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With just her words, Susan Fowler brought Uber to its knees

Susan Fowler
Source: Shalon Van Tine

This profile is part of the inaugural Recode 100, a list of the people who mattered in tech, business and media in 2017. Read the full list here.

Feb. 19, 2017, was Uber's day of reckoning. The $69 billion ride-hailing company, which for years had operated as a freewheeling and rapacious startup with billions in the bank led by a cutthroat founder, was forced to atone for its sins at the hands of one of its former employees: Susan Fowler.

Fowler's weapon of choice? Her words.

In a 3,000-word essay, Fowler detailed the sexism and harassment she faced at the company where she was a site reliability engineer for a year. Her essay, which details how her managers did little to rectify her issues, shed light on a system that protected high performers when accused of bad behavior like harassment.

The company was protecting "brilliant jerks," as Uber board member Arianna Huffington referred to them, and Susan Fowler called them on it.

Her essay set into motion a series of events that ultimately resulted in the ouster of notoriously combative Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, his deputy Emil Michael and the termination of 20 or so employees who'd been accused of harassment or other issues.

"I feel a sense of relief, and a great deal of optimism for our future," Fowler told Recode. "It seems to me that this year, our country finally stood up and said that awful treatment of women will not be tolerated."

After Fowler's essay went public, Uber hired two separate law firms to launch a pair of investigations into Fowler's and other employee's allegations of harassment and other issues at the company. Born out of one of those investigations was a still-confidential report — often referred to as the Holder report after Eric Holder, one of the lead attorneys conducting the probe — that detailed myriad instances of executive misconduct.

The report also became a central focus of a lawsuit against Kalanick from one of the company's early investors, Benchmark, which also controls a board seat.

Notably, the fallout from Fowler's essay marked the first time a public scandal made a material impact on Uber's business. The company, which had built a stronghold against its U.S. rival Lyft until this year, ceded market share to its younger, less-funded competitor. It was sparked by the first #DeleteUber campaign, before Fowler's essay was published, but persisted throughout the year.

In the meantime, as Uber grappled with its series of unfortunate events under the leadership of its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, another more consequential movement was taking shape.

Fowler's essay was a big ripple in what is known as this year's #metoo movement — a campaign that was first started by Tarana Burke in 2007. In the weeks after Fowler's experience at Uber came to light, women who had suffered harassment or sexism within the tech industry became emboldened to come forward.

Other women — including Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, Leiti Hsu, Joelle Emerson, Sarah Kunst and Cheryl Yeoh — have revealed similar stories of sexism or sexual harassment they faced, often at the hands of powerful men. Uber's moment of reckoning had swept the tech industry.

"It's bigger than me, and it's bigger than Uber," Fowler said. "For the first time, women are able to come forward with their own stories and they are being heard and they are being believed. Most importantly, there have been real consequences for the perpetrators."

Now, Fowler — who is expecting her first child in January — has found herself in the spotlight.

Her memoir is being published by Viking Books and her year-long stint at the ride-hail company is even being turned into a movie. More than that, she's become something of an advocate on women's issues within and beyond tech.

"There is a lot of work to be done in our country," she said. "We need better workplace protections for all employees, we need better policies for parents (like paid parental leave and state-sponsored daycare), and so much more. I'm trying to figure out where I can help the most, what work I can do to make our country just a little bit better."

Her newfound prominence has taken some getting used to, Fowler admitted. The cheery and personable engineer is often cautious about what she weighs in on, knowing that her words carry a certain magnitude. But when she does weigh in, she rarely pulls any punches.

Fowler, 26, has many passions. She's an avid reader, with a goal of reading 52 books a year; she is the editor in chief of a digital magazine, Increment, published by her new employer, Stripe; she studied physics at the University of Pennsylvania; she wants to be a mathematician.

"I have no singular destiny, no one true passion, no goal. I flutter from one thing to the next," she wrote in May. "I want to be a physicist and a mathematician and a novelist and write a sitcom and write a symphony and design buildings and be a mother. I want to run a magazine and understand the lives of ants and be a philosopher and be a computer scientist and write an epic poem and understand every ancient language."

"I don't just want one thing," she continued. "I want it all."

For now, Fowler will have to settle for being the woman whose words and persistence brought a unicorn to its knees.

"The best way I can summarize it is this," Fowler said. "It was the right thing to do."

By Johana Bhuiyan , Recode

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.

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