Uber CEO touts social responsibility

Ride-sharing company founder avoids controversy, talks about humble background

UBER CEO TRAVIS KALANICK is a billionaire, ranking 290th on the Forbes list of richest people with a net worth of $6 billion, but he says the success of his ride-hailing company lies in the failures he’s had in previous ventures, including the time he had to live with his parents because he lost all his money.

“When you get knocked down, get back up,” Kalanick said at the Boston College Chief Executives Club luncheon Tuesday. “I’ve had various durations of tough times. It’s how you deal with adversity, which is defined as failure versus success. I ran out of money and I lived at my parents’ house for four years, and that sounds horrible to a lot of people, but I was eating and I had a roof over my head.”

Kalanick, casually dressed in jeans and a sweater with no collar, spoke to a packed house at Boston Harbor Hotel, the largest gathering yet for the luncheon series sponsored by BC’s Carroll School of Management. The chat was a one-on-one conversation with Alexa von Tobel, CEO of financial planning app LearnVest. The 40-minute chat, which ended with a handful of audience questions, was mostly an opportunity for Kalanick to tout his company and what he says are the socially responsible benefits of Uber for riders, drivers, and the environment.

Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies have been at the center of a battle in the Legislature and in cities and towns over the turmoil they’ve created for the highly-regulated taxi industry. Four bills have been filed, including one by Gov. Charlie Baker, which is favored by Uber and would enact light regulations, and another by state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and Rep. Michael Moran that would put the companies under many of the same regulations as the taxi industry plus require fingerprinting of drivers.

Both Kalanick and von Tobel steered clear of controversy or local issues, such as a class action suit from riders against Uber’s fees for driving to Logan and the pushback form the taxi industry and its supporters. The closest Kalanick came to addressing some of the prickly issues was when an audience member asked about security and background checks, which she said were “in flux.”

Kalanick argued Uber’s criminal background checks for drivers are among the toughest of any non-government organization in the country. Kalanick alluded to the fingerprinting proposal, which would weed out those with arrest records, and said one reason Uber opposes it is because it is “discriminatory,” a veiled reference to studies that show minorities are disproportionately arrested compared with whites.

“The vast majority of the files [government agencies] have only have the arrest record,” Kalanick said without citing sources. “They don’t have convictions. So if you’ve been arrested, you then can’t work. And we find that to be clearly discriminatory.”

Kalanick also touted the expansion of Uber and the company’s ability to start up in new cities in a short period of time. In 2011, Boston was the fifth city in which the company began operations; it now operates in more than 300 cities and 58 countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. The start-up model has been so streamlined, he said “we can really get something going in a few weeks.”

He hailed the expansion as beneficial for the economy, by creating jobs; congestion, by removing cars from the roads; pollution, by having fewer vehicles emitting greenhouse gases; and safety, by offering rides to inebriated customers and reducing drunken driving.

“Our whole goal is transportation as reliable as running water everywhere for everyone,” he said.

Uber offers several levels of service, from the high-end UberBlack to UberX, the regular no-frills service that is often cheaper and easier to find than cabs. He spotlighted the new UberPool service that can pick up multiple passengers going to the same or close-by destinations and lower their costs.

And he spoke about a pilot program the company is trying in China called UberCommute, where part-time drivers who have other full-time jobs can turn on the driver app on their way to work and pick up fellow commuters going into the city. He did not say when that could be offered in the US and a spokeswoman said afterwards there is no timetable.

Kalanick gave a nod to his audience, which included some of the city’s heavy hitters, including one popular sports team owner. When von Tobel asked when he knew Uber would be successful, he said it was when a fellow billionaire told him he used the service.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

“I think it’s when [New England Patriots owner] Robert Kraft told me he took UberX,” Kalanick said, nodding in Kraft’s direction. “I thought, ‘OK, we’re in a different place now.’”