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Can Arianna Huffington Save Uber?

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Ariana Huffington speaks on stage during a conference in 2016 in New York City. She's taking a bigger role at Uber.

Uber is in crisis. This week the president resigned, after just six months on the job. Morale has been shaken following a damning account of sexual harassment. The board of directors is so concerned about the CEO's ability to lead, they're looking for a No. 2 to help steer the company.

And now — in a curious plot twist — media mogul Arianna Huffington is emerging as chief of Uber's campaign for "culture change."

The company decided to hold a conference call on Tuesday with reporters.

Huffington, who joined the board of Uber almost a year ago, led the call and explained at the outset that the purpose was "not to create yet more headlines."

Uber employees tell NPR they've seen a dramatic shift in Huffington's leadership. For the first several months of her tenure, she had not been a high profile presence at the company. Then about four weeks ago, a female engineer who was a former employee wrote a detailed open letter alleging she was sexually harassed and management refused to step in. Huffington decided to step up.

She suddenly appeared at the weekly all-hands staff meeting. And she's counseling CEO Travis Kalanick. She told reporters, "Going forward there can be no room at Uber for brilliant jerks."

Interestingly, not a single man from Uber was on the call. Kalanick and other men were busy interviewing candidates for the position of chief operating officer, so the work of explaining the company commitment to clean up became women's work.

Though Huffington said it's "exciting" to have so many "amazing women" on the call. They are real leaders at the company, not actresses put on for a show. "It's not like we got them from central casting," she said.

"We have to wait and see what Uber does next," says Rosabeth Kanter, a culture change expert at Harvard Business School. "Having three or four women appear to speak for Uber, which has never had a female presence visible before, could be just tokenism and it doesn't really signal change. We have to see what the men do."

There is a lot to do. If sexual harassment were the only problem at Uber, Kanter argues, they could fix it and she "wouldn't worry about it so much."

But Uber's got a lot of relationships to repair: with passengers, who recently reacted against the company with a #DeleteUber campaign; with the more than 600,000 people in the U.S. alone who drive for the company, many of whom feel mistreated; and with local elected leaders, some of whom say Uber is illegal.

"It's such a fascinating example of growing big in terms of market valuation, and yet managing to offend nearly every stakeholder," Kanter says. Uber was recently valued at nearly $70 billion.

It is not the first Silicon Valley company started by young men — so-called "bro-grammers" — who needed to grow up. But Uber is different from, say, Google and Facebook (which have had their share of meltdowns) because Uber is far more reliant on outside partnerships. So, Kanter says, they've got to be that much more emotionally intelligent. The bar is higher.

"There's so much more to do than just having a female presence and some ways to make sure that the young guys know how to treat women appropriately," she says.

On the call with women leaders, one of them did talk about drivers specifically. Rachel Holt, head of Uber's U.S. and Canada business, said Uber leaders need to "bring more humanity" to the way they interact with drivers.

While Huffington is committed to holding the CEO and management's feet to the fire, as a board member, she's indicated she is not interested in the open position for COO or another staff role. A spokesperson for her tells NPR she has her own company to run. Perhaps fittingly, it's a company with a mission to end stress and burnout.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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