It isn’t an easy time to be with a cab-hailing company. Competition is fierce and disgruntled drivers are often on strike. But Uber’s India and South Asia head, Pradeep Parameswaran, is unfazed. The 44-year-old moved to the top job in June when the San Francisco-based Uber Technologies was reported to be increasing investments in its India unit to wrest market share from local rival Ola. Five months on, Parameswaran says making available an affordable and reliable service to a larger population will be key to Uber’s plans. The company has over 300,000 active drivers doing over 10 million weekly trips in India, which he says is high on the company’s priority list. Uber India is no longer satisfied with being just a car-hailing service. It sees itself as an end-to-end transportation company. In an exclusive interview to Fortune India, Parameswaran reveals how he will navigate the world’s largest cab-hailing firm in that direction. Edited excerpts:
How has your journey been since you took over as India and South Asia head of Uber? What’s keeping you excited?
It’s been fantastic and I am very excited to be in the role. I think we are in a really good space with a good direction. I am already accelerating a few important changes in the way we think about Uber in India. We are making an important pivot in our strategy: to think of Uber as a transportation platform, which means that it’s a lot more than a point-to-point car service, and we are thinking about how to add value across multiple modes of transportation, including thinking about multi models. You have seen conversations not just about road transport but also about some of the exciting opportunities that are there around air as well. That strategy is an important shift for us globally as well as in India. One of the important directional shifts that I have made in my first 100 days at the job is to expand that mandate for us; to think about all modes of transportation with particular focus around two- and three-wheelers in the immediate term, and other options in the longer term.
Can you share some key challenges that came with this role?
As we expand and include multiple modes of transport, we also continue to relentlessly focus on building it on the back of delivery quality, which means the service is more reliable and affordable. The work on that has continued to be challenging—not because of external environments but for problems which are quite complex in themselves to solve on the ground. For example, if you are hailing an Uber in Kolkata in the morning, it could be a two-way street, but in the afternoon, the street is one-directional. So, we need to make sure that maps work. We also have to ensure that drivers are educated so they don’t go in the wrong direction, leading to a bad experience. We have to solve that level of detailing to have a truly distinctive product and experience. I, in my previous role at central operations, was looking at that mandate but now that mandate has expanded multiple times. It is something hard but I am ready to take it head on because for me that is also the basis of the company’s tradition—we are better than anyone else that’s out in the market.
Uber’s success is hard-coded in India success and vice versa, which is why we will not win globally without being a winner in India.Pradeep Parameswaran, head, India and South Asia, Uber
What will create a leader in this space?
We are a very unique service. We are a technology company at heart but operate at the intersection of technology and the physical world. So, the idea: We are a bits-and-atoms business, which means we need a great product and also strong ground operations to have that product work in all contexts, including across massive variations (Mumbai is not the same as Bengaluru). In my view, for every ride, whether it’s happening on a two-wheeler or a three-wheeler or a car or any other mode of transport, if we can make sure that it’s reliable, meaning you get the vehicle when you want it and it is affordable so that it’s a price point that makes sense for both the rider and the driver; and if that can consistently be delivered, I think that is going to be the basis on which we win because it’s really, really hard to do.
How will you increase market share?
The journey we have been on has been very positive. Today, if you ask me or our global leadership team, we are very happy with our current position in India as well as the progress that we have made over the past many months—not just in market share but also in the context of rider and driver love. We have made very positive strides there.
On increasing market share, I actually think differently because ride-sharing is in its infancy all over the world and also in India. If we think about the number of people in India who use Uber services—it is a micro fraction of the 1.3 billion people that we have in the country. And, transportation is a problem that is being faced by everybody. It’s not limited to a small section of society.
So, the way I think is that my singular goal is to make sure we organically make Uber accessible to a much larger population in the way I described earlier—it’s affordable and reliable, and if we are able to do that, I am very confident that we would achieve the objective we started off with.
How is the Uber headquarters looking at India?
Unequivocally, India is very high on the list of global priorities, and the way Dara [Khosrowshahi, Uber’s global CEO] talks about it, Uber’s success is hard-coded in India success and vice versa, which is why we will not win globally without being a winner in India. I will say with my experience, the level of investments, the level of support on the product, the amount of management attention we are getting, all of it is a strong indication of how important India and winning in India is. The other lens which I have been very happy to see is Dara and the way he talks about Uber’s relevance in the world in the next decade and the fact that one in six people in the world lives in this region, for us to be relevant, we think about winning in India not just short-term but winning in India over a decade. Often, strikes are triggered by unions. The recent Mumbai strike is a good example.
Is Uber communicating with unions and union heads, not just now but also on an ongoing basis—to ensure that business disruptions do not happen frequently?
At this point, our biggest priority remains restoring driver partners’ access to earning opportunities on the platform through all possible means and interventions, thereby helping Mumbaikars avail Uber services once more. We are hopeful that law enforcement authorities will help implement the injunction that prevents individuals from intimidating and harassing driver partners from plying their vehicles.
(This story was originally published in the December 2018 issue of the magazine.)