In conversation with Uber chief diversity and inclusivity officer Bo Young Lee

MobileSyrup speaks with Lee about Uber's past, present and future

To say that Uber had a tumultuous 2017 is a significant understatement.

Between continued concerns about driver and passenger safety and welfare, allegations of sexual harassment that ultimately led to the ouster of CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, as well as news that the company had failed to report a major security breach that affected millions of customers around the world, Uber spent much of 2017 in a state of crisis management.

The company has since taken steps to rectify the numerous concerns raised about Uber since its inception in 2009, including hiring Bo Young Lee — a University of Michigan graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business — in March 2018 to tackle the company’s diversity and inclusion problems.

MobileSyrup had the chance to speak with Bo Young Lee on November 7th, 2018, after she delivered a speech at a #MoveTheDial event in Toronto.

Question: Diversity means different things to different people, but it also means different things to different cultures and it means different things in different countries. What does diversity mean to you?

Bo Young Lee: I always tell people diversity isn’t actually an identity. No single person is a diverse individual. Diversity is a state of being, and that’s really my definition of it. It’s a state of being where you have two or more people, you explore the differences as well as the similarities that exist. Diversity can exist on multiple dimensions. Obviously, the ones that I can think in organizational diversity conversations, you oftentimes focus on gender, race, ethnicity.

In an organization like ours, we’re also talking about things like socioeconomic, vocational experience, ability and those types of other dimensions as well. I think that there has to be a distinction, I think in the way that you phrased your question, you said “It means so many different things to so many different people and different countries and different cultures and organizations” and I think there has to be a distinction made between diversity versus what a lot of organizations think about diversity, which is representation….

“…we are a company that’s both a tech company, but we also move the physical world.”

What I would love to see and do, and this is some of the work that we’re doing within Uber, is to truly ask ourselves — we are a company and our CEO says this all the time — we are a company that’s both a tech company, but we also move the physical world. And that physical world and the customers that we serve are such pretty much an entire cut of the landscape of people. We as an organization, if we truly want to serve them to the optimum, we have to actually reflect that diversity, that difference that’s in society, within our organization.

Question: Could you describe your role as the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Uber?

Lee: I always tell people that my role ultimately isn’t necessarily to own diversity and inclusion. It’s not to own the transformation, but it’s to clarify what the path forward looks like and also then accelerate us moving down that path. I’m nothing more than a facilitator and what I ultimately do is identify what are the systems that we need to change to create more equality and remove more bias from our system. That’s one of the roles that I do.

Second thing I really do is I work with our stakeholders, and I think of our stakeholders across the board from very, very senior leaders, like our CEO all the way down to our individual contributors and understand what will it take for those individuals to transform themselves?

As the chief diversity and inclusion officer, my role is twofold. One of my jobs is very systemic, meaning assessing and motivating my team, because it’s really my team that does the bulk of the work. Helping, enabling my team to identify all the systems that we currently utilize to manage our people as well as face-off into the marketplace and say “Do we have biases built in and can we change the systems to de-bias them, to make them more equitable?”

“I can do things to make you feel either more included or I can do things to make you feel more excluded.”

So it’s systemic, but it’s also very behavioural as well. It’s to say, how do we ensure that people, because inclusion happens in intimate settings, like when you and I are sitting across from each other. I can do things to make you feel either more included or I can do things to make you feel more excluded. And what will it take from a behavioural perspective to get all of our leaders and our individual contributors to be motivated towards creating more inclusion versus exclusion?

My understanding of human psychology, my understanding of human neurology is we’re actually more oriented towards self-protective biases than we really realize, and so inclusion is a very conscious, intentional thing. And how do you move people toward that intentional conscious behaviour?

Question: You’ve touched on the idea that thinking about diversity is more than thinking about a numbers game. It’s not about meeting a certain amount of quotas. What exactly does the path forward look like for Uber specifically?”

Lee: I think the path forward for Uber really exists on three levels. The one really positive outcome and the reason that I joined Uber is because I saw an organization that was so motivated to transform. I saw that very clear intention. And what I saw [was an] organization was they needed just a little bit more clarity. My goal for Uber, one, is to create that clarity, and to take all that energy and just streamline it and get it moving on with the same direction.

That’s one of my goals for Uber itself.

My second goal for Uber is really trying to make that link between the stuff that we do internally and the stuff that we do externally. Again, as I mentioned before, we serve such a diverse customer-base, when you look at the whole spectrum, so of course we have our riders, we have our eaters, we have our clients in our freight business and some of the big businesses we have relationships there, and then you think about all the other stakeholders like our driver partners, our couriers. If we don’t reflect that diversity, we can’t design for those individuals.

