Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, the chief technology officer of Uber rattled off an explosive email meant for a small group of employees that quickly spread like wildfire within the company, Business Insider has learned.
In the message, CTO Thuan Pham blasted Trump as a “deplorable person” and called his election a huge step backward – even comparing it to the rise of ruthless dictators such as Mao Zedong in China and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after the Vietnam War.
The email was being circulated internally among employees again in the past week, as Uber has come under fire for its link to the Trump administration. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was recently named as one of 19 executives who will advise President Trump on economic issues, joining Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger.
The visceral reaction by a top executive at one of the world’s most valuable private companies reflects Silicon Valley’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with a president who is deeply unpopular within the industry. Even Uber, whose outspoken CEO and aggressive business tactics have long courted controversy, appears to be divided by a crisis of conscience within the ranks as some employees weigh the costs of being perceived as a pro-Trump shop.
Uber’s ties to the Trump administration made headlines on Friday after protesters barricaded the doors of its San Francisco headquarters to denounce Uber’s “collaboration” with Trump.
At the weekly Uber all-hands meeting on Tuesday, Kalanick addressed the Trump issue and the blowback it had created for the company. Kalanick pushed back against the criticisms, explaining that he was joining many other business leaders on Trump’s council looking to create job opportunities and to improve urban mobility:
“The CEO of Disney, the CEO of IBM, the CEO of GM, the CEO of Uber, the CEO of Tesla, and maybe 15 other companies you’ve heard of … We have a party – our political party is called the Urban Mobility Party. The shorthand is UMP. We’re a coalition party; we’ll partner with anyone in the world as long they’re about making transportation in cities better, creating job opportunities, making it easier to get around, getting pollution out of the air and traffic off the streets. And so that’s what this is about. It’s about the leaders we have to work with around the world, not just here in the United States but everywhere. And being optimistic – asking can we make urban mobility better? But does it [the board/protests] make great headlines? Of course.”
Still, employees are “pissed” that they are being connected to Trump, whose comments about immigrants and women have upset many people, one insider at the company said.
“Uber takes great pride in their diversity, and being connected to Trump paints a bad image about us,” the person said. While Kalanick’s association with Trump is an affront to some employees, for many others the worry is that the company is now viewed as being aligned with Trump – a reputation they believe is unjustified and does not reflect the opinions of employees and executives.
‘I am embarrassed’
- Alexei Oreskovic/BI
On Friday, when protesters chained themselves to Uber’s front door, the company emailed its employees advising them to work from home but pointedly avoided commenting on the fact that Uber was being targeted because of its connection to Trump, calling it “an election-related, anti-Uber protest.”
Uber responded publicly to the protest, saying it was looking forward to working with the new administration as it did the Obama administration: “As a company we’re committed to working with government on issues that affect riders, drivers and the cities where we operate. Just as we worked with the Obama Administration, we’ll work with the Trump Administration, too.”
One employee who supported the national protests against Trump remains upset that the company is being viewed as pro-Trump and targeted as well. “I am embarrassed that my CEO’s actions have caused people outside the company to view me as collaborating with this unreasonable administration,” the employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because employees are not authorized to speak to the press. “I am not in a position to leave my job, but I’ll be watchful for signs of direct collaboration.”
Kalanick has yet to meet Trump, according to the company, despite being named to the president’s 19-member Strategic and Policy Forum. When Trump held a summit with tech leaders in December, Kalanick kept his travel plans to go to India. Some view his appointment to the economic advisory council as a necessary step for the business.
“I think Uber is full of nonideological pragmatic capitalists who realize that autonomous vehicles will have enormous regulatory hurdles to overcome (some legitimate, some nostalgic),” a former employee said. “As such, working with Trump’s administration is about securing the future and making sure that stupid laws aren’t passed. Put another way, there’s a lot of stupid and ignorant rules that can be put in place by crony protectionists, and Travis’s involvement is a hedge against that possible outcome.”
‘I will not even utter the name of this deplorable person’
The company’s ties to Trump remain an ongoing conversation. One employee said the subject had come up often in conversations with leaders, as it did again in Tuesday’s all-hands meeting.
“Most people I know at work are deeply disturbed by what’s going on with the US government, myself included,” another employee said. “I’m proud of our company’s efforts to support marriage equality and reduce racial discrimination. I believe that we’ll do the right thing [with] the Trump administration as well. As much as we can anyway.”
Despite the outward appearance of working with the administration on economic efforts, it’s clear that there is still a shadow of the election hanging over the company.
Pham’s missive, which was sent sometime after the November election to an internal Uber email list for LGBTQ employees that’s estimated to have “hundreds” of subscribers, continues to circulate. It was also shared in an internal chat room. Though the note is proof that the company wasn’t all in Trump’s corner, one source at the company felt it was still inappropriate for an executive to spout off political beliefs.
“He is probably one of the most loved employees, and this was a lapse of judgment,” the source said. “If you read up on Thuan, he is a refugee from Vietnam, so a lot of the rhetoric really hits home for him.”
While Kalanick might have to keep close ties with the administration for the good of the company, Pham’s email – and his pledge to never even utter Trump’s name – is an example of a company’s internal struggle to come to terms with this administration. Here is the message, which seems to have been in response to a previous email:
Likewise, I could hardly sleep at night. I am still shocked and numbed from the absolutely illogical outcomes of this election. When the election outcome certifies the dumbing down of America, the racist, divisive and hateful attitudes, the politics of obstruction and destruction, our country has taken a huge step backward that might take decades to course correct (especially when it comes to the make up of the Supreme Court justices and the issues that will come before them).
It is absolutely illogical and insane to believe that we can solve the hardest diplomatic, policy, and societal problems by putting in charge a person who doesn’t know much about any such thing. How can we sleep peaceful at night for the next 4 years knowing that the biggest societal problems rests on his lack of intellectual curiosity, judgment and temperament? It is indeed terrifying! This is an emperor with no clothe [sic], and things will get very ugly before his reign is over.
We can weep at this momentary loss, but we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in misery for long. We need to call up our inner resolve to get back up and keep fighting for a better world. The fight will be hard and long, but we just have to do it. In two years, all the people who were conned into voting for this person will see the harm he will have done and there will be an opening to move the Senate toward the blue side to check his power. And then we’ll have to work hard to make sure the next president in 4 years will be a Democrat and wins in a landslide.
Unless this ignoramus triggers a nuclear holocaust that wipes out civilization as we know it, the long arc of history will continue to bend toward more social justice and equality and a better lives [sic] for people around the world. We are already living in a far more tolerant and inclusive world today than 50 years ago, than 100 years ago, etc… And the quality of life and comfort for an average person today already far exceeds the Kings and Queens just a few centuries ago (we have telephone, electricity, modern medicines, car & plane transportation, etc.). But we all need to keep charging forward to create and fight for the future that we want, technologically and socially.
Occasionally, the world takes a step backward with such things as world wars, Mao Tse-dong, Khmer Rouge, Darfur, W. Bush and his wars, etc., and now this. But I am optimistic that the world will correct itself, even if [sic] takes another catastrophe for American [sic] to usher in the next Obama as our president. In the mean time, for the next four years, I will not even utter the name of this deplorable person because I do not accept him as my leader. I will instead do everything I can to help defeat him and his destructive agenda over the next few years.
Time to put on our Champion’s Mindset and pick ourselves off the floor. There is much work that we can do to help make this world a better place, through what we do here at work and in our society.