Driving innovation: Though they are quite different institutions, both Brown and Uber are playing a critical role in shaping the innovation economy, said Brown University Christina Paxson during a conversation with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Photo: Alison Yin

Date October 19, 2018
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Uber CEO talks Open Curriculum, culture change, diversity and flying cars

Class of 1991 graduate Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of the ride-hailing company Uber, sat down with Brown President Christina Paxson to discuss the many dynamics of innovation — and the undergraduate class that impacted him most.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As an undergraduate at Brown, Class of 1991 graduate Dara Khosrowshahi concentrated in bioelectric engineering. But the class on College Hill that ultimately influenced the Uber CEO the most? European Intellectual History, taught by Professor of History Mary Gluck.

“The Open Curriculum for me was awesome… I don’t know why I chose that course, and that’s the beautiful thing,” Khosrowshahi said. “It really opened up to me the power of storytelling. And I’ve taken that into working and leadership in companies. Stories are such incredibly powerful mediums to inspire, to unite, to guide.”

Since graduating from Brown, Khosrowshahi has honed those leadership skills as he advanced through the ranks at a number of major companies, from Allen & Company to USA Network to InterActiveCorp. Opting to launch his early career in banking, rather than engineering, he eventually became the CEO of Expedia, expanding its presence to more than 60 countries. In 2017, he earned the CEO appointment of ride-sharing giant Uber.

During a mid-October "fireside chat" at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Khosrowshahi joined Brown University President Christina Paxson as they shared perspectives on leadership and innovation within their respective institutions. The conversation was part of a series of events that aims to bring insights from members of the extended Brown community to alumni, parents and others to build community and create lifelong learning opportunities.

In introducing Khosrowshahi, Paxson said that Uber and Brown have “more in common than meets the eye.” Both, she noted, cultivate entrepreneurial thinking, see diversity and inclusion as drivers of innovation, and are creating economic growth in cities.

“In the innovation economy, universities like Brown are producing clusters of faculty, researchers and students around very high impact areas of discovery like data science, robotics and brain science,” Paxson said. “And companies like Uber are becoming magnets for spinoff ideas and startups and research and development and capital — and really paving the way for clustering of innovation.”

The two discussed the very necessary culture change that often comes with innovation and growth. Khosrowshahi, who became Uber’s CEO after his predecessor resigned in 2017, said his goal is to preserve the entrepreneurial spirit of Uber while giving more consideration to the driver-partners and cities impacted as the company continues to expand. He called this change an “osmosis that takes time.”

“My continuing challenge is to mold the new Uber into a hybrid of the old — which really had some wonderful parts to it — and what we are going to be,” he said.

Another focus of Uber’s culture change has been more momentum around diversity and inclusion — key drivers of innovation and success for a company that operates in 600 cities around the world, Khosrowshahi said.

“We are literally on the ground working with driver-partners… who live in these different cities and live in different ways and have different ways of operating with different accepted norms,” he said. “Having an employee base that is open to that and understands it is vital for our business.”

Since his arrival at Uber, Khosrowshahi said the company has worked quickly to not only increase recruitment of women and people of color, but to also create initiatives that increase promotions among those groups along with tools to measure the success of the new initiatives. Though work remains, he said, Uber’s entrepreneurial spirit has enabled the company to implement the measures in a nimble way.

“One of the wonderful things about our culture is that it’s a company that moves fast for its size, and it’s a group of people that wants to execute and wants to execute yesterday,” he said.

That nimbleness will likely be an asset as Uber expands to meet Khosrowshahi’s ambitious vision: to redefine Uber as a company that is not just about rides in cars, but one that revolutionizes how people, particularly in cities, move from place to place in innovative and environmentally responsible ways.

Khosrowshahi said the company’s recent acquisition of JUMP, an electronic bike-sharing program — which arrived on College Hill this fall after an extensive undertaking by the City of Providence in partnership with Brown and others — epitomizes that vision. In the immediate term, while JUMP has cannibalized some of Uber’s short-distance business, the move has already increased user engagement with the Uber platform, he said, ultimately making it a long-term win-win for Uber and the cities it operates in.

“It allows us to be more expansive in our definition of the business and ultimately it puts our interest in alignment with cities and the environment,” Khosrowshahi said.

Next up for Uber? Air taxis. And not just for millionaires. Khosrowshahi said that technology exists that will make flying cars accessible to the mass market in just a few years.

“If you want to try out a ride, let me know, because I’m not going first,” he said to Paxson.

“I’ll go first,” she replied. “I’ll do it.”