Travis Kalanick was the buccaneering leader behind the exponential growth of Uber. Kalanick ignored laws and morality on his way to making Uber a billion-dollar business. He fostered a toxic corporate structure that, among other things, ignored – and perhaps encouraged – sexual harassment.
Kalanick resigned as CEO of Uber in 2017 but didn’t give up his seat on the board. Before leaving the board in late December 2019, Travis sold 90% of his shares, earning a profit of about $2.5 billion.
Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber chronicles the rise and fall of Kalanick.
Travis’ father was an engineer who gave Kalanick his start in technology
Travis Kalanick was born on 6th August 1976 in Northridge, California, to Bonnie and Donald Kalanick. Bonnie and Donald had European roots: Bonnie descended from a line of Viennese Jews who arrived in the US in the early 20th century; Donald’s Slovak-Austrian Catholic family emigrated from the Graz, Austria.
Kalanick grew up alongside two half-sisters and a brother, Cory, who works as a firefighter. Bonnie worked in advertising for the Los Angeles Daily News, and Donald served as an engineer for the city of Los Angeles.
Don fostered Travis’ love for technology: The pair collaborated on science projects, including building an electrical transformer; Don introduced Travis to programming by bringing home early computers for his son to fiddle with.
Kalanick was a computer geek with a knack for sales. Aged 18, he built a small fortune as a young door-to-door salesman for Cutco knives.
Travis joined the University of California, Los Angeles, to study business economics and computer engineering. He late dripped out to focus on the startup Scour. In 2000, Scour filed for bankruptcy to protect itself from a $250 billion lawsuit filed by the music industry.
Unfazed, Kalanick launched another startup dubbed Red Swoosh, initially struggling to attract capital. The consecutive failures forced Travis back to his childhood home.
“I was conflicted because I was happy he was home,” Bonnie told Kara Swisher for Vanity Fair. “He wore out a path walking in a circle of our kitchen and living room, always on the phone trying to make that company work.”
Don, the man who nurtured Travis’ love for technology, could do little else than offer encouragement. Eventually, Travis made Red Swoosh work, earning a cool $2 million from its sale, more than enough to fund his move from his parents’ house to San Francisco.
“Working for a newspaper, I was used to sales rejection all the time, so I knew what that was like,” Bonnie said. “But I had hope, since he is very determined and he will not back down when he felt he was right – he’s tenacious.”
Kalanick’s mother passed away in an accident that severely injured his father
Bonnie Kalanick passed away in a tragic boating accident in late May 2017. The accident happened at Pine Flats lake, a beloved holiday destination for the Kalanick clan.
Travis wrote on Facebook that he declined calls from his mother to join her and Don on the excursion. The last note Bonnie sent Travis was a photo of the lake taken on the approach from the campground.
Kalanick explained that a mix-up involving his parents’ pet caused the tragic accident. He wrote:
“My Mom asked my Dad to take over driving, a switch I’ve seen them do dozens of times before. But this time before they switched, our family dog got in the way, and the wheel turned sharply to the right. My Dad, seeing the boat heading straight for the rocks, swung the steering wheel back, but it was too late. The boat hit the rocks.”
A severely injured Donald managed to drag Bonnie’s lifeless body to shore, but she was long gone. She’d hit her head on a rock, dying almost instantly. “My Mom, unconscious, had most likely died immediately from the impact,” Travis added.
Kalanick effusively praised Bonnie, referring to her as a lover who wore her heart on her sleeves. He wrote:
“When she walked into a room, her warmth, her smile and her joy would instantly fill it. They were infectious. She was constantly teaching me about that other side of life: about people, about love, about her cherished holidays, and about human connection and humanity.”
“I miss her terribly and feel the hole that she left in my heart, I realize much more fully the gift she gave me, and commit to live it and express it in her honor.”
Kalanick’s father survived five broken ribs, a broken leg, and a broken vertebra
The impact of the accident threw Don into the eddy. He suffered five broken ribs, a broken leg and vertebra, and a collapsed lung. Nevertheless, he wrapped Bonnie in life jackets and battled the cold current for two hours as he struggled to get his partner ashore.
“Boats drove by but didn’t see them. Eventually a fisherman found them. My Dad had tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but she was gone,” Travis wrote.
Donald showed incredible resilience in surviving the accident and responding to treatment. In June 2017, Travis dedicated a Father’s day post to Donald. He attached the following caption alongside photos of his father:
“Dad, since I was little, you’ve always been my hero. But in the last few weeks, your deep well of strength and warmth in the toughest times inspires our entire family. Happy Father’s Day to my hero for life. Love you Dad.”
“I want to thank everyone for your heartfelt support and prayers. In the middle of the pain and heartbreak, they mean more than I can say. As I’m sitting here in my Dad’s hospital room in Fresno, I am deeply moved every time another note comes in.”
However, some Uber drivers frustrated by Travis’ leadership shared insensitive comments in Facebook discussion groups. One relatively mild comment read (per Observer):
“I feel very sad for his mother and I wish his father a speeding recovery. But Travis has destroyed many families, so having said that; my condolences to the rest of the family and loved ones, but NOT to TRAVIS.”