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Amit Jain: The man with a missionary zeal

LiveMint logoLiveMint 21-05-2017 Aparna Piramal Raje

Amit Jain’s office ticks every box in my “Silicon Valley workplace design” checklist. The chief executive officer of the Indian operations of Uber, the global ride-sharing company, operates in a typically Californian, technology-led work environment—but is located in an upmarket office block in Gurugram, Haryana.

Mandatory Silicon Valley-style security means signing a non-disclosure agreement before entering the space. As expected, the office is open-plan, with zero cabins. Jain’s stand-alone desk, populated only by an Apple desktop and a few books, is in a quiet corner of the office, next to a meeting room. “I try to propagate a culture of transparency and collaboration. No one has offices or cubicles, it’s like this everywhere (in Uber offices across the world),” he says. The sofa and coffee table behind his desk are used more by colleagues looking for a quiet space than him; Jain says he prefers meeting rooms for structured discussions, or just stands at his desk for shorter exchanges with team members.

The open-plan Uber office in Gurugram. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Growing pangs

What I really want to explore, though, is what’s not on the checklist. I especially want to know if I’m likely to encounter any elements of Uber’s notoriously pugilistic culture. Conflict with myriad stakeholders, at any given point, seems to be a way of life for Uber, which would appear to generate almost as many headlines as US President Donald Trump. It is a company almost universally loved by its customers, and often just as passionately loathed by everyone else, including a subset of its drivers, employees, local governments and regulators, across the globe.

I wonder if Jain’s workplace will offer any clues to this dichotomy. The 41-year-old and his team moved into the office in October, when they outgrew their previous space, also in Gurugram. For Jain, the new office represents the Uber ethos: to “grow in a very empowered and decentralized way, where each of our 450 cities (in 76 countries) is led by an empowered general manager, not just in India, but across the world”.

In India, Uber operates in 29 cities. “The office design was inspired by Uber’s other offices, but it was completely independent in terms of decision making.... (Uber co-founder) Travis (Kalanick) is into the details, and at the same time he is a very, very empowering leader. He will let you do what you have to do to grow the business,” says Jain.

Graphic design captures this go-getting spirit. “Stay humble, hustle hard,” says a small poster on a wall facing Jain’s desk, expressing a popular start-up dictum to keep moving ahead at all costs.

The dynamic spirit is further reinforced by a list of official company values (as many as 14 described in detail) placed at the office entrance. They include “Superpumped”, “Always be hustling,” “Let Builders Build”, “Celebrate Cities” and “Principled Confrontation”. Companies often proclaim their values but at Uber India they seem to present a genuine road map for the future.

The start-up hustler

Jain speaks three languages—that of a start-up hustler, of an experienced technology operations hand, and a zealot.

First, like the poster facing his desk, he speaks like a “start-up hustler”. Uber’s growth rate is encapsulated in its head-count expansion. Three years ago, the company employed less than 1,000 people globally; today it has 30,000 employees, says Jain. The India office is keeping pace. “We were only 20 people when we moved in. Now we’re 200 and we’re already outgrowing our office in less than 12 months,” he says. “The pace at which we’ve grown, the scrappiness, the hustle have been tremendous and have helped us come to where we are at the speed where we are, the world over.”

Jain’s vocabulary, on the other hand, reflects the solid pragmatism of an experienced operations hand, committed to quality as well as scale. An Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, graduate, Jain joined Uber two years ago after spending nearly two decades in the US. He earned a master’s in business administration from Stanford University, and took on operations roles with consulting firm McKinsey, private equity firm TPG Capital and Internet real-estate firm Rent.com.

Jain’s operations mindset highlights the technological prowess that sustains Uber’s expansion. “Growth comes with its own unique challenges, from processes, from checks and balances, from quality. How do you ensure your quality of service continues to grow as you grow? How do you scale people fast and continue to ensure that culture that you want to build is consistent and continues to grow with the team? All those aspects were new and different for me,” he acknowledges, adding that he leans extensively on data for decision making, rather than relying merely on gut instinct.

Finally, Jain’s missionary zeal is inescapable. Like Kalanick, he evangelizes Uber’s “anti-car, pro-ride-sharing” gospel, framing it as part of a larger purpose to improve cities.

“‘Celebrate Cities’ is a very important value for me. It is about how we embed ourselves in the fabric of the cities, how we become part of the transportation system, and do whatever it takes to make cities even better…. We are very, very passionate about the impact we are looking to make in our cities….We’ve got an opportunity where you can skip car ownership completely and leapfrog to ride-sharing,” Jain insists.

The trouble with disruptive monopolies

This trio of perspectives—an entrepreneurial, tech-driven and zealous culture—helps to explain how Uber seeks global dominance. The company’s lofty civic agenda, however, is founded firmly on the premise of financial gain. “We are in 450 cities, we are profitable in many of them, we know how to make this model work to get to a profit. In India, we know how to get our system to a profitable model,” Jain reiterates. Uber announced a loss of $2.6 billion (around Rs16,640 crore now) globally for the year 2016; figures for India were not declared.

