By Elizabeth Dwoskin
SAN FRANCISCO – Travis Kalanick stepped down as chief executive of the ride-hailing giant Uber on Tuesday, the culmination of several tumultuous months and a shareholder revolt.
Kalanick, who helped found Uber in 2009 and led it to become one of Silicon Valley’s highest flying startups, will stay on Uber’s board of directors, a company official confirmed. He was asked to resign in a letter from five major shareholders.
The resignation comes after several months of bruising scandals that arose from the company’s famously hard-charging workplace culture, which many say is reflective of Kalanick himself.
The controversies include a slew of executive departures and a sexual harassment controversy that caused many women to say they would never work at Uber. In addition, the company has come under fire for using tactics to evade law enforcement and it is facing off against Google in a major trade secrets lawsuit.
The company also admitted to short-changing New York City drivers of tens of millions of dollars in pay over the last two and a half years.
Kalanick is also facing a personal tragedy: His mother died in a boating accident in May.
In a statement published by the New York Times, which first reported the resignation, Kalanick said: “I love Uber more than anything in the world and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight.”
The surprise resignation comes a week after Kalanick agreed to take an indefinite leave of absence, a move the board stressed was the chief executive’s choice. That week, Emil Michael, the company’s senior vice president and a close Kalanick ally, also pressured to resign.
The exit also comes amid the company’s search for a chief operating officer, a second in command who could take the reins from Kalanick. The COO role is one of many executive positions that remain unfilled, leaving questions about who will run Uber in Kalanick’s absence.
At least 14 other top executives also have left Uber this year, including its head of communications, Rachel Whetsone, and its senior vice president of engineer, Amit Singhal. The company, valued by investors at $69 billion, also does not have a chief financial officer.
While Uber has been embroiled in controversy over the last eight years – the company has been taken to task time and again for its treatment of drivers and its battles with rivals and regulators – the controversies entered a new phase early this year, with a viral blog post written by a former female Uber engineer named Susan Fowler.
Fowler described a workplace where lines were regularly crossed and boorish behavior was tolerated. She said her boss propositioned her on her first day at work. When she complained to the company’s human resources department, she wrote, the incident was played down, and she was encouraged to switch departments. In another incident, she alleged that all of the team’s male engineers were given leather jackets as a company perk, but the female engineers were not because there were too few of them to qualify for a bulk discount.
Until now, Uber’s aggressive culture was celebrated and emulated across Silicon Valley, while its excesses were largely dismissed as the cost of “disrupting” the hyper-competitive transportation industry. The term disruption itself, emblematic of a Silicon Valley firm that uses digital chops and a fast-moving, rule-breaking approach to challenge entrenched industries has become synonymous with Uber.