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Uber can’t decide whether cofounder Travis Kalanick is an asset of a liability, and it makes for an awkward but revealing IPO filing

Travis Kalanick’s name appears a total of 13 times in Uber’s IPO prospectus.

But the cofounder and former CEO of Uber appears many more times, if you read between the lines of the company’s S-1 filed on Thursday. And for the most part, it seems, he’s there to serve as a punching bag.

The 300-page IPO prospectus seeks to convince investors that the ride-hailing company is a well-managed operation, free of the chaos and problems that plagued it a couple years ago — back when Kalanick was in charge.

“We are on a new path forward with the hiring of our Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi in September 2017 following many challenges regarding our culture, workplace practices, and reputation,” Uber says towards the beginning of the document.

“It’s a new day at Uber,” the document declares.

An entire section labeled “Conduct and Culture” includes categories like “Tone at the Top” and refers to efforts to “fundamentally reform our workplace culture.”

“We have made tremendous progress in creating a program that is designed to prevent and detect violations of corporate policy, law, and regulations,” it says.

It’s a pretty damning indictment of Uber’s own past, even though the company acknowledges that the “fierce entrepreneurialism” and “famous Uber hustle” it began with were key ingredients to its success.

Dancing the Travis two-step

Kalanick served as Uber’s CEO from 2010 to 2017, turning the ride-hailing company into an unstoppable juggernaut worth nearly $70 billion. But the company was rocked by a series of scandals on his watch, including accusations of sexual harassment and a toxic work culture, a high-profile trade theft lawsuit, and reports of operations designed to deceive regulators.

Khosrowshahi, the CEO who replaced Kalanick, indirectly refers to his predecessor’s legacy in a personal letter to investors that acknowledges “missteps along the way.”

It must make for awkward reading for Kalanick, given that he’s still a member of the company’s board of directors.

And it’s a delicate needle for Uber to thread, since the company must also praise Kalanick and sell him to investors as a desirable member of the board.

“Mr. Kalanick was selected to serve on our board of directors because of his experience as one of the co-founders and early leaders of our company, and as such, his extensive knowledge of our business, and his innovation, technology, and high-growth experience, as well as his consumer and digital experience,” the Uber S-1 says in Kalanick’s director bio.

Depending on which part of the S-1 you read, Kalanick’s experience as an “early leader” of the company is either an asset or a liability; a feature or a bug.

We all share this love-hate relationship

It’s a tricky balancing act that mirrors some of the broader questions we have about Uber. As consumers, we love the convenience, but we hate its impact on traffic and on workers. Is Uber the future of transportation, or another mechanism to further the divide between the haves and the have nots?

The IPO is likely to make a lot of people very rich, especially the early investors, not to mention Travis Kalanick himself. But, as with the authors of the S-1 filing, we’ll still be struggling to answer fundamental questions about the company and its legacy.

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