“I think that when organizations grow as rapidly as ours, you’re just trying to keep up.”

In the early days of Uber, our rider population looked a whole heck-of-a-lot like our programmers and our product managers, because…we designed products with those individuals in mind without really realizing it. And so the early adopters were probably millennials, they were probably people who are tech-savvy, we’ve since grown exponentially and our rider population, our driver population is so much more different than what we look like now and we have to keep those individuals in mind and the best way to do that is to ensure that we have that in our organization. That’s the second pillar.

I think the third pillar is for us to become — to continue to reinforce the intentionality which we have to think about both our product and our internal. I think that when organizations grow as rapidly as ours, you’re just trying to keep up. I look at the growth that we’ve had in this organization over the seven, eight years that we’ve been around and it’s just outstanding. We went from a company of nothing seven, eight years ago to 20,000 people.

And when you have that kind of level of growth, things just — sometimes you’re just trying to keep up with the change. I think that now we’re an organization that’s globally large as we are. We have to be a bit more intentional, and that’s certainly one of my goals, to ensure that diversity gets intentionally baked into everything we do.

Question: What are some patterns or trends you’ve noticed since you started working at Uber compared to now?

Lee: I think that we are — I’ll give you an example, because it’s hard to talk in abstract.

Take for example the investments that we’re making here in Toronto. We have a tech centre that we’re growing, we have a lot of other — we’ll be significantly larger than we are currently. The level of conversation that I’m having with people around how do we design the most inclusive office as we begin to build.

How do we ensure that we expand our tech centre here, that we are recruiting with diversity in mind as a base goal. Those are all conversations that I don’t know were being had maybe — not eight months ago — but certainly two years ago, people wouldn’t have been thinking about that.

“…I’ve had many white, straight, Cis men come and talk to me about how they become a part of the diversity and inclusion journey…”

The fact that proactively people are thinking about this and engaging me, engaging my team to have these conversations, like how do we design an office for inclusion? What does that look like? That’s an amazing kind of conversation to be had.

That’s one fundamental difference that I’m starting to see. I’m starting to see, one of the other things that I’ve seen and I don’t know if this — I haven’t lived here before March — but I’ve had many white, straight, Cis men come and talk to me about how they become a part of the diversity and inclusion journey, than I would have ever expected at any company that early on in my journey.

So to see that kind of, like people raising their hands has been incredible.

Question: What are some things that are important to keep in mind when trying to build a product that spans cultures and countries?

Lee: What you have to keep in mind are the things that don’t immediately come to mind. We make an assumption — whenever we provide product updates within our organization, I’m always impressed by how differently people are thinking and one of my favourite examples is the example of Uber Lite.

We here in North America, we make all sorts of assumptions about the type of technology and the type of bandwidth that we have access to. But when you operate on such a global scale as we do, there are countries where people, yes, people are still on BlackBerries, people are on less than BlackBerries, people don’t have the same type of bandwidth access and we want to create a product that is available for everybody, because mobility is something that everybody struggles with.

“…when organizations are headquartered in North America, they kinda have a North American centrality to them.”

We’ve created Uber Lite that doesn’t require nearly the processing speed, that doesn’t require nearly the types of bandwidth to be able to access our tools and to see that kind of innovation coming from outside the U.S. — I believe Uber Lite was actually developed in India, because they have so many connectivity issues — it’s really wonderful to see that kind of diversity — and that’s not the representational diversity that you would see — that’s ensuring, and I think about it as a different dimension.

Oftentimes when organizations are headquartered in North America, they kinda have a North American centrality to them. But to know that we have a product that was designed outside, but that had the stability to make it to headquarters and everyone saw that responsiveness, that’s what I ultimately want to see.

“I think we can do more from an accessibility perspective and those conversations are certainly happening…”

Down to very small tweaks and changes. One of the changes that I’ve seen over the last year has been literally, and I always use this example because it’s so relevant to me, you look at our product and you look at the Uber app and we’ve changed our font size. And people are like great Bo, yeah we’ve changed our font size and I said “No, no, no, you have to appreciate that by changing the font size, i.e. making it bigger, you literally opened up the app to a whole new population of people who may not be able to read that tiny little font.”

Whether it’s people who are low-vision, whether it is not blind, but low-vision, whether it’s people who are over the age of 40 and just have reading glasses and don’t carry them around everywhere, they can suddenly utilize that. To see that kind of designing for inclusiveness has really been refreshing and I know that I’m having conversations with…other leaders on our executive team about how do we design for more inclusion. I think we can do more from an accessibility perspective and those conversations are certainly happening, so I’m really happy about that.

