Uber Is Moving. Its New Neighbors Are a Little Worried


INC.
BY SALVADOR RODRIGUEZ

Nearly two dozen activist organizations have banded together to urge Uber to act as a responsible corporate citizen before moving its headquarters across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland, California.

The coalition is welcoming Uber into the city but hoping the tech firm will bring more good than bad into its new community. “Is Uber ready to get on that learning curve and think about the community it’s coming into and the impact it’s causing?” asks Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and California advocacy organization.

Uber is set to meet Friday with members of the coalition of 20 groups, which include the Greenlining Institute, the California Reinvestment Coalition, Public Advocates, and PolicyLink. Uber will send Adony Beniares, the company’s lead on real estate and facilities efforts, as well as Jordan Medina, an Oakland resident whom Uber recently hired to be its community relations and outreach lead as it makes the transition.

This meeting is indicative of the growing pains Uber is going through as it matures from a hot startup into a full-on tech giant. As it phases out of its earlier years, where the sole purpose of any company is to survive, Uber increasingly is expected by community groups to be mindful of its civic responsibility.

Uber says it is still at least 18 months away from opening its downtown Oakland office, but in the meantime, the company has been meeting with many city leaders. The company tells Inc. it has also held several outreach events, such as community meet-and-greets and local vendor fairs, and plans on having more.

Seeking prosperity for all
For the coalition, securing a meeting was no small feat. The groups have been hoping to meet with Uber since the company announced its move to Oakland last year. In August, the organizations published a letter addressed to the company, calling on it to better the city.

The coalition asked for a number of things, including more transparency from Uber in terms of the number and type of jobs the company intends to bring to the city and what it will do to tap into the local talent pool. The organizations also want to know how Uber intends to support the city philanthropically, and how it will work with public transit, rather than destroy it.

“The goal should be inclusive prosperity in Oakland, and not just prosperity for Uber’s full-time workers,” the coalition wrote.

The two parties were set to meet earlier in September but the meeting fell apart. Coalition leaders blame the complication on Uber, saying the company tried to limit the number of participants the coalition could bring. Uber also demanded a list of the individuals the coalition planned on sending but wouldn’t reveal its own representatives, coalition members say.

“Basically, it fell apart because Uber was playing games,” says Orson Aguilar, president of The Greenlining Institute, a racial justice policy and advocacy group.

Uber says the meeting was delayed so that Medina could take part in it. As part of his role, Medina will be tasked with meeting groups like the coalition over the next year and a half.

The coalition says it has purchased the UberOakland.org domain and may use the website to hold the company responsible as a community member. The website could be used to report Uber’s actions in Oakland, whether negative or positive, Aguilar says.

While there is concern, there are also other groups outside the coalition who say Uber’s presence will largely benefit Oakland.

Uber’s “going to have a very positive impact as long as we have good channels of communication between the corporation and the community,” says Micah Weinberg, president of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, an advocacy group that represents Bay Area businesses.

Uber is now valued at $66 billion, and it employs more than 5,000 people, according to the company’s LinkedIn profile. The company is seven years old, but it has not yet had to step up and participate in a community the way the Oakland coalition is requesting. In San Francisco, Uber is one of many fish in the tech sea, and the company typically maintains only a small field office in other markets because its drivers operate as independent contractors.

“The question is: Is Uber willing to drive people, and black people in particular, out of Oakland, or are they going to sit down at the table with the community and try to be part of the solution?” says Public Advocates’ Marcantonio.

Uber is one of the few major tech companies that has never released a diversity report of its workforce. The company also has not hired a new head of diversity and inclusion since Damien Hooper-Campbell left the position earlier this year for a similar role at eBay.

The company’s move east is highly significant to Oakland, which has not felt the impact of the recent tech boom to the degree other Bay Area cities have. Pandora currently is the best-known tech company headquartered there. Uber is expected to attract more startups when it arrives.

While fast-growing tech companies bring the promise of new jobs and an overall boost to the local economy, there is a fear surrounding the impact they could have on Oakland’s large and vibrant minority communities. Whereas San Francisco’s population is 15 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black, Oakland is 26 percent Hispanic and 26 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those minority groups have been disproportionately excluded from the tech industry. The coalition wants to prevent that from happening as Uber moves into Oakland. “These are potentially high-paying tech jobs, and we want to make sure those jobs are accessible to the diverse residents of Oakland,” says Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, an advocacy group for low-income communities.

Additionally, there are fears about the impact Uber could have on Oakland’s housing market, which has already been affected as more tech workers move into the East Bay. The median home value in Oakland has risen 108 percent to $622,000 from $299,000 in early 2012, according to Zillow, which forecasts prices will continue to increase.

“We have to be concerned about what’s going to happen to the current population in Oakland, in particular the African-American and Latino populations,” says Joe Brooks, senior fellow at PolicyLink, a research and action institute in Oakland. Uber says it is working with a number of local companies on the design and construction of its new offices, and that already many of its employees are Oakland residents.

None of the effects of Uber’s arrival in Oakland will be felt until at least 2018, so the coalition hopes that Friday’s meeting will get all involved started early moving in a positive direction.

“If you look up the definition of ‘uber’ it means something that is magnificent, something that’s really special,” Aguilar says. “The community is saying, ‘We want to see Uber do something that’s uber for Oakland.’ We want to see Uber live up to its name.”