Author: Robin Tolochko
On December 31, 2013, I was in an Uber in Bogota, Colombia, 6 cm dilated and in active labor. As we drove towards the hospital on traffic-free New Year’s Eve roads, the driver asked if I wanted him to go faster. Sitting on the floor of his car, I said in between contractions, “No, despacio. No hay afán.” “No, just get us there safely.” (which he did, of course). When our family of three left the hospital the following day, we took our son home in an Uber, too.
Two years later, I was preparing for my interview at Uber with a friend. I was rehearsing my answer to the question of, “Why do you want to work at Uber?” and opened it with this story of taking an Uber to the hospital while in labor as a foundational moment for me. My friend said, “Are you sure you want to talk about that in an interview? Do you want to reveal that you have a kid?” I responded, “You know what — they’re either going to love this story or they’ll be put off by the fact that I have a kid. But I don’t want to work for a company that would be put off by that story, so I’m going to tell it.” By the end of the interview, the hiring manager, who was a woman, basically told me the job was mine.
I started as a designer on the Maps team a year and a half ago. This was a dream job — I had just finished getting a Master’s in Cartography, and now I was going to be designing maps that millions of drivers around the world would use.
On my first day at Uber, I remember the intimidation I felt when a colleague asked, “So what do you want to work on?” Wasn’t that what they were supposed to tell me? How was I supposed to know what the team needed and how I could contribute? I quickly learned that this is not the place for someone who wants a clearly defined job description with specifically scoped roles and responsibilities. However, Uber is an amazing place to work for people who think and act beyond their job description, identifying problems and coming up with ideas for how to solve them. As someone who falls into this category, I have felt liberated working at a place that gives me this freedom.
Last spring, I found out that the engineering team that I worked with was looking for a Product Manager. They were initially looking for a Senior PM, someone with lots of experience who could really guide the team. But when I put my name in the ring, despite the fact that I had been at the company for less than a year and had no PM experience, I received nothing but wholehearted support from my colleagues.
I have loved my new team and role — setting the vision for the team, determining our priorities, making sure that we are aligned with other teams. But it has had its ups and downs. I went from being on a design team that was mostly women to being the only woman on a team of engineers. I find myself the only woman in meetings on a regular basis. When I look at people in senior product positions (the vast majority of whom are men), I must admit that it makes me question my ambition. Is it crazy for me to think that I could be a Director of Product someday?
2017 was a tough year for Uber, and it was a tough year to be a woman at Uber. I have had to battle the shame of introducing myself to new people outside of work and telling them that I work at Uber. People frequently ask me, “How can you work there and call yourself a feminist?” I have had to reckon with the fact that the company I work for — and a place where I love the work that I do and the people I work with — has a history of unethical behavior across many dimensions, including behavior towards women.
2017 was also a fascinating year to be at Uber, because things actually began moving in the right direction. The company released its first ever diversity report. HR did an audit of compensation across gender and race and made sure that people were paid equally for the same work. The Women of Maps group hosted an external tech talk with all women speakers, highlighting some of the fun and complicated tech problems that we get to work on. We still have a long way to go, but we are on our way there.
And sometimes simply being the only woman in a room full of men helps to create change.
I firmly believe that creating change is a process, and it must come from all different angles. I choose to create change from the inside. I have conversations with Maps leadership about sexism and implicit bias, and share compelling articles on the subject with them. I regularly advocate for hiring a more diverse team. I am involved in the Women of Maps group, where we lend each other emotional and tactical support. I confront people when they say something that comes across as sexist or biased, and open up a conversation about what was said. I am actively advocating for policies of equal parental leave, regardless of gender. And sometimes simply being the only woman in a room full of men helps to create change.
One of my favorite moments of 2017 was when I was riding in an Uber with a deaf driver. With my broken sign language, we somehow managed to have a conversation, and I was able to tell him that I worked at Uber on the map that he was using to navigate. He gave two thumbs up and excitedly expressed that he loves Uber and he loves our map. I had such immense pride in that moment, knowing that in some small way I am helping him make a living.
These interactions are what motivate me on a daily basis and why I love my job. I love working on a map that millions of drivers around the world use. If I do my job well, I am improving people’s lives — enabling drivers to make a living, and making it easier for riders to get where they need to go.
And that kid that I had four years ago in Bogota? Whenever we hop in an Uber, he insists on seeing the map that I have had a hand in helping build.