Question: I want to shift a little bit away from diversity and inclusivity and maybe talk about the so-called bro culture that permeates — or that people think permeates — throughout Silicon Valley. In your experience, have you witnessed that bro culture issue in your time working in Silicon Valley?

Lee: I’ve certainly noticed certain behaviours that — one of the core things about me is that I find language like bro culture and things like that, I actually find it to be pejorative, because I’ve always said, no man is ever going to lean into diversity and inclusion when I turn to him and say you’re a bro and you have to stop being a bro. It doesn’t mean much and it can put them on the defensive. So what I would say, I’ve certainly seen some behaviours that I would deem more heteronormative, hypermasculine, certainly, but actually I haven’t seen as much of it as people actually think that there is.

What I’ve seen much more of within the tech sector pervasively and this is not just unique to Uber and something that we have to talk about is actually I’ve seen a lot more elitism and classism within the tech sector. Because you think about the kind of educational background a lot of our workforce needs to have, a lot of our programmers, a lot of our product engineers, a lot of our even people in [operations], they come from very great educational backgrounds, and access to those great educational backgrounds starts with access to other things early on in their life.

“…I’ve certainly seen some behaviours that I would deem more heteronormative hypermasculine…”

I think that what I see when I actually think from a cultural shift perspective that has to happen within the tech sector is we’re very singularly focused on gender in a lot of ways, but actually I believe that if we were to expand that definition to say really what is the class differentials that we have, the classes that are missing from the tech sector, if we were to expand the conversation, we’d actually probably make a lot more progress than simply focussing on things like the bro culture.

I’ve seen aspects of it, but I’ve seen that kind of bro culture, that kind of hypermasculine culture in so many other sectors, but few of those sectors have the types of challenges that we have here, and I think it’s because of some of these other dynamics.

Question: On the subject of privilege, how exactly do you think about privilege while doing your job?

Lee: I would say and just to your question, I gave you the example earlier of Uber Lite, because we recognize that it does take a certain amount of bandwidth and certain amount of access to the latest smartphone, so we didn’t want that to be the barrier. We did want Uber to be available to everybody and I think that that’s an example of this.

I think that, the conversation of privilege is always a difficult one, because regardless of how privileged people truly are, they don’t believe that they are. There’s a narrative particularly within North America, within Canada, within the U.S., where we want to believe that I’m successful because of my hard work and my own determination, and so one of the ways that I’ve actually — I really do want there to be more nuanced conversation about privilege, but one of the ways that you can flip that and actually make people much more open to it without becoming defensive is to not focus on the things that are the popular narrative.

So if you tell a white male you’re privileged because you’re a white male, they’re really going to shut down. Because I don’t know if that white male grew up poor, I don’t know if they grew up with a learning disability, I don’t know what their struggles were. Because to just simply tell them, you’re a white male and therefore you have privilege.

“…regardless of how privileged people truly are, they don’t believe that they are.”

But if I go into a room full of people and say to them, how many of you ever have to think about how you present yourself — a group of people who I know from appearance that they’re Cis-gender, meaning that they identify as the gender they were assigned at birth — I say how many of you have to start your day, everyday, thinking about how you’re going to present yourself gender-wise to the world.

Everyone’s like, I never have to think about that, and you’re like, that’s what privilege looks like. If you’re able to talk about privilege from a different lens, it makes that conversation around things like gender and race, privilege, much easier because people do realize, oh I am privileged. Being a woman who’s five-foot-seven, which I totally recognize is the U.S.-based way of measurement, that’s a privilege, I’m a tall woman and that’s a privilege to me and I talk about it.

So we do have to talk about privilege, but we have to talk about it in much more nuanced ways than we currently do.

Question: I don’t want to say that the industry is going through its own ‘Me Too’ moment, but with events like the November 1st, 2018 Google walkouts, it sort of seems Silicon Valley — the tech industry, the tech sector — is coming to terms with inherent systemic issues that have been there since time immemorial. Is that an accurate description of the situation?

Lee: I would reframe things a little bit there. You mentioned the ‘Me Too’ movement and it’s not like Silicon Valley is the only industry that’s being hit by that Me Too movement. You see radical transformation in the entertainment sector, you see radical transformation happening in all companies. And before I joined Uber, I was at about as buttoned up and conservative of an organization as you can get, within the insurance sector, and they were talking about the Me Too movement and what it meant for them and insuring that there were no liabilities that would emerge from there.

