Every six months, Prabhjeet Singh, president, Uber India & South Asia, gets into an Uber vehicle, fires up the Uber app and hits the road as a driver for a day. It gives him unparalleled insight into the experience of both drivers and riders, bridging the divide between the front and back seats—a few inches of space that change everything in class-conscious India.
“The first time I drove in 2016, I came back to the office and did an all-hands meeting. Creating respect for the vocation of driving was an internal mission we had but it became much more real when I drove. We all understand the fault lines in Indian society—class, caste, religion—but there is another fault line that I call ‘the yellow plate faultline’. It’s a fact that if you are the driver of a commercial vehicle versus driving your own car, you just get treated differently," says Singh.
“Once I got pulled over by a cop while waiting for the next trip. I was like, ‘what did I do wrong?’, and he said ‘sau rupaye do’ (give 100 rupees). It was bizarre, and, at the end of the day, I realised that for me this was just a few hours’ experience, while it’s an everyday thing for drivers," recalls Singh.
There have been fulfilling experiences as well. “I remember driving a young woman who was picking up her child from preschool. We started chatting and she said, ‘I can only put my child in playschool because of Uber, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible because my husband is at work.’ It was the fulfilment of an ambition for her. We do create these very vital material unlocks for people."
“So yes, I do have a driver profile—and I have a five-star rating," he chuckles.
We are meeting at Uber Technologies’ main office in Bengaluru, in one of the tech parks that line the Sarjapur-Marathahalli road on the city’s outskirts, a vast hive of special economic zones and office complexes housing many of the world’s top tech companies. I got there in an (you guessed it) Uber vehicle, chatting with the driver about the issues he faces every day. “The company takes away almost 30% of my daily earnings," he says. This has been a common complaint in Bengaluru over the past year—that despite rising ride charges, drivers aren’t making as much.
Singh is empathetic but says the company’s “cut" isn’t 30%—it’s “sub-20%". “Look, 5% GST (goods and services tax) goes to the government and Uber then takes a sub-20% service fee. And of that, roughly half gets reinvested as incentives for drivers. When drivers spend more time on the platform, they learn, they understand. But there’s always a new influx of drivers coming in and this is our challenge to solve, given that there are many drivers who may not be the most digitally savvy. How do we do that at our scale? With 800,000 individual drivers, how do we help them appreciate the dynamics of the business?"
Increasing transparency is Singh’s solution—about a year ago, he implemented a change on the platform that allows drivers across India to see the drop location and the mode of payment; an information gap that was leading to an enormous number of cancellations and friction between drivers and customers. This is contrary to a core value the company once espoused—that drivers would accept any ride while they were online.
MORE FROM THIS SECTIONview all
“I took on this responsibility (as the India chief) in 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. A horrible time, a humanitarian crisis and also a time when a business you have been part of building has gone to zero. The task was to rebuild it and one of the things I did was over-communicate. I used to record a podcast that would go out to 600,000 drivers, dubbed in multiple languages," he says, adding: “But then we realised that it was still one-way communication, so we have steadily built a more consultative process with drivers." This includes creating a Driver Advisory Council in partnership with the Bengaluru-based think tank Aapti Institute, which allows the company to hear directly from driver-partners on issues like earnings, social security, app experience and safety.
One of Singh’s missions has also been to ensure diversity in Uber’s product offerings across needs and budgets. Around 2019, the company started adding three- and two-wheelers to the line-up, along with options such as Uber Rentals and Uber Connect. Singh is passionate about Uber Shuttle, a bus service that’s rolling out in the National Capital Region, and wants to see their book-a-seat service for public buses grow. He’s also excited about Uber Green, a project to deploy 25,000 electric vehicles; it will roll out next month in seven cities. User numbers are showing growth—after an almost 50% drop in revenue during FY21, the numbers bounced back quickly, with Indians booking 500 million rides via Uber in 2022.
India has presented Uber, which is present in over 70 countries and 10,500 cities, with unique challenges. Singh has weathered many of these in his eight-year stint with the company, which he joined as head of strategy and planning in 2015.
“Typically, drivers in India are digitally less savvy. Many interact with a smartphone for the first time when they start driving for Uber. Many are migrants. So there is a lot of disruption in India from how Uber typically works in other countries, where someone who owns a car fires up the app and starts driving. The majority of our drivers still get on to the platform with some physical interaction," he says.
