Two court cases; multiple sexual harassment accusations; a 200,000 #DeleteUber campaign; and an exodus of senior executives. To say Uber’s had a bumpy start to the year is an understatement. You’d think the leadership at Uber would be curled up in a fetal position by now, gently whimpering. And yet, as Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues reports for the BBC World Service, the fight for ride-sharing and self-driving car supremacy continues full tilt. This week, Uber confirmed it’s hired a top AI expert tasked with rapidly building a self-driving car team in Toronto, Canada. Alison spoke with Professor Raquel Urtasun (pictured above) yesterday and reported on Uber’s ongoing challenges for the BBC World Service earlier today.
Listen to the BBC Click radio show podcast here
Or to the 5 minute Uber segment below:
Here’s a transcript of my report and conversation with Click’s host Gareth Mitchell (edited for length and clarity):
Gareth Mitchell: Today, more controversy at Uber. Has Uber been taking the regulators for a ride? According to the Reuters News Agency, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into Uber software that helped evade the city transport officials. The tool, called Greyball was originally designed to foil would-be fraudsters from using Uber services. So protecting your drivers by deterring undesirable passengers, that’s one thing, but now the suspicion is that Uber has also been “Greyballing” city officials investigating unlicensed Uber cars. Portland, Oregon said Uber used Greyball to evade 16 of its transport officials in 2014, before Uber was officially authorized to operate there. I’ve been hearing more from our Silicon Valley reporter, Alison van Diggelen. We started by talking about Uber’s other woes…Uber and Google’s Waymo are not getting on very well…
Alison van Diggelen: No, not at all.
WAYMO VS UBER
Alison van Diggelen: Waymo – Google’s self-driving car spinoff – has accused Uber of stealing 14,000 files – including trade secrets. It concerns blueprints for Lidar, the spinning laser you see on top of self driving cars. At a hearing in San Francisco last week, the judge said Waymo didn’t yet have “a smoking gun” i.e. enough evidence to prove its technology was being used by Uber. We’re still waiting to hear whether the the judge will issue an injunction – that could impact Uber’s ability to use or develop this Lidar technology – and impact its entire self-driving car plans.
Uber’s Anthony Levandowski is accused of stealing Lidar secrets from Google’s Waymo, Photo credit: Quartz/Mike Murphy
There’s also a criminal court case at the early stages investigating the software tool – Greyball – that allowed Uber to evade and deceive regulators in several cities. Software was used to analyze profiles and credit card information of potential Uber users, to avoid it being available to law enforcement officials. All this is piling on uncertainty to Uber’s existing challenges -it puts its long anticipated IPO on hold indefinitely. (Uber may miss a good “window of opportunity” to go public, while the bull market endures. It’s been valued at about $70Bn, that’s $20Bn more than Ford!)
Gareth Mitchell: This Greyballing software. Initially, this was just a way for Uber to protect its drivers from dodgy customers and the allegations go that they’re using it this more evasive way when it comes to regulators.
Alison van Diggelen: That’s exactly right. When regulators tried to use the Uber app in places that it was forbidden at the time – like Portland, Paris, Las Vegas – They’d just get a fake site. It looked to them as though it wasn’t available.
Gareth Mitchell: Uber lawyers have told authorities in Portland, Oregon that the Greyball technology was used exceedingly sparingly….But what other challenges does it face, Alison?
HIGH PROFILE HIRING
Alison van Diggelen: Given the court cases; and a series of sexual harassment accusations and an exodus of executives recently, you’d think Uber would face huge hiring challenges. But yesterday Uber announced it’s hiring a high profile Artificial Intelligence expert – Raquel Urtasun, so a little bit of good news for Uber. She’s a professor at the University of Toronto. She’ll lead the expansion of Uber’s self-driving team in Canada.
I spoke with her yesterday and she told me she thinks the negative stories about Uber are overblown. She plans to build a team of several dozen within a year to develop what she calls the “perception algorithms” for self-driving cars … Basically, they’re building the brain of the car so that it can transform what it “sees” – via sensors and cameras into an explanation of “what” it is seeing.
