Uber execs' trip to karaoke hostess bar raised HR complaint

Marco della Cava
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Emil Michael, senior vice president of business for Uber Technologies Inc., stands for a photograph after a Bloomberg Television interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

SAN FRANCISCO — A 2014 outing by a group of male and female Uber executives to a Korean karaoke bar where women with pinned numbers were selected by male guests has put a controversial member of the ride-hailing company's top ranks back in the spotlight.

Emil Michael, who in the fall of that year suggested that the personal information of journalists who weren't supportive of Uber be investigated, three weeks ago told a former girlfriend of CEO Travis Kalanick that she should sanitize the story of the outing, according to a report Friday in The Information.

The woman, Gabi Holzwarth, 27, said that Michael repeatedly asked her to keep details of the mid-2014 Seoul outing from reporters, including the fact that the venue featured women with numbers pinned on them. Some of the male Uber executives present selected women to drink with. Holzwarth and Kalanick left after about an hour. A female Uber marketing manager later complained to human resources about the incident. 

“'I just want to make sure that if this story comes out,'” that Holzwarth would say they went to karaoke and “had a good time,” Michael said, Holzwarth told The Information.

The three-year-old incident surfaces as Uber is struggling to address a frat-boy culture as described in detail by former engineer Susan Fowler. Kalanick is looking for a number two to help him run the nearly $70 billion-valuation company, and an internal investigation is also underway.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (l) and Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (r) at the organization's headquarters in Chicago on March 23, 2017.

But the report also raises questions about a company that does not seem willing to make big changes in its executive ranks despite the ongoing crisis. Kalanick has not suggested he will step down as CEO, and Michael remains on board as senior vice president of business despite the 2014 incident in which he was upset by negative portrayals of the company by journalist Sarah Lacey.

Uber responded to a request for comment by emailing the same two statements it provided The Information.

One simply stated that “this all happened about three years ago and was previously reported to human resources. In early March it was referred to Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran" as part of their current internal investigation, which should conclude in April.

The other was a statement from Michael, who said "given the intense news cycle I thought it was the right thing to do to reach out and let (Holzwarth) know that reporters may try to contact her directly. I have known her for a long time, consider her a friend and did not want her to be taken by surprise."

He also noted that "her recollection of this conversation was different from mine and I am very sorry if the purpose of my call was misunderstood.”

Holzwarth says that the group outing made an unnamed female marketing manager uncomfortable. The woman reported the incident to human resources at the time, and also confided in Holzwarth. In one instant message exchange between the two women, the marketing manager wrote that  "It made me feel horrible as a girl (seeing those girls with number tags and being called out is really degrading)."

Gabi Holzwarth (L) and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick attend an event at The Met Gala Exhibition on May 2, 2015 in NYC. Holzwarth told tech news site The Information that Uber exec Emil Michael had tried to make her recast a story of Uber execs' outing to a Korean hostess bar.

Holzwarth told The Information that the reason she came forward now was because Michael had reached out to try and "silence" her given the current climate.

“I’m not going to lie for them,” Holzwarth said, adding that Kalanick, who she dated for three years, is “part of a class of privileged men who have been taught they can do whatever they want, and now they can.”

The tech industry continues to battle against its image as a playground dominated by white males.

Uber executives recently said that the company would be releasing its first ever diversity report — years after companies such as Google and Apple — and last week Kalanick traveled to Chicago to meet with RainbowPUSH leader Jesse Jackson to affirm his newfound commitment to diversity.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.

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