careful—they’re not just blue state companies, they’re global franchises, and they count among their valued customers people who may not be on that side of the political fence.
I think it turns out that some of these things they’re obliquely referring to, like the [travel] ban, you almost can’t go wrong taking a stand because it seemed to be poorly articulated at first and was just really unpopular overall. But on that Super Bowl ad, Airbnb didn’t even put its name on there—just the logo was on there. There’s a history of advertising that you could categorize as “mild political stances” or “pro-diversity,” so it’s kind of hard to go wrong there. They’re not taking a tough political stance.
BTR: Have we entered an age where a consumer’s choice for a given product or service is just as much a political one? How are companies considering that?
BS: I think it was unique. I mean, we saw 200,000 people delete their Uber app and then declare themselves Lyft customers because of the Uber CEO’s presence on the Trump business council. And yet, the logic there was not airtight. There were a lot of business leaders on that council, and that wouldn’t amount to an endorsement of the administration. They were there bringing their agendas to the White House.
But I think [this sentiment is] a symptom of a couple things—one, the political environment. Two, of the need people who feel that right now they want to make a difference or take a stand. And three, I think there was some sort of pent up ambivalence about Uber’s brand which has been enormously disruptive, particularly to yellow taxi owners and in some cases to drivers who may not be making the kind of living they thought. And of course, Uber’s tactics over the years–and this is something described in-depth in the book—they were pretty hard-nosed. This company went into a lot of cities with guns blazing, and as a result accrued a bit of a tough reputation. I think all of those factors combined to give people the impression—and I think it was a false one—that this was a company endorsing the president’s [travel] ban.
People want to get active, and one way they feel like they can do it is by making choices in the market.
BTR: That presents an interesting conundrum, because as you mentioned, a trip to the White House isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the president or his administration’s policies, but you also can’t pass up a chance to meet with him and other business leaders to share your agenda. In that sense, wasn’t Uber kind of caught between a rock and a hard place?
BS: I think that’s right; business leaders are in a tough situation right now. Look, Uber has a federal agenda now. They have interest in terms of self-driving car regulations, in terms of infrastructure spending. They were [once] primarily city and state oriented, [but now] there was a reason for [Uber CEO] Travis Kalanick to be on that council. Other business leaders—Bob Iger of Disney, Mark Parker of Nike—were not under the same pressure. So I think there’s something different and unique about one, being a tech company, because people feel a very personal connection to these brands. And two, frankly, about being in San Francisco, where if people don’t agree with you, they’ll just handcuff themselves to your front door. So he had a little bit of a tougher row to hoe in this than the other CEOs.
BTR: In terms of social awareness, is this a model that you expect to see other companies follow going forward? Are they sort of playing it safe and hoping this type of consumer activism dies down as our new political reality sets in?
BS: We have seen a movement with corporations and social responsibility. But we’re into new territory here with some of the president’s executive orders, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I think this is going to be led by what the administration does, and if they continue to do things that are widely unpopular and seen as an existential threat to Silicon Valley or to corners of corporate America, then you’ll see companies act in their own self interest.
Immigration is the lifeblood of Silicon Valley—every company has DNA from overseas at their highest levels. Famous CEOs like Andy Grove or Satya Nadella at Microsoft have contributed a lot. There’s a reason why we’ve seen the tech companies take up arms. This is a threat to the way they do business, and I expect if you were to see some anti-renewable energy stuff coming from Washington, then you’d see Elon Musk take a stand. So it really depends on what we see, if we’re going to see companies act more involved than they have been in the past.