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Uber Executives Defend Embattled CEO In Damage-Control Press Conference

The ride-hail giant claims the PR crises of 2017 haven’t hurt business.

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Uber said on Tuesday that its business is growing despite the unrelenting public relations crises it’s faced this year. The company is dealing with fallout from allegations of systemic sexism, a damning lawsuit over whether it stole key self-driving technology from a competitor, and high executive turnover as it searches for a No. 2 to CEO Travis Kalanick.

On a call with reporters Tuesday, Rachel Holt, the head of Uber’s US and Canada business, said the ride-hail company has “grown faster in the first 10 weeks of 2017 than the first 10 weeks of 2016.” “Last week riders in the US took more trips with Uber than ever before,” she said.

Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, who sits on Uber’s board and is on a subcommittee that will review results of the company’s internal investigation into claims of rampant sexism, said “change starts at the top” and praised Kalanick, who admitted last month that he needs “leadership help.”

Asked if the recent scandals plaguing Uber have shaken the board's confidence in Kalanick as CEO, Huffington said, “It’s clear that both Uber and the ride-sharing industry would not be where we are today without Travis... I'm personally a big believer in people, leaders, companies being allowed to evolve." Asked if the board has considered asking Kalanick to step down as CEO, Huffington said, "The board is confident in Travis and we are proceeding ahead with a search for the COO. It's not something that's been addressed because it hasn't come up and we don't expect it to come up."

Huffington also refuted the idea that she's not an independent member of the sexism investigation, given her board seat. She said she is not conducting the investigation, and is a member of the subcommittee reviewing its results. (She said earlier on the call that "whatever that investigation finds will be honored by everybody at Uber.")

2017 has proved to be a year of continued turmoil for Uber. In January, Kalanick dropped out of President Trump’s economic advisory group before its first meeting after protests outside the company's headquarters, employee dissent, and a #DeleteUber backlash. (The New York Times reported that about 200,000 users deleted their accounts.) On Feb. 19, a female ex-engineer posted a viral blog detailing systemic sexism at the company. In response, Uber brought on former attorney general Eric Holder to lead an investigation into its workplace environment, and Kalanick apologized to employees and promised Uber would “do better.” That same week, more than 100 of Uber’s female engineers met with Kalanick and a member of group told him, “everyone who’s in these rooms now … believes that there is a systemic problem here,” according to leaked audio obtained by BuzzFeed.

Kalanick found himself apologizing to his staff once again on Feb. 28, after Bloomberg published video of him yelling at one of the company’s drivers during an argument over fares. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement,” Kalanick said.

And on Sunday, Uber said its president of ride-sharing, Jeff Jones, had resigned. Jones came to Uber just six months ago from Target, where he helped rebuild the company’s image after hackers stole millions of credit card numbers from the retailer in December 2013. As president of Uber’s main business, Jones was tasked with running the logistics of ride-hailing and improving Uber’s relationship with its drivers. Jones told Recode that he quit because "the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber."

Asked how the company is ensuring the new COO it hopes to hire will not clash with Kalanick, Uber's Chief Human Resources Officer Liane Hornsey said she has watched Kalanick change in her short time at the company.

"I've only been here 11 weeks, but almost week by week, I see him changing," she said. "I'm sure you would expect, going through what we’ve gone through in the last couple weeks, it's actually something that would cause personal change."

Jones joined several other executives who have jumped ship recently. Just in the last three months, Uber has lost Brian McClendon (vice president of maps), Ed Baker (vice president of product and growth), Amit Singhal (senior vice president of engineering, who left related to revelations he did not disclose a sexual harassment allegation while at his previous employer, Google), Gary Marcus (the new head of its artificial intelligence lab), and Raffi Krikorian (a director and former leader of its self-driving car program).

Priya Anand is a tech and transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Priya Anand at priya.anand@buzzfeed.com.

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