Features and Columns · TV

The Real Story Behind ‘Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber’

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the controversial ex-CEO of Uber in Showtime’s upcoming series.
Super Pumped Uber Joseph Gordon Levitt
By  · Published on January 10th, 2022

Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story of Travis Kalanick, as portrayed in Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.

Consumers of a certain age may not remember the world before Uber. The rideshare app changed the world in ways few could have imagined. Like Google or Kleenex, the company’s name epitomizes the services of an entire industry.

And like many of the behemoths of capitalism, Uber has had its ups and downs, its triumphs and embarrassments. In his book Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, New York Times journalist Mike Isaac tells the inside story of Uber’s tumultuous rise and the scandals and infighting that culminated in the ouster of co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.

The book serves as the inspiration for a new Showtime series of the same name starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kalanick. It also marks the first season of a new anthology program from producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the co-creators of Billions. Future seasons will explore, according to Deadline, stories “that rocked the business world to its core and changed culture.”

Here’s a brief look at the rise and fall of Uber and one of Silicon Valley’s most famous executives as will be depicted in the show Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber:

Ubercab: The Early Years

It seems like every big tech company has a moment where they shorten their name and then takeoff. As fans of The Social Network know, “The Facebook” preceded Facebook. Similarly, Uber was founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, an entrepreneur and computer programmer, as “Ubercab.”

According to a timeline by Business Insider, one of the company’s first key moments came in December 2008. Kalanick, by that point a millionaire and successful entrepreneur, heard Camp talk about spending $800 on a private driver for New Year’s Eve. And thus the basic premise of the company was born: splitting the cost with other people would make black car services much cheaper.

In March 2009, Camp and two graduate school friends built the first version of a black-car service called Ubercab. Kalanick, according to Business Insider, served as a “mega advisor.” A year later, in June, UberCab had a soft, beta launch in San Francisco as a car service. The cost was about 1.5 times as much as the average cab, but the ease of access made the service a big hit.

By the fall, Ubercab began to take on investments from a series of well-known investors, including Chris Sacca (of Shark Tank fame) and Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning. In October, the company rebranded as Uber. According to Business Insider, the change was made to “avoid the company from marketing itself too much like a taxi business.”

Of course, that was only the beginning of the threat the new business posed to cab drivers throughout the United States.

Travis Kalanick Becomes CEO of Uber

At the end of 2010, Travis Kalanick was given the top job at Uber. He took over for Ryan Graves, the company’s first employee, who remained with the company as an executive and board member.

As CEO, Kalanick oversaw the public launch of the Uber service throughout the country. In May, the app went live in New York City. It hit the streets of Chicago in September. And then in December, the app made its international debut in Paris. Throughout 2011, the company took in tens of millions of dollars in investments, including from prominent figures like Jeff Bezos.

The first year of Uber ended in controversy. Literally. On New Year’s Eve, furious and confused consumers faced a massive price surge as they tried to Uber.  Some ride costs ranged between three and six times the usual price. At the time, TechCrunch offered a warning to consumers, written by Semil Shah:

“Uber still has a strong brand with a loyal following and a strong team. However, this is also a wakeup call for consumers, those who use Uber and in general. As devices and ecosystems enable us to share more and more data about our location and what we truly want at any given time, time-based pricing is simply a natural extension of this grand bargain and is coming to a theater near you.”

It was just the beginning of the public scandals and outcry around the company and the conduct of its leaders.

A Series of Scandals

You know your company has problems when it’s the subject of an article titled “49 of the biggest scandals in Uber’s history.” The list of scandals includes continued price gouging. This included a spike in prices, for example, during Hurricane Sandy.

Another, more grotesque event occurred in September 2013. A Black woman named Bridget Todd made headlines when she tweeted that an Uber driver had grabbed her by the throat after she kissed her white husband.

Valleywag, a Gawker affiliate, published emails sent by Kalanick to his press team in response to the event. A reporter was mistakenly CC’d. In the emails, Kalanick said such incidents “aren’t even real in the first place.” He also instructed his press team to “make sure these writers don’t come away thinking we are responsible even when these things do go bad.”

