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The Man Who Has Travis Kalanick’s Ear

As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick tries to save his company’s reputation, he is again leaning heavily on his most indispensable executive: Emil Michael.

Mr. Michael, who has run business development, fundraising and acquisitions at Uber since 2013, is Mr. Kalanick’s closest confidant and has been his go-between with everyone from frenemies like Google to celebrity investors like Jay-Z.

The Takeaway
Travis Kalanick’s right-hand man, Emil Michael, has a long list of allies, from Silicon Valley to Hollywood to Wall Street. But people inside of Uber have expressed concern that the hard partying lifestyle he and Mr. Kalanick enjoy may be enabling the cultural problems Uber is now trying to correct.

But he is not without controversy.

After largely staying out of the public eye in recent years, Mr. Michael is back in the spotlight following a report from The Information in which Mr. Kalanick’s ex-girlfriend alleged that Mr. Michael asked her not to publicly discuss part of a company trip to a bar with female escorts in Seoul in 2014. The visit triggered an HR complaint by a female Uber employee. (He denied he did so and apologized for any misunderstanding.)

Still, revelations of the incident caused journalists and analysts to call for Mr. Michael’s resignation.

Mr. Michael also is considered by some employees an enabler of a corporate culture now under investigation by legal teams hired by Uber. And he’s been Mr. Kalanick’s partner in a hard-partying bachelor lifestyle that hasn’t gone unnoticed inside of Uber.

Rachel Whetstone, who leads the company’s public policy and communications team, has in recent months expressed concerns to colleagues, including at least one top Uber executive, that such partying behavior might further jeopardize Uber’s public image, according to that executive.

Mr. Michael and Ms. Whetstone did not have a comment for this article.

Mr. Michael’s influence with Mr. Kalanick is old hat to top executives inside of Uber, but few outside the company appreciate it. If Mr. Kalanick has a problem with someone or something, Mr. Michael will often find out first. The pair discuss which Uber executives—including those who report to Mr. Kalanick—are “lame” or “lamesauce” because they aren’t aggressive enough, for instance, according to a person who’s heard these conversations.

“They’re inseparable,” said one colleague. “Emil is the only one who has his ear,” said a former associate.

The men have become jet-setters with strong Hollywood connections. They have vacationed everywhere from a yacht in St. Bart’s with actor Leonardo DiCaprio to the annual “Midsummer Night’s Dream” party at the Playboy Mansion. Mr. Michael sometimes plans such holidays for Mr. Kalanick after particularly busy times for the company.

While both men are outwardly confident, Mr. Michael has shown more diplomacy than Mr. Kalanick in handling relationships with investors, partners and regulators that Uber must deal with, according to colleagues and associates.

“I have high EQ,” Mr. Michael has said to friends, referring to his emotional intelligence.

Recently, he’s stepped in to backchannel with Google, which took a significant minority stake in Uber in 2013. That was before Mr. Kalanick began to suspect Google would become a direct rival.

Mr. Michael recently has been in touch with David Drummond, the chief legal officer for Alphabet (which owns Google) and former board director at Uber, about an explosive lawsuit that Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo, filed against Uber for alleged theft of trade secrets, according to a person briefed on the matter. (Messrs. Kalanick and Michael years ago tried to recruit Mr. Drummond to Uber, this person said.)

And as a bridge between Uber and its investors, Mr. Michael has been updating some of them on the company’s recent news—the internal investigations into Uber’s culture problems and its ongoing search for a chief operating officer, said one person briefed about such interactions. That COO would report to Mr. Kalanick and ostensibly be a strong No. 2 executive who could balance him out. In theory, that person might also reduce Mr. Michael’s influence.

Road to Silicon Valley

An immigrant from Egypt (he speaks Arabic), Mr. Michael, 44, grew up in New Rochelle, New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University, where he was president of the Republican club. He then got a law degree from Stanford University in 1998. Some friends occasionally call him “Emilio.”

After a year as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, he moved to Silicon Valley at the height of the dot-com boom to work for a startup, TellMe Networks, whose voice recognition technology eventually powered phone services like 4-1-1.

Marci McCue, who was head of communications at TellMe, said Mr. Michael impressed her by negotiating a complex deal to buy access to billions of minutes worth of phone time from AT&T at the same time that AT&T took an equity investment in TellMe, she said. “I would want him on my side,” said Ms. McCue, whose current company Flipboard sought advice from Mr. Michael on job candidate interviews.

After Microsoft acquired TellMe for about $800 million, Mr. Michael spent a little over a year as a “special assistant” to then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, part of a fellowship program run by the White House. After the program ended, he went back to Silicon Valley to advise and invest in dozens of startups, building up lots of goodwill—and connections—along the way. He’s become close to people including Hosain Rahman, CEO of hardware brand Jawbone, and Mood Rowghani, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. One of the companies he advised informally was Klout, which attempted to quantify people’s influence on social media. In mid-2012, he was hired as its chief operating officer.

