AUSTIN — Shark Tank judge and early Uber investor Chris Sacca took the stage at SXSW and started handing out beers.
"We’re going to do this unlike Uber. The women get them first," Sacca said as he gave the Lone Star beers to women in the audience.
It was a snipe at one of his early portfolio companies that has come under internal investigation for claims of sexism in the workplace. One of the worst anecdotes from former engineer Susan Fowler's tell-all blog post was a scene where the women engineers on the team didn't receive leather jackets like the men because it would be unfair that it cost more to supply the women with jackets.
Sacca, unlike his portfolio company, decided to include the women at the start of his SXSW presentation, and when asked about Uber's behavior, didn't try to defend his investment.
"Nothing about that story shocked me at all. I was upset," Sacca told the audience.
The post bothered Sacca for two reasons: Fowler's treatment by her manager and Uber HR's failure to act on her complaints.
In the former engineer's blog post, Fowler said she was sexually harassed by her manager, ignored by HR, and was told by another manager she could be fired for reporting things. Uber hired former US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Fowler's claims of misconduct after her blog post went viral.
Sacca said he wasn't surprised to hear Fowler's account of her manager's behavior because it's "pervasive in our industry." Sacca even admitted that he probably contributed to culture problems even in his earlier career.
'Automatons could respond better to that stuff'
Sacca was shocked, however, by the response from Uber's human resources department, he said.
"Automatons could respond better to that stuff," Sacca said. "When someone brings you a complaint like that you have to go back to the a--hole who provoked it all."
Sacca didn't say whether he had tried to influence or change Uber's culture over the last few years, but noted that he hasn't been on speaking terms with its CEO Travis Kalanick since 2011.
"The basis for us not speaking is not wholly unrelated," he said.
At this point, Sacca believes Uber needs to work hard at bringing in people from all kinds of diverse situations and try to rebuild its goodwill with its customers and the public at large. It's part of the reason that Kalanick was raked over the coals for joining the Trump economic advisory council while Elon Musk has enjoyed relative immunity from negative press for the same action.
"No one is giving Uber the benefit of the doubt anymore," he said.
Companies need to find a way to build empathy and compassion into their spreadsheets and recognize how decisions will trickle down, Sacca argued.
In the early days that Uber launched surge pricing, more complaints lead to more downloads, he explained. Once Lyft entered the market, Uber kept lowering prices which saw growth go through the roof, but it also squeezed drivers as prices go lower. The company didn't think about building compassion into its profit line, and that's why it's ended up with a culture problem that's affecting the bottom line of its business.
"It’s f---ing bad for business to not have a healthy culture at these companies," Sacca said. "Customers are not f---ing stupid and they will see through it and they won’t patronize business if they don’t have a healthy culture."
One positive thing to come out of the last few weeks, Sacca said, was Kalanick's decision to bring on a COO in the No. 2 role at Uber. Sacca is encouraged that Kalanick is now willing to admit he needs the leadership help, and said he wouldn't be shocked if the company now hires a woman.
"It took a few slaps in the face to wake up and be vulnerable to this," he added.
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