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Uber legal chief Tony West on overcoming scandal, going public, and tech’s watershed moment

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Uber is in the midst of a makeover. Call it Uber 2.0. After a year of controversies rocked the embattled ride-hailing giant, new leadership came in to transform Uber’s internal culture, external reputation, and business strategy.

Tony West, one of the executives responsible for righting the ship, discussed his first year as Uber’s chief legal officer in an interview at the 2018 GeekWire Summit. The candid conversation ranged from Uber’s push to become an on-demand mobility app to the lawsuits and sexual harassment concerns West inherited from the company’s previous leadership team.

“I was fortunate enough to have this career that spanned the public and private sectors so I thought I was well-prepared to be able to take on some of the challenges that Uber presented,” West said. “I knew there would be days where I’d open up the closet and a skeleton I hadn’t anticipated would tumble out. Luckily those days don’t happen as often as they did when I first started.”

Before joining Uber a year ago, West was general counsel for PepsiCo. Prior to his work in the private sector, he held different positions in the U.S. Department of Justice including associate attorney general.

West shared lessons learned from public service — and from a political celebrity in his family — during the fireside chat. He also gave insights into Uber’s commitment to safety and transparency in the post-Travis Kalanick era.

Listen to our podcast of the interview below, watch the full video above, and continue reading for highlights from the talk.

On taking the job at Uber: I had an opportunity to meet Dara Khosrowshahi the new CEO. It was right after he started and Dara spun out this new vision of a mobility platform that was all about, “how do we make the world move and how do we do it while also doing the right thing?” As someone who spent half of his career at the Department of Justice where you try to do the right thing every day, it was a pretty compelling proposition.

I knew there would be big challenges. It was part of what attracted me to the job. I was fortunate enough to have this career that spanned the public and private sectors so I thought I was well-prepared to be able to take on some of the challenges that Uber presented. I knew there would be days where I’d open up the closet and a skeleton I hadn’t anticipated would tumble out. Luckily those days don’t happen as often as they did when I first started but there’s still great challenges.

On playing by the rules: I don’t believe that there is this choice you have to make between being compliant and being innovative and, in fact, when I think about some of Uber’s greatest innovations it actually comes in the compliance area, like insurance that now allows peer-to-peer driving to occur … I don’t think those are mutually exclusive at all. I do think there is magic that made Uber possible, made that disruption possible, made that innovation possible, and was critical to its success. I believe you can still have the magic that underlies that and yet be a compliant company.

On Uber’s new mobility future: It’s not just a ride-sharing company. It’s a mobility platform which means that whether you’re talking about bikes you’re talking about scooters, you’re talking about integrating our platform in the landscape, the transportation landscape of a city, which means partnerships with cities and municipalities, that is also what Uber is and that has to take on a very local flavor. That has to take on a very indigenous quality to be successful.

On tech’s watershed moment: One of the things that you learn coming out of this whole data breach situation and observing what’s going on is that when it comes to data and when it comes to people’s privacy you have to handle people’s data in ways that users expect. It’s not enough simply to say, “we have the check-the-box consent when you sign up for the app and therefore we have your consent.” That’s important. That’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. You have to then, in the way that you handle data, demonstrate that you’re acting in ways that meet users expectations.

It’s a really important moment for tech. It’s a really important moment and I think it’s one that if it’s handled correctly creates opportunities to create more trust, not less, but that’s all in how we react to this.

On his sister-in-law, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris: We were both prosecutors at the same time. She was in the DA’s office when I was in the U.S. Attorney’s office and I think Kamala has demonstrated in so many ways that you can be effective in law enforcement if you recognize the importance of working with communities … and that extends to your being an effective public servant writ large. I think she’s demonstrated, over and over, that by being someone who cares about re-entry, by being someone who cares about communities that have been forgotten in many different ways, by being someone who’s very forward leaning and very progressive on law enforcement issues, that you can be an excellent public servant.”

On Uber and Lyft’s planned IPOs: I don’t know if it’s a race. I know there’s a lot of talk and excitement and enthusiasm about IPO. The only thing I’ll say is when or whether Uber goes public, the most important thing is that the company continues to execute and execute at scale.

On settling a lawsuit with Alphabet’s Waymo: It was freighted with a lot of history and baggage, text messages, that Dara and I, we just didn’t come to the table with. That created an opportunity, I think, not just to settle that case but to increase Google’s investment in Uber so that now we’re partners and not adversaries … It doesn’t limit at all. I think a lot of it is just assurances that Uber’s technology is its own, which we’ve always been confident is true, and that it will continue to innovate using its technology and using its own IP which we believe has always been true.

On autonomous vehicles and the fatal self-driving Uber crash: When you look at the trajectory of autonomous vehicles, I think you can look at the trajectory of other industries whether it’s aviation, I think is a really good one to look at, and you’ll see there’s always an evolution as the technology gets better and better. That whole episode, one of the most important things that can come from that tragedy is — and our hearts still go out to that family, Ms. Herzberg and her family — the most important thing to come out of that are some real lessons about safety and how do you create a safety culture, make sure you’re acting in ways that incentivize safety and safe decisions throughout the product development cycle. You never want to have something like that happen but if it does happen, you want to make sure you’re taking all of the lessons that you can.

I’m certainly confident that we have a safety culture and are developing a safety culture that will minimize the chances of that ever happening again but I can’t predict the future, unfortunately.

On regaining user trust: We need to earn their trust every day. The brand proposition is trust.

All I can say is, if you deleted Uber, give us another chance; we’ve got new leadership in the company. Look at not just what we say, but look at what we actually do and judge us by our actions as well as our words. I think you’ll be pleased with what you find.

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