Inside Uber over the past week and a half, Mr. Michael has been “contrite” when discussing the South Korea escort report.

If not for Mr. Michael, “the company would have died,” said Joe Fernandez, who was Klout’s CEO.

He helped close funding from, and a business deal with, Microsoft within 60 days of joining, Mr. Fernandez said. He also brought new structure to the company’s meetings and how it reported numbers to its board of directors, among many other improvements. Mr. Michael left for Uber before Klout was acquired by another private company for about $200 million in cash and stock.

In 2013, Mr. Michael met Mr. Kalanick through Uber investor Bill Gurley, a partner at venture capital firm Benchmark who had also invested in TellMe. Mr. Michael was staying in Washington at the time and had just undergone hip surgery, so Mr. Kalanick flew there to meet with him. The men spoke for six hours, said one person briefed on the meeting.

Money Man

When he joined Uber in 2013, he was responsible for “business,” which at the time meant strategic partnerships with credit card companies and banks to help Uber attract more riders and drivers. The company had just 350 people. (Now it’s 12,000.) He quickly focused on fundraising, even though Mr. Kalanick had initially told him that the company might never need to raise another dollar. Under Mr. Michael’s watch, Uber raised another roughly $10 billion in equity financing, a sum that has set records for a private tech company.

One investor said Mr. Michael was generous about giving access to financial data and ran the paperwork “so efficiently and clearly” that it put other companies to shame. “He has the perfect mix of confidence and accommodation,” said the investor.

Mr. Michael is known for celebrating completed fundraisings at his home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. On one occasion, in mid-2014 after Uber raised funds at a $17 billion valuation, he put a Lyft logo inside the toilet bowl of his guest bathroom and sprinkled money from the board game Monopoly elsewhere in the house, according to a person who saw it. In general, Mr. Michael has bragged to friends about how easy it’s been for Uber to raise money and that he doesn’t necessarily need Mr. Kalanick to appear before investors to close deals.

Mr. Michael has also tried to dissuade investors from funding Uber’s rivals. That largely hasn’t worked, as those rivals have collectively raised as much as Uber has. One white whale was Yuri Milner, whom Mr. Michael asked investors like Matt Cohler, another partner at Benchmark, to convince to stop, according to one person briefed about the effort. But Mr. Milner’s firm DST continued to invest into Didi in China and Ola in India. (Messrs. Milner and Cohler didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

He has leaned on a big Rolodex. Among Mr. Michael’s key liaisons to Hollywood are Shervin Pishevar, an early Uber investor with deep LA connections; Vivi Nevo, an LA-based investor; and Michael Kives, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, who has helped Messrs. Kalanick and Michael get into celebrity events involving artists and actors such as Katy Perry, Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow. In late 2015, for instance, Mr. Michael asked Mr. Kives to try to gauge the interest of a CAA client, investor Warren Buffett, in participating in Uber’s next financing. Mr. Buffett declined the invitation, according to correspondence viewed by The Information.

Mr. Kives suggested Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim as an alternative, though Mr. Slim did not end up investing. (Messrs. Kives and Buffett didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Mr. Michael has also stepped in to enforce loyalty. One example involved Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, who had invested in Uber. Despite that tie, in 2015, Mr. Braun worked on a deal for Mr. Bieber to promote Lyft—one that garnered lots of press attention. Mr. Michael told Mr. Kives, who is friendly with Mr. Braun, that Mr. Kalanick was unhappy about the situation, according to correspondence viewed by The Information.

New Business

Mr. Michael, who has a team of just under 100 people, is also responsible for helping Uber strike deals to grow its driver network. These deals, like getting tire manufacturers to give drivers preferential pricing or banks to give drivers loans, are key for the company to expand globally.

Mr. Michael is considered to be fair-minded with his subordinates. “He’s hard on everybody but if you show the numbers, he is an equal opportunist. I’ve never seen a more equal treatment of people” said one person who’s worked with Mr. Michael.

Mr. Michael’s team (many of his direct reports can be seen here) also works on potential new businesses for Uber. For instance, Uber has considered selling ride data to government officials to help them make infrastructure improvements, said one person briefed about it. (Uber recently released a free tool to show governments Uber’s traffic data.) Another proposed service might see Uber asking governments to pay Uber to transport workers from their homes in underdeveloped neighborhoods that have poor transit systems to areas where there are jobs, this person said.

Inside Uber over the past week and a half, Mr. Michael has been “contrite” when discussing the South Korea escort report, said one colleague. In general, though, Mr. Michael has been upbeat about the recent changes—in particular, the COO search and the work of new HR chief Liane Hornsey, who is spearheading diversity initiatives and focusing on long-standing pain points for company employees.

“He’s visibly excited about the prospect of getting the right leader [COO],” this person said. “He wants a strong operator to partner and soften TK,” a reference to Mr. Kalanick’s nickname.

Amir Efrati is executive editor at The Information, which he helped to launch in 2013. Previously he spent nine years as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, reporting on white-collar crime and later about technology. He can be reached at [email protected] and is on Twitter @amir