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Uber talks growth, competition, and it's future

Uber is the most valuable, venture capital-backed private company in the world — and it's worth every penny.

So says Ryan Graves, Uber's 32-year-old head of global operations in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with CNBC. The ride-hailing company has already raised nearly $8 billion and is valued at $51 billion, according to CB Insights.

Some investors might question such a lofty price tag, but Graves suggests it makes sense for a company that is upending and redefining the global transportation system.

Investors are betting on the future success and reach of the service. "We've really never let them down," Graves said.

In just five years, Uber has grown at a historic clip. The service now boasts more than one million active drivers picking up and dropping off passengers in more than 300 cities around the world. The company could generate net revenue this year of $2 billion, according to Reuters.

Still, Uber also faces challenges including regulatory hurdles in Europe and the ongoing fight in the U.S. about whether the company's drivers should be classified as employees rather than contract workers.

In June, a California labor commissioner ruled that an Uber driver was an employee. Uber is appealing that decision, which could have broad ramifications for the start-up's cost structure, forcing it to pay worker's compensation and unemployment insurance.

Woman using Uber app
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The company counters that the contractor model affords its drivers more flexibility: They can set their own hours and work simultaneously for competing ride-hailing services.

Uber isn't backing down from its fight over this issue, noting that the contractor model works best given how most drivers use the service.

"Over half our drivers are using the platform less than 10 hours a week," Graves said. "So, for this full-time discussion, that's just not how our platform is used. When you dig into the data on how drivers think about using Uber, to earn supplemental income, it becomes pretty obvious."

Beyond regulatory hurdles, the other big challenge for Uber? Competition.

Stateside, there is Lyft and, in China, there is Didi Kuaidi, which is billed as Uber's mortal enemy. In fact, those two companies — Lyft and Didi Kuaidi — recently announced a partnership allowing Lyft to operate in China for the first time.

Graves, however, welcomes the rivalry.

"I like the competition," he said. "I think it's good for us. It keeps us on our toes, and makes sure that we're focusing on the right things. When you use Uber versus any other competitor, you're going to see the things we focus on. You're going to see that reliability. You're going to see an application that's easy to use."

Uber has become the symbol of Silicon Valley unicorns, or those private companies worth $1 billion or more. Graves isn't saying when the company might make a debut in the public market but says, if that occurs, investors would appreciate the company's business model.

"We're learning as we go," he said. "In that regard, we're very much still a start-up. It's still definitely in our in our blood. If we can continue to grow and learn, and take on those challenges, I think investors are likely to be pretty happy with the outcome."