The woman who led Uber in Italy defends embattled CEO: 'I really think that Travis is a different person to the outside world than he is internally'

Benedetta Arese Lucini ex-Uber Italy, cofounder of Oval MoneyOval MoneyBenedetta Arese Lucini.

LONDON — The former head of Uber in Italy has defended the ride-hailing company’s embattled CEO and says not enough attention has been given to the company’s positive initiatives for women in the company.

Uber has faced a series of scandals since the start of the year, including allegations of endemic sexism and harassment, a video of its CEO and founder Travis Kalanick rowing with an Uber driver, and a string of high-profile executive departures. The crisis has led to calls for Kalanick to stand down, with claims that he has fostered an “aggressive and unrestrained” culture at the company.

Benedetta Arese Lucini, who ran Uber in Italy from 2013 to 2016, defended Kalanick. She told Business Insider this week: “I really think that Travis is a different person to the outside world than he is internally. I think he’s a good leader. He grew a company from 20 people to 6,000 in four years.”

Arese Lucini was one of only 12 general managers at Uber when she joined, each tasked with expanding the taxi hailing service internationally. She was interviewed personally by Kalanick during the hiring process and says there were only around 100 staff at the company when she joined.

Kalanick told Uber staff recently that he must “fundamentally change as a leader and grow up” after the video of him rowing with a driver became public. Arese Lucini said: “I think Travis has the capacity to really take things, to really change. I think he will.”

‘It grew very fast and, obviously, it trips sometimes’

Arese Lucini said she was “a little” surprised by the accusations of sexism and harassment that former engineer Susan Fowler made in a blog post in February, which sparked the company’s current crisis.

But she said: “I do think that HR was a role that was probably overlooked in such a fast growing company. They focused more on recruiting than internal development.”

Fowler said complaints made to HR at Uber about her manager propositioning her sexually were ignored.

Arese Lucini told BI: “They don’t have that structure. They have been around for like 6 years so they’re still learning. I think they get a little bit harsher criticism than what they should for being a 6-year-old company.”

She said: “Not everybody is the same. Some people like this fast-paced, a little bit of pressure in the role. Some people don’t. Then I think the fact that it’s been so media scrutinised creates more pressure. But there are great people in Uber. There’s real talent.”

Addressing the accusations of an ingrained sexism at Uber, Arese Lucini said: “There are a lot of women who unfortunately don’t come out as much. Salle [Yoo] is our chief legal officer and she’s been in Uber since before I joined. She’s been incredible. She managed the whole women drivers initiative. These things, they don’t don’t get talked about as much as the other stuff.”

Arese Lucini said Uber needs to “grow up a little” to address its problems. She said: “Travis said he’s looking for a new COO. I think he will need to find a leader like Sheryl Sandburg or someone with that kind of profile. It doesn’t have to be a woman but somebody who’s been around for a while. Everybody agrees it’s a great service, everybody agrees it’s doing good business, so it just needs to fix the little things.”

She added: “I’m not saying that everything is great at Uber, it’s just that it grew very fast and, obviously, it trips sometimes.”

Oval Money

Arese Lucini left Uber last year after an Italian court ordered the startup stop offering peer-to-peer rides, where people could use the app to become part-time, unlicensed taxi drivers using their personal car. While the company continued to operate UberEATS and its licensed car hire service, Arese Lucini felt it was a good time to pursue her own dream of becoming an entrepreneur.

“Uber made me feel a little bit like an entrepreneur because you have your own country and your managing it, but still, it’s somebody else’s vision,” she said.

She is now working on a startup called Oval Money, a personal finance app to help people track spending save money by automatically programming saving goals such as rounding up transactions or setting aside a certain percentage each month.

The product, which launches to the public in the UK and Italy next week, is aimed at self-employed people and freelancers with fluctuating income. Arese Lucini thinks there aren’t enough products to help these people save.

She says: “It was inspired a little bit about what I was doing at Uber and also inspired by talking to a lot of drivers, which was another really great thing about Uber — you learn to really interact with the people who use your product a lot.”

PayPal, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups of the late 1990s and 2000s, was famous for spawning the “PayPal Mafia,” a group of early employees who went on to set up and back other successful tech startups. Its members include Tesla CEO Elon Musk and famed investor Peter Thiel.

Arese Lucini believes Uber will spawn a similar group and says she is already seeing former colleagues setting up shop. She said: “I think Uber mafia will happen also. There’s a lot of new startups coming out. A lot of stuff in delivery, a lot of stuff in very regulated industries. We want to change systems that are very stiff for the benefit of the user.”

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