Robert Downer has embraced a growth mindset throughout his Uber journey, following opportunities across three continents. Each time a new opportunity presents itself, he asks himself two things: “What is interesting about this role and what can it give me that will be useful in my future career?” Today, Robert leads strategy for Uber’s New Verticals business covering grocery, alcohol, and retail, and is also a Global Chair of the Pride at Uber Employee Resource Group (ERG), advocating for LGBTQIA+ diversity, inclusion, and allyship. “At Uber, there’s genuinely scope to go anywhere, be yourself, define, and ride the crest of the multiple waves that we create.”
An unexpected path to Uber
Robert started his career in investment banking in London, around the same time that the 2007 financial crisis hit. Although he learned essential foundational skills during that time, his team was laid off after two years and he “decided that banking was interesting, but it was a little high level. I wanted to get under the hood of business and get stuck into operations.” The layoff unexpectedly pushed him down a more rewarding path: on a partner track in strategy consulting. He spent six years doing fulfilling work with leaders and teammates he respected, with the opportunity to discover new and interesting businesses and cultures in countries such as Brazil and Russia.
Robert had no intention to leave consulting, but then something unexpected happened. While building a case for early promotion, he discovered an opportunity to launch Uber in Scotland. Despite never having been to Scotland, he applied for the General Manager position. When he was offered the role of Head of Operations instead, he decided to stay flexible because the opportunity to join a fast-growing startup and launch Uber in a new country was so fantastic.
An Uber globetrotter
The subsequent seven years at Uber have taken him all over the world. He launched Uber in Edinburgh and grew it to 10,000 weekly trips in record time, then was mobilized to launch UberPool in London. From there he elected to answer a call seeking strategy and operations experts, which took him to India for a three-month immersive experience working on competitive strategy and pricing dynamics. Upon returning to London, he defined his own role optimizing service and experience across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and in 2020 relocated to San Francisco to help define Uber’s global strategy as the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed the nature of mobility and delivery.
Now based in New York, Robert leads strategy for Uber’s global new verticals business, defining and growing Uber’s largest investments in grocery, alcohol, retail, and beyond. A natural problem-solver, he likens solving business challenges to solving a puzzle or beating a computer game.
“It’s fun for me, figuring out: How do you optimize? How do you solve the Rubik’s cube? How do you create value from nothing? How do you come up with an idea that works, a magic customer experience? How do you leverage everything that Uber has to make things better, and how do you inspire, develop, and lead teams to do all of that, multiple times over? The ‘toy set’ that we play with at Uber is huge — there is so much ability to create value from thin air. And the people, well, they’re razor-sharp and genuinely passionate about working on bold, innovative, and deeply meaningful projects.”
Being his authentic self
Robert, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, was not out during his time in banking or consulting. Only a few weeks after he joined Uber in 2015, he attended an ERG mixer during a global company offsite. His positive experience there was the first time he felt comfortable to be out in the workplace.
“I thought: ‘I’m at a new company, it’s a chance to start with a clean slate.’ Everyone was lovely and I made some good friends across Uber globally. I then joined Pride at Uber and saw this as a way to augment my own learning and development, and to be the CEO of a significant and fundamentally important entity within Uber – advocating for and representing thousands of employees, and the millions of customers in the global communities we serve.”
He admits that he hit a stumbling block during his time in India. “The second question my team asked me – after my name – was whether I had a girlfriend. I thought about it for a second, said no, and that was that. Taking new opportunities is obviously easier when you can be your authentic self. But, we’re human, and that’s not always easy. Everyone is on their own journey, including me, and I learned a great lesson from that chapter.”
Finding inspiration and the importance of grit
Robert’s first major undertaking as Chair of the Pride ERG in EMEA was to fundraise and organize the Pride Celebrations in London. After successfully lobbying internally to raise senior support and funding Robert was surprised when the parade organizers turned down Uber’s proposal. “If anything, it was just another challenge in a day in the life of Uber. I thought, it’s not personal, but it is up to us to demonstrate our values and tell our story. We’ll try again next year, and we’ll try again the year afterward. This is what we do at Uber, if something’s worth doing, we persist, we innovate.”
Undeterred by the decision in London, Robert turned the focus of his team toward planning Uber’s presence at Pride celebrations elsewhere in the UK, not knowing that inspiration would strike him there. As he and 50 other Uber Pride members and allies waited for the parade to start, they noticed many different flags in the crowd besides the more familiar rainbow design. Investigating the meanings behind the newly discovered flags quickly became the challenge and conversation of the day — the group learned about the pansexual flag, the lesbian flag, and the genderqueer flag among others. The experience stuck with him, and several months later it became the inspiration for an internal initiative for Valentine’s Day.
The Pride at Uber ERG sent cards to thousands of Uber employees in EMEA wishing them a happy Valentine’s Day. The front of the card displayed one of 16 pride flags, while the inside explained the meaning of the flag, and wished employees a “Happy Valentines Day, whoever you choose to love”. If you could find a colleague with the same card and take a photograph together, you would be entered into a prize draw. Robert explains: “It completely blew up. For days the only thing you could hear in the halls, at lunch, was ‘Does anyone have the asexual card?’ and ‘Wait, so how is pansexual different from polysexual?’. At one point, employees rallied to take a group photo with probably a hundred people waving the cards.” The internal campaign was so well-received that it was expanded to become the basis of Uber’s global 2019 Pride marketing campaign — and was one of the first times a company had celebrated a broad range of LGBTQIA+ identities through use of their flags. “This multi-flag approach is now core to everything we do, every time we speak with, or for, the LGBTQIA+ community” Robert explains.
On what makes working at Uber so impactful
When asked what he would say to anyone looking to join Uber, Robert doesn’t hesitate: “At Uber, there’s scope to go anywhere, be yourself, and ride the crest of the multiple waves that we create. This isn’t creating reports that nobody will ever read, or socially engineering endless scroll; our platform is used to move people, feed people, delight people, and enable millions of earners and merchants around the globe. We’re a relatively small team creating an operating system for the physical world. Go anywhere, get anything. That’s what makes working at Uber so impactful. And we’re just getting started.”
Posted by Philip Graumann
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