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Uber executives share their stories and look to the future

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UMass alumni explained Uber's success and shared advice with students.

Roughly 200 people gathered at 7 p.m. on Monday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for “A Night with Uber Executives” in Mahar Auditorium. The panel featured three Uber execs, all UMass alumni.

The event was hosted by the UMass Entrepreneurship Club and Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. Aleric Heck, a marketing major and president of the UMass Entrepreneurship Club, moderated the panel.

The UMass Entrepreneurship Club’s marketing director, Casey Adams, explained just how successful Uber is. The founders of the app, she said, recognized a valuable market that others didn’t.

Uber, a smartphone application that allows users to find available car rides using their location, was founded in 2009 and since then has spread across multiple countries.

According to the panelists, Uber is on the rise. When they asked the audience who here has never taken an Uber, only three people raised their hands.

According to a Forbes article published in January 2016, the popular ride-hailing app has likely doubled its gross bookings, or fees charged to riders, in the past two years. Uber grew from $2.93 billion in gross bookings in 2014 to $3.63 billion in the first half of 2015.

The concept is simple: download the app, add your information, press a button and get a ride.

“We’re not only offering a cool product… we’re really trying to change the way folks think about transportation,” said Ben Stein, Uber operations and logistics manager in New York.

Stein first took a job with Uber in its New York office when it was still in the start-up stage four years ago. His team of six would stay up all night answering support inquiries and listening to music, which he calls “crunching tickets.”

As the company expanded, Stein said that his job became more “strategic” and “management-focused.”

What keeps Uber growing, according to panelist Nick Matthews, is the company’s “startup within a startup” mentality.

“People are allowed to be fierce, people are allowed to step on toes. Decisions are fueled by data,” said Matthews, senior manager for Uber Boston.

According to Matthews, seniority does not drive decisions at Uber — the best ideas do. Employees that have been with the company for two months, he said, have made major decisions before.

“Some things don’t just trickle down, they trickle up,” said Matthews.

Because Uber doesn’t have many high-up decision makers, Stein said, the job pushes him to be “nimble” and “creative.”

Matt Powers came to Uber after working at Goldman Sachs. When he joined the app, Powers took a risk — and a pay cut.

“I needed something more tangible, something I could really get behind that I feel passionate about,” said Powers.

Now he runs Uber operations for the entire state of Connecticut, working with riders and drivers to ensure an enjoyable experience on both ends. Driver satisfaction, panelists explained, is just as important as the rider’s experience.

“The drivers are our customers just as much as the riders are our customers,” Stein said. “We have teams of people focused on doing good for drivers,” he continued. “We can provide discounts on vehicles, connect them to healthcare and provide discounts on maintenance.”

Uber works to employ as many drivers as possible to ensure that every time a user requests a ride, they get one. If there are no cars available, Uber uses an algorithm, called “Surge Pricing,” to raise the price of a ride.

Looking forward, panelists said the future of Uber holds vast opportunities, like food deliveries, ride-sharing and more handicap accessibility. They hinted that Uber has invested in autonomous vehicles, but did not disclose any information.

UberEATS, said Matthews, is a food delivery app that could reinvent the restaurant industry. Right now, he said, the app is in 12 cities, including New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Though it’s just in the starting stages, Matthews seemed optimistic that it will take off.

Ride-sharing is another budding industry, panelists said. Uber now allows riders to share rides and split fares with other customers requesting similar routes.

Stein said Uber is also working to make its service more handicap accessible. The company encourages dealerships to buy green taxis in New York, paint them black and sell them to Uber drivers to use as handicap accessible vehicles. The UberASSIST program trains drivers to accommodate accessibility needs.

To wrap up the panel, the three execs gave some advice to students looking to break into the business world.

First, said Stein, students should take advantage of the resources at UMass.

“Go to Career Services… have a stream of consciousness conversation and see what comes of it,” Stein said. “Get outside your comfort zone.”

Matthews said the “punk rock” atmosphere of Uber motivates him to go to work each day, and he encouraged students to find something that makes them feel the same way.

“Ask yourself, ‘Do you believe in the product?’” Matthews said. “If you’re bored, you’re not doing it right.”

Stephanie Murray can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @StephMurr_Jour.

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Uber executives share their stories and look to the future