One of the first issues that came up was of offering cash as a payment option. In most countries, there is barely any interaction between the driver and customer. “Historically, Uber was positioned as everyone’s private driver—the core thesis was that you could treat it like your own car and just step out," Singh recalls. He recognised that this was limiting the number of customers in India. “I remember having a very strong debate with Travis (Kalanick, co-founder and former CEO of Uber) in 2015 where I had to convince him that we had to launch cash. The cash payment option was piloted in India—Hyderabad was the first market in August 2015—and the business just grew exponentially. It also opened up a new lever for us to grow globally. Since then, cash has been taken to almost every other market," says Singh.
Singh uses the word “magical" quite often while describing what Uber does. “This is my eighth year running and it still feels like I have barely started because the challenge of taking something which is incredibly beautiful, globally, and then localising it is very fulfilling. It’s almost magical to see it enable livelihoods, see it solve for genuine mobility opportunities, and, in some form, indirectly contribute to nation building, because I truly believe that the way India has to grow cannot be through private vehicle ownership. It has to be through shared mobility. We don’t have the luxury of putting billions of dollars into expanding roads and creating infrastructure. So the job, in some form, is about those rare opportunities, which I think very few platforms provide. It has just been incredibly inspiring and powerful for me," says Singh.
It has also made socialising difficult. “There is not a single social setting that doesn’t start with Uber complaints," he laughs. “Nowadays I just tell friends, ‘let’s start this party with a 10-minute download of all complaints.’"
Responding to real-time changes in the way the business operates—and everything from rains and road conditions to global events like the pandemic and fuel price hikes impacts it—takes a lot of agility. “It is intense, it is one of the most intense jobs," he admits, before breaking into a grin and pointing to his salt and pepper beard: “I am younger than I look, seriously," says the 41-year-old. “It was a great asset to have when I was a management consultant but now, as a father of a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, it’s not that great."
He has been what one may call a career business executive. A top student through school, Singh went to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, graduating in electronics and communication engineering and going straight on to the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. In 2005, he worked as a senior analyst with the now-defunct Lehman Brothers in London for a few months, moving to McKinsey & Co. in Delhi in 2006—he spent almost a decade at the business consultancy and became associate partner before joining Uber in 2015. Asked if he ever wonders about a different career path, Singh says, a bit self-consciously, “No. You see, growing up, my dream was always to wear a black suit and do business meetings." His path followed that of a majority of Indian business leaders—his parents were “solid middle-class people". His father worked at a public sector bank, his mother was a schoolteacher, and they lived in Rohini, in north-west Delhi. “So in that sense I had no business environment around me but I was always fascinated by problem-solving and I found the problems of the business world super fascinating. Even at IIT, I used to subscribe to business newspapers and be a target of ridicule for all my friends, but I used to get my kicks out of figuring out how business strategies evolved and all that," he recalls.
His life changed in one very significant way at IIM; he met his wife Sucheta Mahapatra there. “Sucheta is an Odiya Brahmin, I am Sikh—it was a full 2 States story playing out," he says, referring to the Chetan Bhagat novel about IIM graduates from different cultural backgrounds who fall in love.
They had a parallel career in some sense. While Singh was at McKinsey, Mahapatra, currently the managing director of fintech company Branch International, was at Bain & Company, and they would joke that they were “sleeping with the enemy" because they would often turn up for the same client pitch. “But her journey has been so much more remarkable than mine. I have had it relatively easy while she has had to take a break twice when we had our kids. She has truly educated me—what my values are, how I perceive women’s careers," he says. “I will attribute it to her experience that I fully appreciate how hard it is for women in India—smart, incredible women—to truly succeed.... So one of the things I hope I can do in my personal journey is have a far bigger impact on creating more inclusive workplaces."
Ultimately, he thinks of himself as the captain of a football team rather than a cricket team—“a younger version of me would have said cricket without hesitation...have the best batsmen, the best bowlers. It is theoretically possible for one rockstar player to win a cricket match, but not football. Today, I realise that what you need is a team where you are one of 11."
- FIRST PUBLISHED02.06.2023 | 07:43 AM IST