She Supports Uber by Day, Black Professionals by Night
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because only one in 20 San Francisco residents is Black, and she’s trying to develop a support group for them.
By Molly Fosco
When Angela Johnson joined Uber’s litigation team in spring 2017, she stepped straight into a multi-car wreck. The tech company was battling challenges from the state of California over its autonomous vehicle program, as well as the federal government over falsely advertising its drivers’ earnings. Then there were the tales of rampant sexual harassment under then-CEO Travis Kalanick, who was also caught on tape yelling at his own Uber driver.
The company is forging a new path for itself under CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, but in an industry as young as the ride-hailing business, legal hurdles still abound. “I get exposure to many challenges working for Uber,” Johnson says — an understatement if there ever was one. “It’s fun for me.”
An even bigger challenge, she found, is promoting the Black professional community in San Francisco — a city where the African-American population has been steadily decreasing since 1970. Today, only one in 20 San Francisco residents is Black. Enter the Coalition of Black Excellence (CBE), the nonprofit Johnson is driving herself. She envisioned a bridge that would connect the Black community across industries, socioeconomic groups and generations. “We were doing so much for Black History Month, but we needed a nonprofit to keep that momentum going,” Johnson says.
She began to notice something: She was often the only woman or person of color — sometimes both — in the courtroom.
Johnson didn’t always know she would become a lawyer. Growing up in Annandale, Virginia, in the Washington suburbs, she professed to family and friends that she’d be an OB-GYN someday. But when her mom took her to a clinic to learn more about obstetrics, her plans changed rather quickly. “It wasn’t quite what I had in mind,” Johnson laughs. She began reevaluating where she excelled and what she enjoyed. Not long after, Johnson attended an event hosted by Virginia Girls State, an organization that engages 11th- and 12th-grade girls in politics. She ran for governor of the mock government and, to her delight, she won. “It really gave me that itch for policy and politics,” she says.
A political science major at the University of Virginia, Johnson’s study-abroad experience in South Africa piqued her interest in foreign policy and international law. At the University of Pennsylvania Law School she found that litigating came naturally. But as Johnson got further along in her litigation career, she began to notice something: She was often the only woman or person of color — sometimes both — in the courtroom. “It made me realize I needed to encourage more Black women to go into technical fields,” she says. Johnson didn’t know it at the time, but this thought planted the idea for CBE.
After law school, Johnson accepted a job as litigation counsel for Hewlett-Packard, but four-and-a-half years later, she longed to work on the consumer side. That’s what attracted her to Uber, where she started as litigation counsel in March 2017. Kalanick left a few months after Johnson started, to be replaced by Khosrowshahi. Johnson is not eager to divulge much of anything about her controversial employer: “I think our new leadership is good,” she says. “I like the direction we’re moving in.”
Part of that new direction means ensuring “people of diverse backgrounds feel welcome,” as Khosrowshahi wrote in a November 2017 LinkedIn post addressing the company’s new cultural norms. That includes an expansion of employee resource groups (ERGs), which support and celebrate staff from all different backgrounds. In the past year, Uber’s ERGs grew from about 2,000 members to nearly 7,000 around the world.
It will take much more than diversity initiatives for Uber to survive. “They have yet to show they can be ethical where it impacts their bottom line,” says Murray Goulden, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham, who argues the company’s business model will be its downfall. Uber lost its license in London but now has it back provisionally, as it continues to appeal a 2016 ruling in the U.K. that their drivers are their employees, and thus subject to a minimum wage.
But among its full-time employees in the Bay, Uber’s ERGs have helped seed something powerful. As a member of “Uber Hue,” a group for Uber employees of color, Johnson was planning events for Black History Month with fellow members in late 2017. But she wanted to do something bigger and better. “Growing up in D.C., I was inspired by events like the Congressional Black Caucus [Foundation], which is such an amazing networking experience,” Johnson says. “I wanted to see that model in the Bay.”
She began connecting with interested friends and acquaintances from other companies and reaching out to sponsors. Last year, the group donated $33,000 to several organizations that support science, technology, engineering and math education, as well as entrepreneurship in communities of color. This year, they’re funding scholarships for first-generation college students.
It can be hard to keep up. Between working full-time, running a startup nonprofit and finding time to spend with her husband (who’s on the policy team at Google), there’s not room for much else. “I used to go horseback riding all the time,” Johnson says. “Now it’s just Uber and CBE.”
Still, if anyone is up for the challenge, it’s Johnson. “Angela is profoundly tenacious and committed,” says Taj Winston, a Texas lawyer who filed the paperwork to establish CBE as a nonprofit and is a member of its advisory board. “We’ve had calls about CBE at random times of the day and night, [but] she’s sacrificing a lot for the impact it will have on the Black community.”
In February, CBE Week — filled with workshops, panels and networking events — culminated with a gala at San Francisco’s Metreon event center. Party-goers danced wildly to the music of singer PJ Morton, and the delicious smell of traditional soul, Cajun and Caribbean food wafted through the air, prepared by Blackberry Soul Fine Catering. It was an unusual sight for San Francisco — “All these Black people dressed to the nines in hats, tuxes, sparkles and velvet,” Johnson says. But it was also a picture of what she wants her organization to become: “a space for people to celebrate Black culture,” in a town that could use a little.