She acknowledges that competitors (like Waymo) are still ahead – they’ve been working on the technology much longer (since 2009), but she insists that Uber is getting closer every day. But Uber has a long way to go: Recent reports show its self-driving cars travelled on average of 1 mile before a human driver had to take control. Google’s Waymo cars disengaged at a rate of once per 5,000 miles.
Gareth Mitchell: OK. That is Alison van Diggelen, talking to me just before we came on air.
Alison van Diggelen: I also spoke with Anton Wahlman, a Silicon Valley Tech Analyst
He concludes that if Uber’s reported $3 billion loss last year is accurate, the company is operating at negative gross margins – ie subsidizing fares – to drive out competitors. Wahlman anticipates that as soon as prices rise to produce profitability, new competitors will simply enter the market. If Uber were a public company today he says he would short the stock.
There is mounting pressure for CEO Travis Kalanick to resign or step back from his leadership role. Since Uber began, he’s created an aggressive, “bad boy” culture at Uber and it’ll be hard to reboot that culture, but it’s still possible.
After all, replacing a founder (or founders) with a well established and experienced CEO is not unprecedented. Google appointed a “grown up” leader in its early days, not to change a “bad boy” culture but to drive rapid growth. Eric Schmidt, a veteran of Novell software, served as Google’s CEO for 10 years and passed the CEO position back to cofounder Larry Page in 2011. For now, it seems that Kalanick is holding tight to the steering wheel at Uber, but the pressure is growing for a co-driver to take over and navigate a safer, less turbulent road ahead.
Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard calls himself a “benevolent dictator” who levies a 1% “Earth Tax” from his company to fund environmental activism. Currently Patagonia is funding a campaign to protect Bears Ears National Monument, now under threat from President Trump’s executive order this week.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with this revered pioneer of environmental responsibility. Chouinard explains how a Scottish rugby shirt inspired his Patagonia business; why he believes regenerative agriculture could save the planet; and what he’s doing to ensure Patagonia’s environmental mission continues after he dies. Chouinard’s book: “Let my people go surfing” is an attempt to challenge business as usual and the culture of conspicuous consumption. The interview took place at the Heritage Theater in Silicon Valley in October, 2016.
Listen to this special Fresh Dialogues “Uncut” podcast:
Here are some highlights of the conversation:
On his 1% for the planet “Earth tax”
Yvon Chouinard: Your typical large corporation is out to make as much money as they can for the shareholders. And what the shareholders do with their profits is their business. We believe it should be done in the business as well. I believe in taxes. Especially the kind of taxes where you get to decide where the money goes. I think that’s called taxation with representation… So we just tax ourselves 1% of our sales – not our profits – 1% of revenue is given away to 900 different small activist organizations working to save our planet.
On Private vs public ownership
Alison van Diggelen: You’ve said that your stock holders are ‘the people of the planet’
Yvon Chouinard: That’s right. When you’re CEO of a public company you have no power. Your board, your stockholders tell you what to do. I can do whatever I feel like. We’re sole owners. We can make quick decisions, be a lot more efficient, move quickly. I would never think of becoming a public corporation….I’m a dictator…
Alison van Diggelen: A generous dictator?
Yvon Chouinard: The most effective form of government is probably a benevolent dictator. Things get done. Look at American politics. The best you can ever achieve is a compromise. And compromise never solves the problem. It leaves both sides feeling cheated.
Alison van Diggelen: What else have you been able to do because you’re a private company and you have this “dictatorship”?
Yvon Chouinard: [Laughter] It’s all through the company. There’s no boss looking over your shoulder. It’s a level society throughout the whole company. Outside the company we’re getting to be very visible. I can’t believe the power we have. We’re getting invited to the White House all the time to advise on policy (under President Obama).
On Patagonia’s business conflict: making money vs saving the planet
Yvon Chouinard: I’d say buying a jacket from us causes less harm to the environment than buying a jacket from another company that doesn’t put all the thought and processes causing the least amount of harm. For instance, we only use organically grown cotton. That’s fine. Growing cotton organically causes less harm but it doesn’t do the world any good. It still causes the world a lot of harm. That’s why I decided to go into the food business. I want to go beyond organic foods, organic cotton to what’s called regenerative agriculture. The difference is, regenerative agriculture builds soil and captures carbon.
