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Meet the Harvard Business School professor who's going to try to fix Uber

Krystal Hu and Brooke DiPalma
Krystal Hu and Brooke DiPalma
Frances Frei, Harvard Business School Professor

This week, Uber fired more than 20 employees following an investigation into sexual harassment allegations at the ride-hailing company. This mass firing signaled Uber is aggressively making efforts to correct what The New York Times calls “deep-seated management and culture issues.”

Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, whom Uber hired this week, is expected to help facilitate these changes as the company’s first senior vice president of leadership and strategy. 

At Harvard, she leads the executive education program and teaches management. In 2011, she pushed an experiment to change its curriculum, rules and social rituals to foster female success. At the end of two years, HBS had become a much better place for female students, according to dozens of professors, administrators, and students interviewed by The New York Times.

‘Frei strongly believes in women’s leadership’

Frei is known as an advocate for female empowerment.

“The first question she asked to the classroom was, “When [do] you feel you are at your best?” My answer is ‘When I do something for someone else’. And she told me ‘You are a woman,’” Giovanna Della Posta, who attended the General Management Program at HBS in 2016, told Yahoo Finance. “Frei strongly believes in women’s leadership. The school even changed the rules to give more opportunities to females.” 

As a leader who made one environment better for women, Frei may be particularly qualified to help transform a workplace at Uber that’s been described as sexist

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

In a statement on Monday, Uber said Frei’s “expertise will be invaluable to the company as we take on the next chapter.” Meanwhile, Uber Board member Arianna Huffington tweeted to welcome the appointment and call Frei “a real force for transformation.”

“I know she is excited to engage with, contribute to, and learn from the company as it continues the job of managing its growth and resources,” Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria told Yahoo Finance in a statement. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for both her and the company, and one that extends the legacy of HBS faculty members keeping close to practice throughout the School’s history.”

It’s not Frei’s first time taking a leadership role outside of academia. She served on the Board of Directors at Advance Auto Parts (APP) from 2009 to 2013, a time when the automotive parts retailer’s stock price soared more than 300%. Now, she serves as a board member at Blue Buffalo Pet Products and Viewpost, a New York-based fintech providing electronic invoicing. She’s taking a leave of absence from Harvard and plans to commute to the West Coast from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Frei joins the Uber team at a tough time for the company. She will report to CEO Travis Kalanick, who admitted in February, “I need leadership help and I intend to get it,” in an apology posted hours after a leaked video showing him in a heated argument with an Uber driver.

Could this be the comeback for Uber? Frei has her work cut out for her, but her positive track record at HBS may bode well for Uber.

If you’re an Uber customer, you may notice Frei’s influence on the company. She continuously emphasizes the need to identify customer behavior and what the customer values. Within a Forbes article, that she co-authored with Anne Morriss, she said, “Excellence is being great at the things your customers value most.”

This story originally attributed the comment from Harvard Business School to its communications coordinator. The story has been updated to reflect that the comment came from the dean. 

More on Uber:

Here’s who’s on the Uber board, which is backing Travis Kalanick 

How Uber can fix its reputation

Uber has lost 8 top execs in under 2 months