“It’s important that you don’t share the details of this meeting—or that this meeting even happened—until after the investigation has concluded.”
Sitting directly across from me, asking me to keep our meeting secret, was the former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder. His hands were clasped together, his elbows resting on the table, a plastic binder filled with notes open before him. To his left sat Tammy Albarrán, a partner at the corporate law firm Covington & Burling. She stopped combing through her own notes for a mo‑ ment and held her pen in her hand, staring at me over the dark rectangular frames of her glasses, awaiting my answer.
“I understand,” I said, nodding. Albarrán crisply put her pen back down to her notes.
Two months earlier, I had written and published a blog post about my experiences as a software engineer at the ride‑sharing company Uber Technologies. In the blog post, which I had titled “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” I described being propositioned by my manager on my first official day on Uber’s engineering team; the extent to which Uber’s managers, executives, and HR department had ignored and covered up harassment and discrimination; and the retaliation I’d faced for reporting illegal conduct. It was a meticulously, cautiously, delib‑ erately crafted portrait of the company, one that I had constructed with almost excruciating care, every sentence backed up by writ‑ ten documentation.
My story quickly caught the attention of the media and the public. Several hours after I’d shared a link to it on Twitter, it had been retweeted by reporters and celebrities and was a “developing story” covered by local, national, and international news outlets. Travis Kalanick, then the CEO of Uber, shared a link to my blog post on Twitter and said, “What’s described here is abhorrent & against everything we believe in. Anyone who behaves this way or thinks this is OK will be fired.” He then hired Eric Holder and Holder’s firm, Covington & Burling, to run a thorough investiga‑ tion into the company’s culture. It was clear that Kalanick wanted to send a message: he was taking this seriously—so seriously that anyone involved in what had happened, anyone responsible for the story that was now being repeated by every major news outlet across the globe, would be fired.
Three days later, The New York Times
published its own damn‑ ing account of Uber’s culture. The day after that, Waymo, a sub‑ sidiary of Google that was developing self‑driving cars, sued Uber for patent infringement and trade secret theft. Less than a week later, a video leaked of Travis Kalanick berating an Uber driver. And that was only the beginning. By the time I found myself across the table from President Obama’s attorney general, the public consensus was that something was very wrong with Uber, but nobody was quite sure of the extent of the problem or who should be held responsible for it. “Some people,” Kalanick had shouted at the driver in the grainy dashcam video, “don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit.”
As the drama unfolded in the press, I waited. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and everything—including my fate, the fate of my ex‑coworkers, and the fate of Uber—seemed to be rid‑ ing on the results of the Covington & Burling investigation. I’d been reluctant to meet with Eric Holder, afraid that I would mess everything up, that I would say the wrong things, that I would somehow jeopardize the investigation. But now that I was sitting across from him, there was so much I wanted to say, and I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how much I should tell him, how much I should leave out. I wondered if I should tell him about my coworker’s suicide, about the private investigators who seemed to be following me everywhere, about the rumors Uber was spreading about me and my husband, about how I’d heard that Uber had been destroying documentation in order to conceal its mistreatment of employees.
As I sat there, my mind racing, I looked up at him. “Start from the beginning,” he said.
I wasn’t supposed to be a software engineer. I wasn’t supposed to be a writer, or a whistleblower, or even a college graduate, for that matter. If, ten years ago, you had told me that I would someday be all of those things—if you had shown me where life would take me, and the very public role I would end up playing in the world— I wouldn’t have believed you.
I grew up in poverty in rural Arizona and was homeschooled until my early teens; after that, my mother had to return to the workforce and, unlike my younger siblings, I couldn’t go to public school, so I was on my own. As a young teenager, I worked below‑ minimum‑wage jobs during the day and tried to educate myself at night. I feared my life was heading in the same direction as that of many other teenagers living in the rural Southwest—toward drugs, unemployment, and trailer parks. But I refused to accept this as my fate, and resolved to fight for a better life. I worked very hard to educate myself, and managed to get into college.
The struggle to determine my own direction in life didn’t end there. When I wanted to study physics at Arizona State University, but couldn’t because I didn’t have the necessary prerequisites, I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. When I was also prevented from studying science and mathematics at Penn, I once again fought for the education I so desperately wanted and be‑ lieved I deserved. After my dream of becoming a physicist was derailed by an incident with a male student in my lab, I had to choose an entirely new career, which led me to Silicon Valley. If you’re reading this book, you probably know the story of what happened next: I was sexually harassed and bullied at Uber, and I fought until I had exhausted all options except one—to leave the company and go public with my story.
Over the years, I have often thought of a quotation from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”: “I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own.”
This book is the story of my journey to become the subject, not the object, of my own life—to be the person who made things hap- pen
rather than the woman who had things happen to her
Throughout this journey, I have often turned to the words and stories of others for courage and inspiration—Fred Rogers, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hannah Szenes, and Anne Sex‑ ton; the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Immanuel Kant, and Martha Nussbaum. Thanks to their words, a lot of hard work, and great determination—along with the support of family and friends and, later, my husband, Chad—I made it through to the other side.
In sharing the story of my life, I want to offer the same courage and inspiration to others. I hope this book will help those who find themselves in situations like the ones I describe; that it will help them see the steps they can take and the challenges and choices they will face; that it will help them find greater autonomy in their lives and help them discover that they have the power to become the heroes and protagonists of their own stories. In its pages is the kind of story I wish someone had shared with me when I was younger: the story of a young woman who managed to take fate into her own hands and speak up against injustice, even though she was afraid to do so.
Copyright © 2020 by Susan Fowler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.