And so now I have to go to my cotton farmers – who supply us with cotton – and say: you can’t plow any more because every time you plow, it releases all the carbon you’ve captured back into the air. So agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming so it’s probably the biggest thing we can do to save this planet. I’m really excited about this. I think it’s our only hope to regulate the climate. We’re not going to do it any other way. Agriculture has a chance of sequestering so much carbon out of the air through changing our grazing practices and our farming practices; and basically going back to the old way of doing things. And that’s what gets me excited.
On Being a Reluctant Businessman
Yvon Chouinard: I never wanted to be a business man. I was a craftsman. I just happened to come up with ideas that people wanted. I love working with my hands. I slowly got trapped…I had no desire to get rich. I’ve done a lot of climbing on every continent and became aware of all the destruction to natural world…I decided to use my resources, which is my business, to do something about the natural world. That’s the reason we’re in business.
On the Scottish inspiration for Patagonia
Yvon Chouinard: I was in the business of making climbing equipment…I came to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis and saw a rugby shirt in department store in Edinburgh. Back then, active sportswear was basically grey flannel sweatshirts and pants. Men didn’t wear colorful sports clothes. It had a blue body, yellow stripes. I was wearing it around Yosemite, everyone said, ‘Woah!’ A light went off…I imported a few. I said, maybe I’ll get into the clothing business.
On Steve Jobs, Apple and influencing businesses to be green
Yvon Chouinard: We’re influencing small companies, not large companies. A lot of the green stuff is green washing
Alison van Diggelen: Do you feel Apple’s efforts are green washing?
Yvon Chouinard: Absolutely – it’s like that with every large corporation. They’ll pick the low hanging fruit, but when it starts getting a little tougher…They’ll do the things that turn into more profits, but when you really have to knuckle down and be truly responsible, they’re not going to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: What’s been your biggest influence in greening the world? Business side or consumers?
Yvon Chouinard: Young people. I wrote this book “Let my people go surfing” – that has gone around in 9 languages and that has influenced a lot of young people and small companies are really paying attention. The idea of changing large corporations is pretty naive of me.
On Patagonia’s business philosophy
Yvon Chouinard: I never liked authority, I never liked telling people what to do. We decided to do it in our own style. That’s the title of my book “Let My People Go Surfing.” I don’t care when you work as long as you get your work done. You go when the surf’s up. Not next Tuesday at 2 o’clock. So it’s affected our management style. It’s created a way of managing a business so that we’re not tied down. We don’t drag our butts to work every day. We skip up the stairs two steps at a time. You don’t have to do it like everyone else. We don’t hire MBAs; we don’t have advertising agencies. We do most things ourselves because we can’t trust other companies to do it.
Alison van Diggelen: Beyond your lifetime, how will you ensure Patagonia keep the environment central to its mission?
Yvon Chouinard: We’ve become a B-corporation company… In a B-corporation you can put down what your values are and they have to be values that are good for the planet, good for society.
Alison van Diggelen: Will your son or daughter stay at the helm?
Yvon Chouinard: I don’t know…I have no idea what’s going to happen after I’m dead.
Alison van Diggelen: Are you grooming them to do so?
Yvon Chouinard: Yeah, they are slowly taking over more responsibility, absolutely. My daughter is head of sportswear design right now and my son is on the board. They both have the same values that my wife and I have.
Alison van Diggelen: One last question: going back to Scotland – John Muir, I know he’s been an inspiration to you. Do you have a favorite quote or inspiration from him?
Yvon Chouinard: [laughter] When I was a climber, it was John Muir and Emerson, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, philosophers which had a different attitude to climbing mountains than say the Europeans did, which was to conquer the mountains and our attitude was: you climb them and leave no trace of having been there.
