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Uber’s Yaara Alon-Redl On Diversity by Design

By GAN Integrity (Updated )

Here at GAN Integrity, we firmly believe in doing the right thing and we are inspired by those who show leadership in this field.

As part of our CCO Conversations interview series, we spoke with Yaara Alon-Redl, Senior Legal Counsel at Uber. Yaara has been publicly championing the idea of “Diversity by Design” as a crucial aspect of Uber’s corporate social responsibility agenda and indeed encouraging others to follow suit. We were intrigued by the notion of “Diversity by Design” and recently spoke at length with Yaara about the concept.

Yaara is a Senior Legal Counsel at Uber focusing on transactions and commercial-related work cutting across different business lines and products in the Western Southern Europe region, where she also co-leads the Women of Uber group. Prior to joining Uber, Yaara was a legal director at an international e-commerce and logistics startup company. Prior to that she served as a legal adviser to the OECD Secretary-General and worked as a lawyer in a leading international law firm advising on finance, banking, and cross-border operations. She holds a Master's degree from Columbia University and also spent some time working in the UN HQ Legal division in New York. She was admitted to both Paris and Israel Bar Associations. Yaara joined the ride-sharing giant Uber in early 2017. Since then, she has spoken at various conferences and panels on a variety of topics including her views on diversity, AI, and the future of the legal profession.

During the interview, we discussed the initiatives Yaara has launched at Uber, her very personal motivations for doing so, and her advice to others who wish to inspire change in their organizations.

A Conversation About Diversity by Design

Chris Terwisscha van Scheltinga (CTvS): Hi Yaara, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. To jump right into it: could you very briefly explain what “Diversity by Design” is?

Yaara Alon (YA): Diversity by Design complements the internal perspective of diversity with an external perspective. Let me explain: the traditional paradigm of diversity and inclusion as it is perceived and practiced by companies is often seen as a matter of internal policies, mainly relating to HR practices and representation in boards and leadership positions. 

There are very good reasons for employing this perspective: diversity is indeed key to companies on many levels and it has already become clear that diverse and inclusive companies are more creative, profitable, and are generally experienced as better places to work in and, indeed, do better in retaining talent. This, however, is but a first step. When I started reflecting on the matter, I realized that in order to have a meaningful social and cultural impact, diversity should be practiced “Inside-Out”, creating a meeting point between personnel and product.

How can one argue that a company is truly diverse and inclusive when its product is not? I think that the time has come for diversity to be reflected in the product we are offering to the public thereby exploring ways and means to further extend the scope of the impact we can have on our target audiences.

Nowadays, global tech companies have immense power– they have access and exposure to a large, and by definition, quite diversified audience. I think we can - and indeed should - play a role in changing public perceptions and act as an agent of change to serve the very real needs of the communities in which we operate.

Diversity by Design, therefore, translates to three main pillars: diversity in product, driving material changes and affecting a difference in perceptions.

CTvS: Could you tell us how “Diversity by Design” is reflected at Uber in practice?

YA: At Uber, diversity and inclusion are inherent in many aspects of our activities across products. Real-life examples may bring the point (and the passengers) home in the best way. 

Let’s think about safety, surely a major concern: technology can make travel safer than ever before and at Uber, we naturally take safety very seriously. The French market provides, by way of example, an excellent context: 62% of our users in Paris are women; women use Uber because it is convenient and because they feel safe. Indeed, in most cases, safety comes before pricing. In France, as in all other countries where we operate, our mobile application includes safety features that allow users to share the details of their trip or directly call 112 in case of emergency. This has a direct impact on both safety itself and on its perception.

Safety also has an important impact on payment parity. Naturally, driving at night with the Uber app is more profitable. If women drivers feel unsafe driving at night or lack the tools to protect themselves, they are structurally prone to earn less than their male peers. At Uber, we work on various initiatives to provide women drivers the tools to potentially manage aggressive behaviors so they can feel safer and drive freely with the app, also during the night.