So I think that everybody is confronted with the Me Too movement, and I’m happy that it emerged, because it thrust forward a reality that women were experiencing that there was a lot of invisibility around. I think fundamentally it was a great — it as a needed conversation to be had. I do think that to your point and to your question, it has accelerated — what I would say, there was always a conversation, but it has accelerated action and for lots of different reasons. A moral obligation, liability, productivity, creativity, innovation, that kind of stuff, it accelerated that conversation.

“…it’s not like Silicon Valley is the only industry that’s being hit by that Me Too movement.”

Fundamentally, I think that it was a productive and needed conversation to have, I don’t think it was unique to Silicon Valley, but I do think that Silicon Valley has certainly much more of a spotlight because of the transformative nature of the stuff that we create. We literally work differently, we literally live differently than we did 10, 15 years ago because of the smartphone.

I always tell people, I don’t know how working parents did it before smartphones. I literally run my entire household off of my phone. So it transformed the way that we live our lives and so therefore, there is much more of a public focus on it. Everything that we’re struggling with is there on the forefront and I think that’s why we’re seeing it. It was fundamentally, I think, a net positive in terms of accelerating the conversations that have needed to be had.

Question: Uber itself has experienced its own scrutiny. What is Uber doing to try and solve some of those issues that seem to be pervasive to Uber specifically under previous leadership?

Lee: I think if there is silver lining of 2017, the Me Too movement came a little bit earlier to us. So the conversations began a year, a year and a half, two years before it hit larger society. We had the opportunity to really begin having the hard conversations earlier on. I would say more recently the conversations that we’ve been having has been “Are we still doing the right thing?”

Obviously, when you have a crisis at the level that we saw in 2017 that’s going to obviously lead to a lot of action, a lot of commitment, and there is the risk when that happens is that, people are going to get tired. People are going to say “Are we done yet?” And one of the perspectives that I’ve been able to bring to Uber has really been, I’ve been doing this work for a really long time, and I said the organizations that get it, they get it for a long time. They get it because they’ve been focused on it for five, 10, 15 years. And so, I’ve said, as much as people wanna be done with it, there is no done with it.

How do we build that sustainability? So the conversations that we’re having now is “Are we doing the things to build that longevity, that sustainability, and to ensure that the people who are champions, that are really leaning in, don’t get burnt out in the process.

Question: How exactly is Uber making sure it’s not just a room full of straight, white, Cisgender men making these decisions that affect the rest of the company?

Lee: I think one of the most powerful things that we have in our organization are a robust network of 15 employee resource groups (ERG). And our employee resource groups aren’t simply groups that are being empowered to throw a happy hour or to throw a celebration, we have said to them you are part of the culture transformation journey, and you have to, when you see — if you want to see us accelerating something, raise your hand, let us know, talk to us. Almost every single of our executive leadership team is an executive sponsor to one of our ERGs.

“…we wanted the executive leadership team to be having conversations not just…in a room full of other leaders who are mostly male.”

We really made that, I wouldn’t say mandate because it’s not a mandate, but we’ve really made that connection because we wanted the executive leadership team to be having conversations not just to your point in a room full of other leaders who are mostly male. We wanted to make sure that they were having the conversations directly with the population that’s being impacted by some of our policies and changes.

So we have groups around parenting, we have race-based groups, we have gender-based groups, we have groups focused on socioeconomic diversity on immigrants, on interfaith dialogue, and those individuals can tell us, “Hey, you guys, this is something you can be doing better.” Without that kind of ear to the ground, we would not — our solutions would all not be as optimized.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Lee: One thing that I find fascinating is I’ve been doing a lot of research around the differential tech environments here within Canada and within the U.S., and I think one of the things that’s fascinating to me is in most other industries — I’ve had a long history of working with many different companies and I’ve typically seen actually Canadian companies having better overall diversity, representation than their U.S. arms.

But oddly enough in tech, it’s kind of reversed. Look at the number of women graduating from STEM-based university degrees. The number in Canada I think is about 24 percent. The number in Canada is 24 percent, wherein in the U.S., it’s about 37 percent. And in some of the top-tier schools in North America, like M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, all the computer science programs are 50 percent now.

“…I’ve typically seen actually Canadian companies having better overall diversity…”

It’s curiosity, so something to just talk about, like it’s curiosity, why in this one STEM sector we’re actually seeing Canada lagging behind, especially because in most other sectors, in other industries, Canada actually leads quite often the representation of women. So that’s more of a curiosity for me, more than anything else, as to why that exists. Certainly Uber, we’re really doubling down on our investment here, we really see Toronto being a hub for STEM. We wanna be part of the solution for that.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.