Listen to my report on Chouinard and consumerism on the BBC World Service (starts @16:00 on the podcast)
Here are Fresh Dialogues Transcript & Highlights of my BBC Report
Want to hear more interviews and reports: Subscribe to Fresh Dialogues on iTunes
This is the second in the series: Fresh Dialogues Uncut
The “Uncut” series launched with an in-depth interview with Google’s Dave Burke
What can Uber and Fox News do to change their hostile work environment for women? And how can organizations create a productive atmosphere where men and women thrive? Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with Julia Gillard, the 27th Prime Minister of Australia to get her insights. Gillard got the world’s attention after making an impassioned speech to parliament, detailing the sexual harassment she endured as prime minister. Her Misogyny Speech has empowered many women and a provided a wakeup call for “unenlightened” men.
“I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man…I was personally offended by the leader of the opposition cat-calling: ‘if the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest women of herself ‘ and when he went outside the front of parliament and stood next to a sign that said ‘Ditch the witch’…(and) a sign that described me as ‘A man’s bitch’, I was offended by sexism, misogyny every day from this leader.” Julia Gillard, 27th Prime Minister of Australia
The BBC World Service program, Business Matters aired my interview with Julia Gillard last week, and we had a lively discussion about the steps companies and organizations can take to tackle sexism. This topic is especially timely as news broke this week that Bill O’Reilly has been fired from Fox News due to a sexual harassment scandal. Is the tide finally turning, thanks to tech augmented consumer pressure?
“Company reputation and consumer pressure is actually putting the spotlight on businesses to change behavior, and women can work with that to put a spotlight on work practices in their business,” Julia Gillard.
Did Julia Gillard anticipate Bill O”Reilly being fired?
Listen on the BBC Podcast (@26:40) or to the short clip below:
Here are highlights from our conversation:
I began by asking her if there’s anything she’d add to her speech in today’s work environment…
Julia Gillard: It was coming from a place of frustration and mounting anger about the way in which gender has intersected with my prime ministership and some of the many sexist jibes and treatment I had to put up with. For many women, it’s come to represent something that answers their own frustrations. A lot of women come up to me and say: “this happened to me at work. I wake up at 3 in the morning and really wish I’d said X, Y and Z; and then I’ve watched your speech and it’s given me some heart that I really should call out sexism when I see it.”
Alison van Diggelen: Here in Silicon Valley, women in tech are in a minority. In some instances they’re facing hostile environments at work. Do you have any specific advice for them?
Julia Gillard: What’s interesting about the Silicon Valley environment is: company reputation and consumer pressure is actually putting the spotlight on businesses to change behavior, and women can work with that to put a spotlight on work practices in their business; and put a spotlight more generally on that fact that not enough women study and come through the STEM stream… We do want to be encouraging more girls to go into the sciences, engineering, into coding, computer science and new technology because that’s where so much of the future is going to lie.
Alison van Diggelen: Uber has been accused of having a hostile environment for women. If you were on the board of Uber, your advice to them?
Julia Gillard: I’d give the same advice to any company, whether it already had a public problem or not. First look at hiring practices and see whether there’s any gender bias, even unconscious…Look at promotion practices, it could be managers valuing time sitting at the desk rather than results, which would count against women who also have family responsibilities. I’d be setting policies, practices, cultural norms about treating everyone with respect. No practices of going on boys’ nights out where women are excluded.
There’s a range of things you can do from structural biases, actual policies to cultural influences. You’ve got to be thoughtful at every level and make it easy for women to say something’s wrong here, all sorts of ways of raising a complaint, including putting in complaints with anonymity, so women can get a spotlight on issues without feeling they themselves are at risk.
Roger Hearing: Asit Biswas (in Singapore), in your experience, in the areas of government and academia, do you feel a lot of progress has been made?
Prof Asit Biswas: There has been some progress, but it’s not enough. In academia, the number of university presidents who are women, I can count on two hands…there’s a great deal of glass ceiling…In India, I was surprised to see the culture has deteriorated: there’s more harassment, not much being done about it.
Alison van Diggelen: I do want to go back to Julia Gillard’s point about consumer pressure. Boycott movements* (and demonstrations) are happening against Fox (News) because of accusations of sexual harassment…
Roger Hearing: We should explain, Bill O’Reilly…There have been allegations against him and it’s emerged that money has been paid to those people, though he says the allegations have no merit.
