Just about anybody following popular culture or the news is aware of Uber, the ride-hailing service that is among the most prominent names in the Internet-based new economy. But the company’s UCLA connection is less known. Travis Kalanick, CEO and co-founder of Uber Technologies, was a UCLA computer engineering student before leaving campus in 1998 to launch his first start-up with former classmates.
After hits and misses with two different file-sharing companies, Kalanick and partners founded Uber in 2009 to connect passengers with drivers via a mobile application or website. Today, Uber is among the fastest-growing and most-influential startups. It is valued at more than $50 billion and operates in more than 60 countries and more than 330 cities around the world. Praised by users for its convenience and criticized as unfair to the taxi industry, the company is undeniably both innovative and disruptive. As with Airbnb — another well-known presence in the new economy where users list, find and rent lodging — policymakers are wrestling with how to regulate a booming new industry, the likes of which didn’t exist a short time ago.
Kalanick will be at UCLA on Oct. 12 to privately mentor student and young alumni entrepreneurs. During a public event in Royce Hall, he will have a conversation with Susan Feldman, a UCLA Anderson alumna who in 2009 co-founded One Kings Lane, which operates a furniture and home accessories sales website with more than 10 million members. At the free and filled-to-capacity event, Kalanick will receive the Entrepreneurial Achievement Award from the UCLA Venture Capital Fund, to be presented by Michael Silton, the group’s executive chair. The event will be live-tweeted with the hashtag #UBERatUCLA.
Kalanick, 39 and a Los Angeles native who attended Granada Hills High School, answered questions from UCLA Newsroom in advance of his visit.
What experiences did you have at UCLA that influenced your career or approach to business?
UCLA taught me how to think like an engineer, how to break problems into pieces and put it all back together. Everything I do in business goes back to that core problem-solving rigor that I got exposed to in the engineering curriculum.
What can be done to encourage more women and people of color to become entrepreneurs?
For any aspiring entrepreneur, especially for those who have seen discrimination, just knowing that you can — and should — is half the battle. My role in that is to visit high schools, talk to aspiring entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, visit universities and talk about entrepreneurism, make it tangible and accessible while inspiring everyone’s inner entrepreneur.
The other half is doing, is going after it, and getting back up when adversity comes your way. Stories about adversity, and how heroes in our community overcome adversity show us that if you keep getting back up when you’re knocked down, you will eventually prevail. Entrepreneuring is hard, but those who have faced and overcome adversity are particularly well-suited for the entrepreneurial road ahead. For those of us who have seen success, it is our duty to find and to fight injustice wherever it may be. Finding ways to take the obstacles off the path to success and unlocking the potential of the great minds that injustice has kept from leadership is one of the great opportunities for our society and our economy.
By its nature, entrepreneurship causes disruption. Based on what you have learned with Uber, can you offer young entrepreneurs any tips on how to best navigate political, public relations and regulatory issues that go along with their own new ideas for new businesses?
Doing something new, by its very nature, means you are doing something that has never been done before. In many cases, this means going up against powerful incumbents that will do whatever it takes to keep your idea down — but in any case it means going against the crowd — against what everyone else is doing. This requires an infallible belief in your idea, your principles and your ability to withstand the pressure to go with the crowd, and instead determinedly seek the truth regardless of where it leads. Creatively problem solve your way through barriers designed to slow or stop progress, and if your idea is good, and you are bold, then the world will embrace your idea.
What are universities doing well and not so well to prepare students to succeed as entrepreneurs? How could they improve?
I am not as much an expert on what universities do well or not so well, but as an entrepreneur while going to school, I didn’t have the typical “university experience.” I was working 40 or more hours a week while also going to school full-time. The engineering curriculum allows you to learn without actually being in class all the time. My grades were not dependent on whether I was in class other than being present for the midterm and the final. This allowed great flexibility with my extreme entrepreneurial and academic workload. With entrepreneuring, you learn more through doing, not studying, so a class or set of classes where students are required to actually start something could be a useful way to get more people to find their inner entrepreneur.