There’s truth in the stereotype that immigrants often get handed jobs others would avoid like the plague. For most of his career, Dara Khosrowshahi, who came to the United States from Iran when he was nine, didn’t fit that category. Then came his most recent job: On August 28, 2017, he became the CEO of Uber.
Khosrowshahi, 49, believes that his background will help him reform Uber’s toxic culture. In contrast to his callously confrontational predecessor, Khosrowshahi understands what it’s like to be an outsider. His own life changed when his family fled the revolutionary forces in Iran in 1978.
It was an abrupt turn in an idyllic childhood. The Khosrowshahi family, which owned a thriving manufacturing business, had lived in a luxurious compound. Khosrowshahi remembers a huge living room with sumptuous furniture—“We only used that room for giant parties,” he recalls. But as opposition to the Shah rose in the country, that prosperity made his family a target. “Anyone who was wealthy was guilty until proven innocent,” he says. One day, gunmen targeted the house next door, which belonged to a cousin of the Shah. As they scaled a wall behind the Khosrowshahi garden, they accidentally discharged a gun, sending bullets ricocheting through the house.
That’s when Khosrowshahi’s mother suggested that it might be wise for the family to leave the country for a while. They went to the south of France, observing from afar as the government toppled and the Khosrowshahi business was nationalized. Then they embarked for the US to join extended family members there. Dara Khosrowshahi’s parents had lost almost everything. A wealthy uncle offered help for them to start over.
Khosrowshahi says that while his parents suffered grievously—a pain compounded when his dad later returned to Iran to tend to his own father, and was detained by the Iranian government for six years—he and his two brothers were sheltered from difficulties by their tight-knit family, many members of which had also fled the Iranian Revolution. (Among the cousins he hung out with are Hadi and Ali Partovi, now well-known tech investors and founders.) Though the three-bedroom condo they occupied in Tarrytown, New York was a far cry from the mansion he grew up in, Khosrowshahi didn’t feel deprived. A talent for soccer greased his entry to the social circles of the private school he attended, and, later, Brown University. (What remained of the family fortune, he says, went to tuition.)
“We were pretty lucky—this was a country that welcomed immigrants,” he says. “I was lucky to be able to go to a great high school and a great college. So for me I have to say it’s been remarkably smooth sailing.”
It may be that he is glossing over some of his difficulties. Though Khosrowshahi was able to speak English, the velocity of the language as spoken by Americans challenged him for a time. More tellingly, for a while during college he swapped his name for something more familiar and less threatening. “I couldn’t stand the Dara who? Khosrowshahi what?” he says. “So I did take on a western moniker: Darren Kay.”
Khosrowshahi became a US citizen in 1996. He doesn’t recall the exact day, but he remembers when he first felt like an American. It was during the Atlanta-based Olympic games that year. Previously, his interest in rooting for US teams had been tepid. “The US was always the favorite and the beautiful team,” he says. “And even though I was an immigrant here, there was a little bit of a resentment in the way the world feels about the US, because of its powerful position.” But during those Olympics, Khosrowshahi found himself rooting passionately for what he now considered his home team. “At that point, even though my Iranian roots and immigrant roots will always be there, I became more comfortable and proud with being an American.”
Indeed, after he graduated from college, Khosrowshahi’s new home country embraced him, first with a job at Allen & Company and then at Barry Diller’s internet holding company, IAC. His career went stratospheric when IAC bought the Expedia travel service from Microsoft. Khosrowshahi’s background weighed heavily on a key decision that arose in the time between the merger agreement and its execution.
The deal was signed just before the attack on the World Trade Center—an event that brought travel in the US to a dead halt. It had a “material adverse clause” in it that could have given IAC a chance to back out, and the Expedia leaders said they would understand if IAC canceled. Khosrowshahi, then IAC’s CFO, and his boss Barry Diller decided to stick with it.
“When you’ve lost everything, and my family really did lose everything, you learn that loss is a part of life,” he says, explaining why he agreed with Diller’s call to support the deal. “Loss is an opportunity to regroup and rebuild, and it makes you less afraid of failure.” Expedia grew dramatically, so the move paid off for IAC. But the biggest winner was Khosrowshahi, who became CEO in 2005 and shared in the bounty. Because of the timing of an options grant, his $95 million salary in 2015 made him the highest paid CEO in the S&P 500.
One would think this would have brought joy to his father, who had suffered so much in moving to another land. Not so. “My being labeled as such was not a happy day in the family,” Khosrowshahi says. His father hated it, perhaps due to modesty and perhaps because of the immigrant’s instinct to keep one’s head down. “He doesn’t believe in having your name in lights,” says Khosrowshahi. “Which is funny, considering my new job.”
Oh, yes—that job. Khosrowshahi is setting up shop inside a hornet’s nest, with a culture that is the Superfund site of Silicon Valley dysfunction. Uber’s valuation is being attacked as overblown. Its drivers are on the verge of revolt, and cities—most recently London—have begun to ban the service, feeling snookered by his predecessor CEO’s aggressive tactics.
Last month, Khosrowshahi, after surveying employees, revealed a set of “cultural norms” for Uber. They are largely the typical warm-and-fuzzy sentiments that tech companies tend to embrace. But for Uber, it’s a significant step to proclaim: “We do the right thing. Period.” It was also past due for an Uber CEO to declare, “we must adapt to become a great company where every person feels respected and challenged.”