Jain’s targets illustrate the company’s monolithic ambitions. If Uber meets its target of one million active drivers in India (currently at 200,000), Jain believes that “in a span of five years in India, we could be comparable, from an opportunity-creation perspective, to an Indian Railways, which has been in existence for over 150 years.”

That is what consumers want, and that is also when the problems start. When a private company aspires to be as reliable as running water, as Kalanick has often said in public, it becomes the private-sector equivalent of a government monopoly over a daily essential service. Although Jain is quick to remind me that Uber’s market share in India (as a percentage of all rides taken) is less than 1%, it has a chunky share of the Indian ride-sharing market, and is a dominant force in the US.

The situation reminds me of another disruptive tech company, once branded the “evil empire”: the multinational software company Microsoft. Remember how fashionable it was to hate it back in the 1990s? Perhaps every generation is destined to have its own version of Uber, a radical innovator, muscling its way to the top. As the value on the values wall reminds me, principled confrontation indeed. It says: “We believe deeply that Uber makes cities better but sometimes the world and its institutions need to change in order for the future to be ushered in.”

So we love them for their ubiquity, we loathe them for the pugilism that got them there, we wonder how long they can hold on to their positions.

*****

CEO-speak

On growth: Exciting, lots of potential and opportunity, and if you do the right thing for your riders and drivers, it will automatically happen.

On experimentation: I am empowered to experiment, fail fast, and I believe in data-based results to innovate.

On strategy: Execution beats strategy any day.

On competition: Competition is car ownership.

****

Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times

Uber’s controversial ride

The CEO tries to clear the air

An unusual door sticker welcomes me to Uber India’s corporate headquarters. With messages in both Hindi and English, the sticker states that company surveillance is taking place for security reasons, and that the footage will be stored for 30 days or longer, if required. The sticker is a voluntary piece of disclosure, but it also serves as a warning to visitors.

For a company that finds itself in as many skirmishes as Uber, this seems to be a prescient move. 

Uber India chief executive Amit Jain is ready to plough through the company’s full menu of controversies. “Let’s talk about specific incidents,” he says. We start with the sexual harassment blog in February by former employee Susan Fowler, detailing organization-wide sexism. The incidents described are “absolutely abhorrent”, and are being investigated at a very senior level, but they “are not widespread. This is not the experience of every woman in the firm”, insists Jain.

What about Uber’s “toxic” work culture, as the media dubbed it— one which has prompted several senior-level exits in recent months in the US? Even if they exist, these issues have not migrated overseas, Jain says. “We’ve got a very, very strong culture in India, one that is attracting the best talent and continues to attract new talent as well as continues to engage the existing talent to stay.”

For Jain, a bigger problem has been driver dissatisfaction with wages. Uber drivers, as well as those working with its main Indian competitor, Ola, went on strike earlier this year in Delhi and Bengaluru, only to be told by the courts to get back behind the wheel, and resolve their issues through dialogue. In fact, some media reports suggest a driver storm is brewing.

“Most of our driver-partners wanted to drive, to come on the platform and make a living. But a few individuals created an environment of fear, of intimidation, of violence. That strike period was not representative of the wider driver community,” Jain says, pointing out that drivers continue to sign up in the weeks following the strike.

As in the past, he stops shy of sharing actual driver earnings, the main bone of contention. “I wish I could give you an answer. There is so much variability,” he says. Choice of car model, number of hours worked, whether peak or off-peak, areas served, financing model—everything affects earnings, he says. Subsidies have come down, he acknowledges, “as we grow from a start-up to an investment phase to a sustainable phase”. The only non-negotiable is that “the driver’s net take-home earnings, through organic earnings and incentives, minus expenses, have to be the best alternative for the driver. If it’s not the best opportunity, then we don’t have a business,” he emphasizes.

We tried to test out this hypothesis through anecdotal interactions with a dozen drivers in Mumbai. A small sample base, but enough to discern common patterns. Most put in long hours but were happy with their earnings—they are getting more than they used to in their earlier jobs—although all of them said there were fewer incentives than earlier. Only one driver, however, touched the much vaunted Rs1 lakh monthly gross earnings figure (as Uber reportedly promised a few months ago). A more upmarket vehicle and better road knowledge fetched him continuous fares, reducing his idle time. In other words, take-home is not exceptional for the average Uber driver, but there’s a decent living to be made, for someone prepared to put in the hours.

While many women regard Uber as a safer travel option, passenger safety has also been an issue in the past. In November 2015, an Uber taxi driver was sentenced to life imprisonment for raping a woman passenger in Delhi in 2014. “Our focus, investment and commitment to safety is absolute,” Jain reiterates, describing the security checks and features that have been put in place to promote safety before, during and after rides.

As in other countries, Uber India has also collided with regulators. Jain offers a philosophical perspective. Technology disrupts, government regulations follow, often with a lag, and companies such as Uber have to be “proactive in getting everybody to the same outlook, where disruption is beneficial for society. We are absolutely confident we’ll do that,” he says.

No driving in slow gear for a market as large as India. 

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.

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