With momentum building in New York City to curb the growth of companies like Uber, the corporation’s CEO spent Monday recasting the Silicon Valley unicorn with the bad-boy reputation as Mr. Nice Guy.
Dara Khosrowshahi, the former Expedia CEO who’s been trying to reshape Uber since replacing Travis Kalanick last summer, began the day by breakfasting with Al Sharpton, a fact the reverend trumpeted on Twitter.
“Good breakfast with @uber’s CEO @dkhos as we talked about efforts 4 people of color in tech & decreasing the digital divide with @tonywest @jgoldny & @rachelnoerd,” Sharpton tweeted, referring to Uber general counsel Tony West, Uber lobbyist Josh Gold and Sharpton consultant Rachel Noerdlinger, respectively.
Afterwards, he treated several prominent African-American leaders to a family-style lunch at Little Park, a Tribeca restaurant that prides itself on the seasonality of its ingredients. Afterwards, Khosrowshahi met with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a fact that did not go unnoticed on Twitter.
The Johnson meeting was noteworthy, if only because it was just last month that Johnson apologized for failing to back the ultimately failed 2015 push to restrain Uber’s growth.
“I’m not against saying when I have slipped up and made a mistake,” Johnson said at the time.
The meeting was also indicative of the new, make-nice strategy that Khosrowshahi has been deploying the world over, as he tries to professionalize a corporate reputation marred by reports of sexual harassment, allegations of trade secret theft, an India rape scandal, a Federal Trade Commission probe, and several high-level resignations, including Kalanick’s. In recent weeks, Khosrowshahi has met with French President Emmanuel Macron and announced some new benefits for its European drivers.
“His job is to take Uber public next year and that means defusing as many bombs as possible, quieting as many detractors as possible,” said Bradley Tusk, the political operative who helped shape Uber’s 2015 offensive against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s regulatory efforts, and who owns shares in Uber. “Whereas for Travis it was about world domination, for Dara it’s about making peace.”
In New York City, the bomb that needs defusing is the coming wave of regulation. “The reality of what we’re seeing in terms of people taking their lives, that’s real,” said Council Member Stephen Levin, referring to the recent wave of driver suicides. “People are in dire financial straits and seeing nowhere else to go. And so we do have to do something about that.”
Levin has resurrected his 2015 bill that would cap Uber’s growth, but it’s in no way clear what final form the regulation will take. Levin’s is one of a dizzying array of bills under consideration in the Council. But the Council does seem intent on trying to address growing congestion, declining driver incomes, and the plummeting value of taxi medallions — all of which experts tie in some fashion to the rise of Uber. Uber’s efforts at ingratiating itself with New York constituencies appear designed to ensure it has a seat at the table in the upcoming negotiations. “They would rather cut a preemptive deal they can help author, versus something thrust upon them,” said one knowledgeable source.
A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment for this article.
That Uber is making an effort to play nice stands in stark contrast to its approach the last time New York City tried to restrain the ride-hail giant, whose black cars are now omnipresent on New York City streets.
After de Blasio unveiled a proposal in 2015 that would have temporarily capped Uber’s growth, the company marshaled an army of well-recompensed lobbyists and consultants to defeat the measure. Uber exploited preexisting rifts between de Blasio and other Democrats, highlighted the mayor’s own longstanding ties to some of the yellow taxi industry’s less-savory players, and tapped into a reservoir of support in communities of color long underserved by yellow taxis. After de Blasio ceded defeat, one Democratic Council member told POLITICO that Uber had created a new playbook for defeating the mayor. “Now anyone who disagrees with the mayor knows they just have to tie an issue to poor and working class black people,” he said. “If they can make that case and put ads on the air, the mayor will fold like a cheap suit in a matter of hours.”
The Uber of 2018 is mobilizing some similar forces, but for now it’s adopting a more conciliatory approach — if only because it’s not yet clear what shape the Council’s regulatory efforts will take.
And so, on Monday, Khosrowshahi proposed the city establish a “hardship fund” for medallion owner-drivers, to be paid for via a new fee on drivers.
And so, also on Monday, Khosrowshahi took several African-American leaders out to lunch. W. Franklyn Richardson, the president of the Conference of National Black Churches and chairman of the National Action Network, was among them. So was NAN Northeast Regional Director Kirsten John Foy, and Majora Carter, an activist-turned-developer in the South Bronx.
“I thought we would talk mostly about transportation,” said Carter. “That was a bit of the conversation. But a lot of it revolved around how can Uber be a better corporate citizen.”
Longtime Uber critics were not impressed.
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, on Tuesday blasted out a statement saying that, “Dara Khosrowshahi’s proposals are a slap in the face to struggling drivers, and an attempt to get out of being regulated.”
“Three years ago, Uber spent $10 million, mostly in attack ads, to derail a temporary one-year cap on vehicles and it all started with high-profile public tours and back-room meetings like those Uber’s CEO is doing now,” she said.
- Uber’s goodwill campaign arrives in New York City in the hope of stifling stiffer regulation.