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The Black General Counsel Project: Uber’s Tony West

Dec. 15, 2020, 11:01 AM

Tony West, the chief legal officer of ride share company Uber Technologies, Inc., said that people of color who are leaders can and should use that platform to hold their employers accountable.

“As a person of color at a senior level, it can be easy to play it safe and not expend any capital to move the organization toward a more inclusive environment that expands the number of diverse voices in the room. However, it’s important to remember that you are there for a reason,” West said in a recent Bloomberg Law survey.

Black general counsel now make up over 5% of all general counsel in the Fortune 1000, a significant milestone tracked by the Black General Counsel 2025 Initiative and first reported by Bloomberg Law. We reached out to over 50 Black legal chiefs whose companies were in the Fortune 1000 in 2019 or 2020 to learn more about their careers and diversity at the top of the legal industry and heard from 39 of them.

West joined San Francisco-based Uber in 2017 as senior vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary. Before that, he was corporate secretary and executive vice president of snack and beverage company PepsiCo, Inc. West also served in the Obama administration as the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: What are some key matters your team is working on right now?

Tony West: Since March, we’ve overhauled our approach to health and safety for riders, drivers, delivery people, and employees, and established remote work and return-to-office models related to Covid-19. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, we’ve made significant commitments to show how we can be a more actively anti-racist company. We’re also working to enhance the quality and dignity of independent work by providing drivers with portable benefits while also safeguarding the flexibility they prefer.

BL: What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received from mentors or others?

TW: I had the good fortune to work for U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the country’s first female AG. Upon taking a job as a federal prosecutor in California, General Reno called me into her office to impart some advice. She said, remember your job “is not to win every case; it’s to do justice in every case you handle.” Throughout my 25-year career as a lawyer, that advice has remained my North Star.

BL: What advice would you give to lawyers who want to go in-house?

TW: Learn the business inside and out. That starts with learning from and listening to people leading the day-to-day functions in order to build a strong foundational understanding that will help you navigate your role more effectively. Taking the time to get to know people cross-functionally, understanding their needs, and being open to feedback builds trust, and ultimately helps you both get to your shared goals faster with more impactful results.

BL: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?

TW: As a person of color at a senior level, it can be easy to play it safe and not expend any capital to move the organization toward a more inclusive environment that expands the number of diverse voices in the room. However, it’s important to remember that you are there for a reason. You can and should use that capital and position of influence to hold your organization accountable to the values it espouses.

BL: Why do you think the number of Black general counsel has been on the rise? Have you observed any changes in the past few years that have contributed to recent increases in representation?

TW: One of the major shifts has been demand by customers and employees for increased diversity at the executive levels of companies. We’re well past the point of making the business case for diversity. There is even a push to build more diverse boardrooms through initiatives like the Board Challenge and the Board Diversity, Action Alliance.

However, we have a long way to go when it comes to increasing diversity in practice. We need to not only recruit more diverse talent but ensure that we are able to retain that talent. That means being very intentional about de-biasing systems and removing barriers encountered by diverse individuals within companies.

D&I has been very important to me throughout my career. At Uber, we recently introduced a set of 14 new long-term commitments to drive this important work further including doubling black representation in Uber’s leadership by 2025 as well as the number of earners and customer support staff hired into corporate roles.

As a platform that powers movement, Uber’s goal is to ensure that anyone and everyone can move freely—not just physically, but economically and socially as well. Companies are becoming more enlightened, but if we’re going to be consistent champions for equity, we have to fight racism wherever we find it, long after the headlines fade and the protests recede.

BL: When you are looking to hire outside counsel, how does diversity come into play in your evaluation of law firms?

TW: Diversity is essential to me and my team when it comes to hiring outside counsel both at Uber and also when I was at PepsiCo. Throughout my career I’ve focused on building diverse teams and prioritized inclusion because I need smart, vibrant legal professionals to bring their whole selves and diverse perspectives to the table to help me solve complex legal issues. It’s that simple.

At Uber, we are very deliberate not just in our internal hiring but in our selection of law firms. We choose to partner with firms that share our values and priorities when it comes to diversity, and show a real commitment to D&I, particularly at the leadership level and in the broader legal community. D&I metrics are gating criteria for our Preferred Counsel Program, and diversity is one of the top five performance metrics that we use to evaluate our outside counsel on an ongoing basis.

We rely on the ABA Model Diversity Survey; our own diversity survey; and an Inclusion Blueprint, developed by Diversity Lab, to annually measure equal access to opportunities and inclusion activities, particularly at the firm’s leadership and practice group levels. We also review and evaluate firms’ D&I goals to ensure they have concrete plans to continue prioritizing and driving progress.

Diversity and inclusion isn’t something that should be difficult. It just requires doing the hard work and being intentional about it.

BL: What opportunities or changes has the pandemic brought to your team?

TW: Covid-19 has brought a host of new opportunities for our team in many different areas ranging from quickly establishing new health and safety protocols to the rapid growth of our Uber Eats business. Our legal team has accomplished a tremendous amount during what has been a challenging time for everyone. They’ve worked hard to help move our company through this crisis while juggling families and other responsibilities, and I’m very grateful for their passion and dedication.

Questions by Ruiqi Chen and Lisa Helem.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ruiqi Chen in Washington, D.C. at rchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com;
Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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