Extending the example to other corners of the world, and further exploring the link between safety and independence, we can see that in some countries our product particularly allows women to be more mobile and financially independent. This is the case in Saudi Arabia since the driving ban was lifted about a year ago: women can now leave the house without asking a ride from their husbands or other men in their family because they can take a ride with a female driver or even become drivers themselves thus achieving mobility in terms of both physical and financial independence.

Then another pillar of Diversity by Design has to do with countering traditional biases in a manner that changes public perceptions, albeit subtly. Think of megalopolises; big urban centers which are, by definition, hubs of pluralism. The impact of global tech companies with extensive public reach and exposure is immense. Beyond big media campaigns, we can, and do play a role in changing perceptions on a scale that is perhaps smaller in scope but not in impact. 

Think, for instance, about the community of our partner-drivers who are engaged in driving a quite different and diverse crowd, say, people visiting Paris during fashion week. We are continuously engaged in ensuring - by design - that our commitment to diversified communities is met. For this purpose, we initiate and fund various preventive and awareness-raising campaigns, focusing on inclusion, respect, and dignity of both drivers and riders. 

We want to avoid situations where difference is not being accepted or respected, by either our drivers’ or riders’ communities.

CTvS: Are these initiatives all local to the French market or are these global initiatives?

YA: Many of our initiatives are global and local. One of our core values at Uber is that we build globally and live locally. Our global program dedicated to the fight against sexual violence, Driving Change, is a good example. ‘Driving Change’ includes partnerships that span five continents and sixteen countries to support survivors and help prevent gender-based violence. 

We partner with members of courageous, thought-leading organizations like RAINN, NO MORE, Women of Color Network Inc., and other organizations around the world to leverage our scale and scope to help drive awareness and societal change. This program is localized in France where we partner with NGOs that are completely dedicated to their communities: SOS homophobie for LGBTQ+ rights; Collectif féministe contre le viol that provides support, care and counsel to victims of sexual violence; and Handsaway that fights against street harassment and sexual violence.

CTvS: Let’s talk a little about you now. How did you end up in your current role at Uber and what inspired you to become an advocate for diversity?

YA: I joined Uber about 3 years ago and I am responsible for product and transaction-related work across the Western and Southern Europe regions, based in Paris.

I was born and raised in Israel and left about 14 years ago to pursue my Masters’ degree in law at Columbia University, NYC. This turned out to be not only an eye-opening experience in and of itself but also the starting point of an international career. Indeed, life happens when one has other plans: I was thinking at the time of pursuing an academic career in legal philosophy, and eventually decided to move to Paris following a job offer to practice law in a language I did not speak and in a field I wasn’t familiar with. As I was still in my reckless twenties, I accepted the offer. After a few years of working in finance for a private firm, I moved on to work for the OECD and later joined the tech industry.

In a sense, migration, between states, landscapes, and occupations, has been a defining, life-changing experience for me. As such, notions of belonging/alienation, inclusion/exclusion are not merely intellectually fascinating for me; they are inscribed on my very own personal experience. Add to that, the fact that I have always worked in a predominantly male environment, and it is little wonder that these are the lenses through which I look at the world and try to shed light on its darker corners.

On a more personal note, I am married to a woman and as we happily raise our little boys I realized that I am spending quite some time and energy adapting bureaucratic and other forms to fit our family (instead of father and mother, parent 1 and parent 2 and so on). This is a very familiar, as mundane as it is maddening, experience. It is not only that a central aspect of one’s identity is rendered invisible, but that this invisibility is denied; the form pretends to be neutral. Yet, it never is and the pretense merely adds insult to injury.

In retrospect, I think that the idea of “Diversity by Design” came from this routine battle. Tony Morrison referred to it as “the bluest eye”; I refer to it as “the blindest eye”. It is the same thing: we want to be seen; to be included in the “gaze”. Invisibility by institutional power can and should be replaced by visibility by emotional intelligence backed by technological and conscientious design. The latter is a tool as powerful as it is underutilized in changing power structures.