Similar stories of driver misconduct — and the company’s horrific response (or lack thereof) — were not uncommon. And they spoke to the company’s broader treatment of women, including internally.

A Culture of Misogyny

Uber’s culture of misogyny became apparent through a number of public statements and company promotions. In 2014, for example, Travis Kalanick was asked, in a GQ profile, about the fame the company brought him as a bachelor in a GQ profile. He joked that Uber’s name was “Boober.”

Later that year, in October, Uber’s branch in Lyon, France, launched a promotion to pair riders with “hot chick” drivers. The company quickly ended the stunt. And then in December, the app was banned from the Delhi region of India after a driver accused of raping a passenger appeared in court.

The myriad safety concerns around Uber resulted in a successful 2016 class-action lawsuit against the company for misleading customers. The company paid out $28.5 million to 25 million riders. They also, according to Business Insider, could no longer use phrases like “industry-leading” or “best in class” to describe their background check process.

Susan Fowler Comes Forward

A seismic event occurred about a year later, in February 2017. Susan Fowler, a software engineer, published a blog post explaining why she had left the company. In it, she describes being sexually harassed by her manager and HR’s failure to do anything to resolve the issue. She wrote:

“I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man’s first offense, and that they wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”

The blog post prompted a number of calls for change within the company and Silicon Valley more generally. Shortly after Fowler’s post, Isaac published a follow-up story in the Times on Uber’s horrific workplace culture. Isaac sums up some of the most egregious incidents as such:

“One Uber manager groped female co-workers’ breasts at a company retreat in Las Vegas. A director shouted a homophobic slur at a subordinate during a heated confrontation in a meeting. Another manager threatened to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat.”

Travis Kalanick’s Ouster

Eventually, the calls for change resulted in Travis Kalanick resigning from the company. But not before a number of other Uber executives left the company and/or resigned in disgrace. For example, Amit Singhal, then senior vice president of engineering at Uber, left the company after he was accused of sexual harassment during his time at Google. And after an investigation into the company’s internal culture, more than 20 people were fired after 215 individual complaints were received about workplace misconduct.

Another notable firing occurred in June. Eric Alexander, then the head of the company’s business in Asia, had obtained the medical records of a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver. According to Isaac, Alexander carried the woman’s records around with him. The company aimed to use the records to discredit the woman.

That same month, Recode published the now-infamous “Miami Letter.” Kalanick sent an email to employees in 2013 as a guidebook for those seeking to have sex while on a company outing in Miami. He wrote:

“Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.”

Later that month, the internal investigation into the company’s culture provided their final report. And Kalanick, under pressure from investors, resigned from the top job. At the rime, Recode likened the company’s culture to “a really toxic goat rodeo.

A Meddlesome Board Member

After his resignation as CEO, Travis Kalanick remained on the board of Uber and exerted tremendous influence as the largest individual stockholder. In August 2017, Benchmark, a venture capital firm and one of Uber’s largest shareholders, sued Kalanick in an attempt to remove him from his board seat.

According to a Times report from Isaac at the time, Benchmark claimed, in the suit, that Kalanick’s:

“overarching objective is to pack Uber’s board with loyal allies in an effort to insulate his prior conduct from scrutiny and clear the path for his eventual return as CEO — all to the detriment of Uber’s stockholders, employees, driver-partners, and customers.”

They argued for Kalanick’s removal from the board. Similar reports from the time claimed that Kalanick was telling people he planned to “pull a Steve Jobs” and return to the company. Benchmark dropped the suit in 2018.

And then in 2019, Kalanick resigned from his board seat. He also sold all of his shares. Once the most powerful man at the company, Kalanick’s association with Uber officially came to an end.

Isaac summed up the meaning of Kalanick’s resignation as such:

“Mr. Kalanick’s departure from Uber’s board ends one of the tech industry’s defining stories of the last decade. During his ride-hailing company’s meteoric rise, he came to personify the aggressive, risk-taking nature of a new generation of tech start-ups intent on ‘disrupting’ other industries like taxis, hotels and food delivery.”

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber debuts on Showtime on February 27, 2022.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.