Alison van Diggelen: Exactly. There are boycott movements shining a light on sexism and bad behaviors. Companies can’t get away with it like they used to. Tech is playing a role in exposing these bad behaviors and a lot of companies are aware of it and are trying to close the income gap and improve the retention rates of women, and making sure that all men become enlightened men and treat women with the respect that they deserve.
*Mercedes-Benz – one of the first major sponsors to drop Bill O’Reilly – said in a statement: “The allegations are disturbing and, given the importance of women in every aspect of our business, we don’t feel this is a good environment in which to advertise our products right now.”
This interview took place in the green room of The Flint Center in Cupertino. Big thanks to Dick Henning, founder of the Foothill College Celebrity Forum Series for the invitation backstage.
Imagine if you could help end homelessness with the click of a button. There’s an app for that! In Silicon Valley, despite the vast affluence and many tech millionaires, homelessness is a huge problem. With average home prices close to a $1 million and tiny flats renting for well over $1,000, making ends meet can be challenging; and for some people, just finding a roof over their heads is mission impossible.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues met one woman whose homeless brother inspired her to change all that.
“For those who are homeless and poverty stricken, it’s like having a life coach, a service provider and a trainer in the palm of their hands. There’s really something to teaching to fish…rather than giving fish…helping them be self sufficient rather than temporary handouts… We’re here trying to help in other ways that are more sustainable and that lead to a permanent resolution of the problem.” Karen Addato, Founder of Hi Tech Rover and ROVA app.
Here’s my BBC World Service report. It aired April 4th on the BBC’s World Tech program, Click. Listen @15:40 for Host, Gareth Mitchell’s introduction on the April 4th BBC Podcast or to this short clip:
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here on the Hi Tech Rover, an RV (large camper van) that brings both the internet and a safety net to homeless people all over San Jose. Karen Addato (founder of the Hi Tech Rover and the ROVA app) and her volunteers offer an opportunity for homeless people to get off the streets and reboot their lives. They offer Internet training, help with online job applications, housing search, and even access to detox services.
Karen, where are we going right now?
Karen Addato: We’re in downtown San Jose, the Capital of Silicon Valley and we’re going to a couple of encampments under bridges, right here in the heart of town. One of them is on Woz Way…
Alison van Diggelen: Woz as in Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple and generous philanthropist here in Silicon Valley. Karen Addato is a vivacious single mom, a mortgage broker and executive director of the nonprofit: High Tech Rover. She used $7,000 of her savings to create this Rover Outreach Vehicle App prototype, ROVA for short.
Karen Addato: For those who are homeless and poverty stricken, it’s like having a life coach, a service provider and a trainer in the palm of their hands… when we’re not here helping them, they can stay on a pathway focused on upward mobility. They can get on to ROVA and press one button.. “I am seeking help.” Up comes a list of resources available for that gender and age group. We have a geo-tracker right here, so you can find out where they are…This tool will also help government officials, donors, and service providers figure out what’s needed and what’s not.
Alison van Diggelen: Connecting homeless people with jobs, training opportunities and relocation information are a key for Addato. Her brother Stevie was homeless in Boston, and she believes that those who supported his panhandling simply enabled his alcoholism and homelessness. Instead, she’s serious about connecting people to local services, and getting people off the streets for good.
Karen Addato: I’ve learned a lot in my time in the trenches working with this population…I’ve learned a lot through the life and tragic death of my brother…There’s really something to teaching to fish…rather than giving fish…helping them be self sufficient rather than temporary handouts… that in some ways is part of the problem. We’re here trying to help in other ways that are more sustainable and that lead to a permanent resolution of the problem.
Alison van Diggelen: The High Tech Rover – a huge camper van – is kitted out with desks and laptops. Addato and her volunteers take it to homeless camps around Silicon Valley.
Atmos: Sound of walking to homeless camp…traffic…
Alison van Diggelen: We make our way over rough ground to the confluence of Highways 280 and 87. Addato grabs her pepper spray, just in case. We find a half dozen scruffy tents stretched out along a concrete embankment. Below us: the Guadalupe River. Above us, although it’s midday, there’s a constant drone of heavy traffic.
