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Uber’s Policy Boss Is Cutting Team to Make Way for Googlers

Behind closed doors, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick often refers to Rachel Whetstone, his SVP for policy and communication, as the most powerful woman in Silicon Valley. Less than a year after she was hired to replace Obama veteran David Plouffe, it has become clear that Whetstone didn't get to be that powerful by playing nice all the time.

Almost immediately after joining Uber, Whetstone turned toward her old shop, Google, as well as a few other Silicon Valley companies like Square, to fill out the policy roster for the ride-hailing juggernaut as it continued to mount political battles across the globe.

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But Whetstone followed that hiring spree by gutting much of Uber's existing policy team — a process that is still continuing today.

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As more and more ex-Googlers joined the policy and communications ranks, those rounds of hires were accompanied by several rounds of layoffs and departures. Most notably, a few months after Whetstone took over at Uber, two of the startup's recent marquee hires — Matt McKenna, a former spokesperson to President Bill Clinton, and Lane Kasselman, Uber's communication lead for the Americas — left the company. One source close to the matter insists both were among the first round of Whetstone's layoffs. Another source say they left voluntarily.

In February, shortly after their departure, the two started a public relations firm called Greenbrier Partners; they have already enlisted a number of clients in the tech industry, including used-car marketplace Shift, and Strava, which pitches itself as the social network for athletes.

When reached for comment, McKenna said: "Rachel is building a talented team that will forever shape the face of the planet. We wish her nothing but continued success."

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The planet-shaping departures at Uber's policy shop are continuing. Just last week, Karun Arya, the company's communications lead of Southeast Asia and India, abruptly left the company, and was quickly replaced by Amy Kunrojpanya, who is Uber's new director of communications in the Asia Pacific, and was the former head of communications for Google in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Most of the Googlers Whetstone recruited are familiar with the corridors of the Washington, D.C., and Asian markets, two worlds the startup needs to navigate well. They were likely lured by the appeal of a startup, along with the chance to wield greater input; much of the policy decision-making at Google comes from its Mountain View headquarters.

Google is also aiming to soften its political style amid numerous antitrust cases. Whetstone is known for her assertive style (consider her GIF-y retort to Rupert Murdoch), while Google's recent moves, including the appointment of a former Obama advisor at its policy chief, signal a less combative approach.

What that means for Uber going forward will be interesting to watch.

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Until then, here is a not-yet-exhaustive list of some of the ex-Googlers who have been poached, and the Uber employees who have been either let go or departed to make room.

Poached directly from Google:

Deborah Nga: Was country lead for public policy and government affairs for Google in South East Asia, also led international relations efforts in Washington D.C. Now is Uber's head of stakeholder engagement in South East Asia.

Niki Christoff: Was spokesperson for East Coast media, handled press for Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt and formerly served as the chief of staff to Google's chief legal officer; worked on Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Now is Uber's head of federal affairs, handling the company's relationship with the executive branch and congress.

Amy Kunrojpanya: Was head of communications and public affairs in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and emerging markets at Google. Now is Uber's head of communications and public affairs in Asia Pacific.

Davis White: Managed Google's policy relationships in northern California, including its home Silicon Valley turf. Now is on Uber's policy team.

Matthew Kallman: Worked on domestic policy issues for Google, including cybersecurity and energy issues. Now works on Uber's policy team.

Longtime Googlers, who were poached from other companies:

Jill Hazelbaker: Was poached from Snapchat, but served as the senior director of communications and public policy at Google for more than five years prior to that under Whetstone. She now serves as Uber's vice president of communications and policy.

Dorothy Chou: Was poached from Dropbox, but joined Google in 2008, where her last position was as a corporate communications manager. Now Chou is on Uber's public policy team.

People who were either laid off from Uber or otherwise departed the company:

Lane Kasselman: Was Uber's head of communications in the Americas, now is the co-founder of Greenbrier Partners.

Matt McKenna: Was Uber head of communications in North America; is also a co-founder of Greenbrier Partners.

Natalia Montalvo: Was on the communications team at Uber.

Arielle Goren: Was the Uber communications lead of special projects, is now the director of communications at Meerkat.

Trina Smith: Was the director of business and communication at Uber, is now the senior vice president at Method Communications.

Corey Owens: Was the head of public policy at Uber, now heads up public policy at DJI.

Taylor Benett: Was the communications lead at Uber of Eastern North America, now the director of public affairs at Pandora.

Kristin Carvell: Was the head of business and product development at Uber.

Karun Arya: Was the communications lead at Uber of South Asia and India.

Uber declined to comment for this story.

By Johana Bhuiyan and Mark Bergen, Re/code.net.

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