Welcome to Oakland, Uber: A Few Tips For the Big Move

Rendering of the new Uptown Station courtesy of Lane Partners.

Dear Uber,

We hear you recently discovered -- in a very Christopher Columbus sense of the word -- the city of Oakland.

Like so many former San Franciscans before you, you noticed that this land just on the other side of the bay offers so many perks: more space, (slightly) cheaper rent, a sense of community; it's a place where a middle-class family can, for the time being, still raise a family. It's also plagued by severe poverty in some neighborhoods, and the crime rates that usually accompany an atmosphere in which people are willing to do anything to put dinner on the table.

Noting this, you might have been expecting to be welcomed with open arms when you announced you'd be expanding your business into Oakland in 2017, with your purchase of the historic former Sears building downtown.  With room for 3,000 employees, filling the entire building would easily make you the biggest  business in town that isn't a government agency or medical center. Surely Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has very publicly been courting tech companies since her election last November, has rolled out the red carpet on her end.

"We're proud that Uber was attracted to Oakland's creative energy, incredible talent, progressive values, prime location and accessibility to the entire region," said Schaaf in a statement yesterday. "I also look forward to helping Uber make other meaningful contributions to Oakland that will make this a more equitable, vibrant city where everyone can thrive.” She then appeared at a press conference alongside Uber's Renee Atwood ("Global Head of People and Places"), each of 'em smiling wide to announce the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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It was at this press conference, dear Uber, that you may have gotten a taste of one reason why the rest of Oakland -- which is to say, the people of Oakland, the moms and dads and teenagers and toddlers who live and work and go to school here -- may not be ready to throw you a welcome party.

When a reporter asked Atwood for current numbers on diversity among Uber employees -- numbers that reflect the male/female balance and the ethnic makeup of the company's workforce -- she deflected it by noting that Uber "just got health insurance" for its employees. Asked again, specifically, for the number of African-Americans amongst Uber's ranks, Atwood stumbled, saying "We're just not at a point to help -- we just don't have those numbers right now." She did know that one in five Uber employees currently lives in Oakland.

She might not have had other numbers in front of her. Or maybe the other numbers just wouldn't sound so good during a press conference. Uber, which WNYC recently described as "a giant corporation valued at $50 billion and without a single African-American on its leadership team," has been consistently reluctant to release data about the makeup of its employee base, which currently consists of about 170,000 drivers in addition to some 2000 workers at the company's San Francisco headquarters.***

So! Uber. With your numbers set to potentially double over the next year, assuming you plan to fill up your new Oakland turf, we thought we'd send over a few ideas. Here are some ways to make friends in your new neighborhood:

Learn the incredibly rich history and culture of the city, in a way that goes beyond PR-speak. We shouldn't need to tell you this, but Oakland was the birthplace of the Black Panthers; the city has been one of the nation's historic African-American centers for over 100 years, in large part thanks to the railroad expansion in the late 19th century. Now, "black flight" is real and it's happening. Consider hiring in such a way that the ethnic makeup of your workforce reflects the city in which they work. In Oakland, this means nearly 30 percent African-American and 25 percent Latino. There are many, many organizations that will help you do this, if you are having trouble.

In the same vein, Oakland has a longstanding tradition of social and political activism, and you're not going to get away with ignoring it. Long before Occupy Oakland, this meant labor unions, which we hear you're not too fond of. If you're not going to give your drivers benefits (a whole other, well-covered can of worms), try partnering with local social justice organizations. Make your year-end donations public. Pay for arts education in Oakland's schools. Establish a mentorship program for underserved youth who want to be engineers. And yeah, pre-emptively, we're sorry (kind of?) about whatever happens to your windows during the next protest.

 Get to know your neighbors. As a first step, don't structure your corporate environment in such a way that employees never have to go outside. Much has been made of plans to renovate the 19th Street BART station (to which the new Uber building is adjacent) into a multi-level retail and work space, with food options, a roof garden, and more. Meet Uptown Station:

"Urban pioneers"? Cool story, Lane Partners. Except that this isn't exactly uncharted rural territory. Downtown Oakland is a real place, with real residents and employees who already exist. A multiplex like Uptown Station means employees who work at the new Oakland Uber location won't have to take one step outside onto Broadway, nor interact with a single regular Oakland resident, if they don't want to. Even your current employees in downtown San Francisco have to walk about a block and a half on Market to get to their safe zone. Not Oakland Uber-ers: They can avoid homeless people entirely.

How to combat this? Try having happy hour at Cafe Van Kleef -- even if you've got a lovely new roof garden. Buy your coffee from a local shop. Take in a show at the New Parish or the Stork Club. The physical structure of a business impacts its culture impacts its impact. That sums it up, actually: Think about what you're doing. Think about who it affects. Think about what trailblazing actually means. Thoughtfulness goes a long way in these parts.

Oh, and please lock CEO Travis Kalanick in a room somewhere and don't let him talk anymore. That has nothing to do with Oakland. It'd probably just be good for business in general.

Love,

Emma

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***The closest thing to official numbers come from a report Uber commissioned the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct by polling drivers from 20 different markets back in January. The results boasted that Uber's "driver-partners" were 18 percent African-American, 15 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 16 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 37 percent Caucasian. Only problem? Those numbers come from a poll of 601 drivers...out of 170,000. The 2000 employees at SF headquarters were not included. 

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