The Investor Who Took On Uber, And Silicon Valley : All Tech Considered In Silicon Valley, you're supposed to build businesses unapologetically. You're not supposed to speak out against injustice. Freada Kapor Klein breaks those rules.
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The Investor Who Took On Uber, And Silicon Valley

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The Investor Who Took On Uber, And Silicon Valley

The Investor Who Took On Uber, And Silicon Valley

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With Uber in upheaval, investors are hoping the company will pull it together and continue to make them money. Now we're going to hear about one Uber investor who also decided to try and turn this crisis into a teachable moment. NPR's Aarti Shahani has her story.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Let's rewind back to mid-March. Freada Kapor Klein has decided to write an open letter to Uber, which she published with her husband, after a young woman shared an explosive account of sexual harassment at Uber headquarters. Kapor Klein felt it was her duty to say what many knew - this is not a one-off. And it turns out her peers didn't like that.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: I could imagine that they wouldn't love the Uber letter. But then that they would decide that the next step they ought to go is go after our high-growth, hot startups and try to get them away from us.

SHAHANI: Kapor Klein is a venture capitalist, a VC. That means she makes money by betting on technology startups. She's learned that other VCs are trying to poach a startup she's backing. And to do it they're trash talking, basically saying she throws people under the bus.

KAPOR KLEIN: I mean, it's one thing to go pitch them. It's another to say, get away from Kapor. See? They're going to do this to you.

SHAHANI: This may be counterintuitive, but in Silicon Valley, the land that created tweeting, there is a code of silence among the rich. People are here to make money, not to agitate. Kapor Klein violated. But she won't back down. She tells me I should call a shortlist of very powerful VCs and demand their response on the record.

KAPOR KLEIN: Go to Sequoia. Go to Benchmark. Go to Kleiner. Go to Accel. Go to Andreessen. Go to Khosla.

SHAHANI: Back to that in a bit. We're in the Kapor Center, a four-story building in central Oakland, what's become the edge of Silicon Valley as tech expands. Kapor Klein goes in search of her husband, who's also her business partner. The second they meet she launches into her idea for my reporting.

KAPOR KLEIN: And I thought it would be great if she went and called up VCs and asked them what they thought about our Uber letter. What do you think?

SHAHANI: Mitch Kapor looks at his wife cross-eyed. He's a bit of a legend, by the way. In the 1980s he founded Lotus, the database maker. Some compare him to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Right now he happens to be meeting with the president of an influential bank who is right there, awkwardly staring at the floor. So she nudges that man - his name is Greg Becker - for his reaction.

GREG BECKER: People compete with any way they can, right? (Laughter) That's just...

KAPOR KLEIN: Yep.

BECKER: ...Unfortunately, that's human nature.

SHAHANI: Kapor Klein is not just poking to poke. She's playing a long game. Her life's work is to change the culture of Silicon Valley, a place she feels has gone backward in time. There are far fewer women in computer science today than in the 1980s. Blacks and Latinos are missing, too. She faults investors who hold on to a myth of meritocracy and have hokey sayings like...

KAPOR KLEIN: We don't care if you're orange or blue. The only color we care about is green.

SHAHANI: But if all Kapor Klein did was critique she'd be irrelevant here. This place values people who build things. And that is what she's doing. Her building feels like an alternate universe, one where tech somehow looks like the rest of America. On one floor there's the impact investment team.

ULILI ONOVAKPURI: Can you say valuation? (Laughter) Can you say IPO?

SHAHANI: Ulili Onovakpuri is teaching her baby niece industry speak and debating Kapor Klein on whether a startup that uses smartphones to watch patients take their medicine is worth the money. Onovakpuri was a teenager from a working-class family when she met the investor, who gave her a scholarship to Berkeley. Now the 32-year-old advises the health care portfolio.

ONOVAKPURI: Brrmmm-brrmmm (ph). Brrmmm-brrmmm.

SHAHANI: Around the corner, social scientists are running data on why people leave tech. They're looking for holes in the leaky pipeline, so to speak. Downstairs, Gabriel Chaparro, who's running a science and tech program for students of color at Stanford, shares a lesson he's drilling into the young minds.

GABRIEL CHAPARRO: You're going to step into places where there's a line of people and none of them look like you. But you have to take your space. You can't just look at that line and say, I don't fit in there. Make your fit.

SHAHANI: It's a very Silicon Valley way of being. It's how the Uber chief, Travis Kalanick, broke the yellow cab industry in city after city. I did approach leading investors, as Kapor Klein suggested, to get their take on Uber, her letter and what's the real problem. One was willing to go on the record.

JASON CALACANIS: To kind of blindside a company with a post like that means now the company not only has to solve the problem, they have to react to that position publicly.

SHAHANI: Jason Calacanis says Kapor Klein created a negative atmosphere, a media circus. And Calacanis says it takes a hard-charging CEO to build the Uber empire. Soft questions around culture and inclusive culture, that comes later.

CALACANIS: After you've won or, you know, won a decent amount of market share or won the early fights, I think you have to shift gears a bit. And I think that's what Uber's going through.

SHAHANI: Kapor Klein disagrees, and Uber's monumental breakdown is arguably proof she was right. But when I sit down with her in April as the drama continues to unfold, I notice she's hesitant. Uber reached out to her for help after the letter. Now she's being tightlipped. I ask her why.

KAPOR KLEIN: Well, just because my goal now is to help Uber and any other company that really, genuinely wants to change.

SHAHANI: Kapor Klein wants the world to understand, yes, she spoke out when others would not, but, no, Uber isn't the only problem child in Silicon Valley. They just happened to get caught. This week she and her husband issued a statement to that effect, saying the company deserves some room to work on itself. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHALLOU SONG, "DOUBT - SUMMER EDIT")

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