It is important to note the universality of the experience of being excluded. I think each one of us felt left-out, ignored, at one point in life whether personally or professionally. It is this human, all too human experience that has the potential to affect both our sense and sensibilities.

CTvS: It probably doesn’t need to be said, but driving change from inside an organization is obviously a thing that can be hard to do. What would you say to others who may be inspired to set up similar initiatives in their companies?

YA: Go for it! It is exhilarating and meaningful. It is also rational: I am a lawyer at Uber and also co-lead the Women at Uber group which aims at creating and enhancing an inclusive environment at Uber. So what I am doing with respect to Diversity by Design may not be directly connected to the narrow scope of my work as a lawyer, but a narrow scope correlates with narrow mindedness. Think big, but think logically: be coherent with the vision, objectives, and ethos of the company. This is the real scope.

Put differently, and perhaps in more concrete terms, I invite each of us to think how the activity, what the company does, may actually be used to make a positive change in people's lives. What is the leverage that you have? What is the change you can actually create that is either related directly to your business or enhances something with which you are already engaged with?

Let me conclude this point by giving a small example that makes for a big change: one of the local initiatives at Uber in France basically capitalizes on the fact that our community of drivers is deployed and circulates during the night. We realized that drivers can serve as witnesses, as our eyes in the street or even better, as guardian angels during the night. Our partnership with an association called “HandsAway” allows women to report sexual harassment in real-time and get a free Uber ride to a safe place or to file a complaint. What I particularly like about this initiative is that it also empowers drivers to be agents of change themselves.

CTvS: It is no secret that Uber has struggled with ethics and is in a sense still dealing with many of these issues. Do you feel that those circumstances led to a higher level of receptiveness at Uber to your initiatives?

YA: What I really appreciate is that when you’re going through hard times, not just at Uber, but in life, it is a great opportunity to reflect. I think at Uber this is something that we have done and continue to do very very well. We do not just “do”; we reflect on what we are doing and on the impact that we can have. The ability, indeed responsibility to relate action, in the sense of “know-how” to thought, is, so far at least, a uniquely human activity. At Uber, we are engaged in it and are encouraged to be thus engaged.

CTvS: How do you see the connection between Diversity by Design and the compliance field?

YA: I see Diversity by Design as an integral aspect of corporate social responsibility. It is not necessarily “hard” compliance, but it is something that is crucial to companies. I see it more as “soft” compliance and as a question of creating and retaining competitive advantages. 

People would like to work in companies that are, and have an interest in being more diverse. It has been proven that such companies have a better chance to succeed, to attract and retain talent, and to be more profitable. Compliance is best achieved by the coupling of competition with compassion. It signals the shift from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. It is a welcomed shift.

CTvS: Lastly, do you have one key bit of advice to start the process of instilling a culture of ethics in your organization? 

YA: It is definitely a multi-layered process that should be looked at both bottom-up and top-down; both from within and from without the company. One thing that is no breaking news but is nevertheless crucial enough to be repeated as often as necessary is the importance of ensuring coherence between the narrative and the modus operandi of the company both internally and externally. The north star is not merely part of the galaxy; it is a grand metaphor written into the DNA of the company entwining its core values and principles with its operations.

More CCO Conversations

We want to thank Yaara for taking the time to speak with us about these important topics. We hope you found her insights as valuable and inspiring as we do. To learn more about compliance at Uber, check out our whistleblower webinar with Careem, an Uber subsidiary and ride-sharing giant of the Middle East. 

If you enjoyed reading our conversation, you may also be interested in our interview with Edward Hanover, FIFA’s former CCO, or our conversation with Kim Yapchai, CCEO at Tenneco, a Fortune 200 automotive manufacturer.

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