Uber: Silicon Valley Darling

Uber is at the center of renewed scandal after a flood of sexual harassment allegations revealed a widespread “bro culture” at the company. But it’s not the only startup to suffer under the questionable leadership of a “CEBro,” as Dan Lyons, a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine, recently called it in the New York Times. It is, actually, the latest in a long string of Silicon Valley darlings to come under increased scrutiny and criticism.

These 40ish man-child CEOs push a tech culture with campus-like headquarters instead of office buildings, nap lounges instead of cubicles, and company bars instead of water coolers. As Lyons argues, their offices “become corporate frat houses, where employees are chosen like pledges, based on ‘culture fit’ ” instead of merit. This work environment tends to alienate women and minorities, even leading some to quit.

Additionally, the relative immaturity of these so-called “CEBros” creates an environment in which reckless spending and excessive partying become the norm, and bad behavior is not just tolerated but encouraged. While the executives of these companies appear – at least at the surface level – to have great people skills, they have no clue how to manage their employees or run an expanding multi-billion dollar company. They surround themselves with like-minded people and fail to understand how to build a stable corporate structure. This is what led to Uber’s problems and ones that plague similar startups.  

Consider everyone’s favorite startup – Facebook. We got a dramatized look into its founding through “The Social Network,” but this is apparently only the tip of the iceberg. The company culture at Uber sounds more like “Wolf of Wall Street” than “The Office.” Top executives are little more than hustlers, winning over investors like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, who hold stakes of more than $1 billion each.

With man-children at the helm, the “bro culture” at Uber is not confined to the workplace’s physical aspects; it permeates the manner in which the company is run and expands. Initially, Uber dealt with customer safety problems after several women came forward about being sexually assaulted by their drivers. It then weathered corporate espionage lawsuits from Google, related to the development of self-driving cars. Sexual harassment allegations from their employees are only the latest problem. How many times can a high-profile “millennial” company be hit before it falls? Companies that are too reactive rather than proactive do not last long – if you don’t see a storm coming, it may tear you down. Startups like Uber have seemed to be the exception, but probably aren’t.  

Despite their cultural and structural flaws, startups like Uber still have great potential for making a positive impact on society as a whole. In identifying unmet problems in major areas of life, such as transportation or housing, these companies can revolutionize services in ways that make them more accessible or affordable. They can also pivot significantly faster than industrial giants, like Google or Unilever, because of their narrow, efficient focus. Moreover, these companies contribute to more than just app development. Uber, for example, is running a large behavioral science study to examine the motivation among independent contractors to maximize revenue for themselves and the corporations they work for. Companies across Silicon Valley are taking up new initiatives to contribute to scientific research and maximize profits.

It is my hope that potential founders see the failures in some of the successful tech-bubble companies and can modify the startup culture so it doesn’t produce toxic work environments. The experience of ventures that have been more successful in these respects can be taught to young founders, just as the Wharton School teaches the structures of the mainstream business community. They will see the storms coming and will be prepared with a sturdy foundation rather than a rickety fence.