Jason, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, tells me he’s been homeless for 2 years. He’s 19 and working two jobs, earning between 11 and 17 dollars an hour…
Alison van Diggelen: You can’t get a decent roof over head with that?
Jason: Not in Silicon Valley, it’s too expensive…one bed’s like $1300, it’s crazy out here. Us teenagers, we need help. Not all of us want to be here forever.
Alison van Diggelen: Every morning, Jason has to find a place to shower and clean up for his service jobs. We tell him about Karen’s app. Would that be a useful tool?
Jason: That’s actually a very brilliant idea, because a lot of us actually have phones… I’ve actually wanted something like that. Keep helping!
Alison van Diggelen: I ask another young man, what would help him?
Charlie: San Jose needs to lower how much it costs to buy a house, their rents…you need to live with like three people, making at least $20 an hour to end up being able to have your own place in San Jose.
Alison van Diggelen: The ROVA app includes a database of over 700 low-income housing facilities in the county. Both young men plan to relocate out of state when they can afford it.
Like many in Silicon Valley, Addato dreams big and is seeking sponsorship from the tech community to launch her app, and create a whole fleet of High-Tech Rovers across the nation. She recently pitched her dream at the Apple campus and remains hopeful. The wider tech community is already tackling homeless via brainstorming hackathons; leveraging data-driven solutions and social media to spotlight community challenges. In Australia, an app called “Ask Izzy” already offers similar services to ROVA.
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Deep learning; geek nostalgia; Google’s Pixel phone; and why seeking ‘uncomfortably exciting’ opportunities can bring success.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with Google’s Dave Burke, an Irishman, who has risen quickly through the ranks. He leads the Android team, with responsibility for the device and developer ecosystem; and Google’s Pixel phone. How did he succeed so fast, and what qualities does he seek when hiring for his growing team?
I interviewed Burke this month for a BBC World Service report exploring Irish identity and success in Silicon Valley. We had a lively and wide ranging conversation full of insights for tech geeks and entrepreneurs alike, so I’m posting the uncut interview for your listening pleasure.
Listen to the uncut interview:
“It’s his ability to intuit a bold vision for the future, and then be comfortable in the abstract and yet push tenaciously forward over multiple years. Successful mathematicians need a similar personality – they have an intuition that a solution exists but initially have no concrete certainty on how to prove it and have to persist, sometimes over decades. Einstein’s story of deriving his theory of general relativity is a good example. This personality trait attracts other smart people… For Elon, the ‘contagious confidence’ extends out to his customers, i.e. many are willing to pay a high premium for a Tesla car and don’t seem to worry about the future viability of this fledgling startup, simply because have confidence in the founder.” Dave Burke, Google
Here’s are some highlights of our conversation:
On the secrets of Burke’s success @00:20
“Seek out challenges that are uncomfortably exciting…there’s always a risk of failure, but if you succeed, you could make a huge impact.”
Why he’s so excited about deep learning @19:23
“The big hot area is deep learning, using neural networks….applying lots of data. You can make machines do incredible things…The potential for deep learning and for AI to make our lives easier is very exciting.”
On Google’s Pixel phone @27:15
“Software pushes the hardware and hardware pushes the software. To advance the operating system, you need to have them working really closely together. It allows Google to have its own product. If you’re a Google user, this is the ideal phone for you.”
On rumors of a new Pixel phone this year @27:54
“I can neither confirm nor deny rumors. Technology moves very fast, the cadence…Typically every year, you try to do something new and exciting…we are very busy, working on a lot of stuff… The reviews have been great…but I see the potential for so much more, in terms of innovation, product quality.”
We also discussed Burke’s “geek nostalgia” for the BBC Micro computer by Acorn (the precursor to ARM); the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley; the three questions you need to ask to discover if someone is “really Irish”; and flying robotic lemonade stands!
Look out for more “Fresh Dialogues Uncut” featuring Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington, Charlie Rose and Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard.
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