Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s much younger ex-girlfriend, Gabi Holzwarth, has spilled the beans on more questionable behavior by senior company executives.
In an interview with Silicon Valley publication The Information, Holzwarth revealed this weekend that Kalanick and a group of five high-ranking Uber executives visited a shady “escort bar” while in Seoul, South Korea during a business trip in mid-2014. While at the bar, Holzwarth says, four of the Uber executives chose from a selection female escorts who had numbers attached to them like cattle at an auction.
The incident sparked a complaint a year later to Uber’s human resources chief when one of the Uber executives, a female marketing manager who was part of the group, complained that in hindsight the outing made her uncomfortable.
Holzwarth, a virtuoso violinist who’s 13 years younger than Kalanick, revealed to The Information that she had corresponded with the female marketing manager, who told her that “[I]t made me feel horrible as a girl (seeing those girls with number tags and being called out is really degrading).”
It’s been three years since the alleged incident and Holzwarth, who’s now broken up with Kalanick, has finally gone public. She’s speaking out now that Uber’s become engulfed in a firestorm of sexual harassment allegations. The company’s been described by a former employee as a “sexist, chaotic hell hole.”
Holzwarth says she’s only speaking out because a top executive at the company, a close friend of Kalanick’s, recently called her and asked her to keep the 2014 escort incident a secret.
Specifically, Holzwarth alleges that Uber senior VP Emil Michael—whom she identified as one of the men in the group that visited the escort bar—expressed his fears that the incident would be revealed to the press. He repeatedly called on her to tell anyone who asked about the incident that they had simply visited a “karaoke bar and had a good time.”
But just karaoke it wasn’t. Holzwarth describes the escort bar as a place where women in skimpy outfits, wearing numbers, sat in plastic chairs as men “sized them up” and decided who they’d take downstairs to sing karaoke and become privately acquainted with them. Holzwarth says she and Kalanick left the shady establishment after less than an hour, when the female marketing executive appeared visibly upset. She says she doesn’t know what happened with the remaining male executives and the women they’d selected afterwards.
Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, but often clients of escort bars, after singing karaoke and drinking with the women, will bring them back to their hotel rooms.
Speaking to The Information, Holzwarth says she would’ve kept the 2014 incident a secret had Emil Michael not reached out to her to demand her silence.
“I’m not going to lie for them,” she said, describing Kalanick as “part of a class of privileged men who have been taught they can do whatever they want, and now they can.”
Michael contradicts Holzwarth’s version of the events, telling The Information that he’d simply reached out to her to give her a head’s up.
“Given the intense news cycle I thought it was the right thing to do to reach out and let her know that reporters may try to contact her directly,” he said to The Information. “I have known her for a long time, consider her a friend and did not want her to be taken by surprise. Her recollection of this conversation was different from mine and I am very sorry if the purpose of my call was misunderstood.”
Uber has hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate its sexual harassment problems, and the company is also conducting a search for a “number two” to help the impulsive and high-spirited Kalanick better govern the company.