Aug 29, 2014 · 4 minutes

Last night, in the basement bar of a Harlem soul food restaurant, New York tech and social entrepreneurs gathered to air things out over two of the most talked-about issues in tech: Diversity and Uber.

Over the past few months, as more and more major tech firms release diversity reports revealing disproportionately low numbers of women and minorities in technology positions, the problem of how to ensure opportunities for non-male, non-white tech workers has taken center stage. So have debates over what responsibilities big, well-funded tech firms have to service minority or low-income communities.

Meanwhile, as the $18 billion dollar technology/transportation company Uber continues to see massive growth, it's become a surrogate in arguments over highly disruptive startups facing regulatory struggles and criticisms over safety and cutthroat competitive tactics.

So when I heard that Zuhairah Scott Washington, general manager of Uber DC, would be interviewed by Kathryn Finney, the founder of digitalundivided which promotes the participation of urban communities in tech, I knew I didn't want to miss it.

The first of digitalundivided's "Innovation Thursdays" did not disappoint, making for a fascinating discussion that shone a light on how the fastest growing technology companies interact with urban communities, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

Washington, unsurprisingly, heralded the many benefits a service like Uber offers drivers, riders, and businesses in urban areas.

"There are only a handful of opportunities where you can, without extensive training, make over $20 an hour on your own time using, with no real startup costs, someone else's technology," she said. Washington also argues that because Uber drivers do not accept cash, the risk to drivers is much lower (more on that later).

As for riders, Washington recalls a time in her younger days when cabs refused to take passengers above 96th street in Manhattan. With Uber, she says, "There is no discrimination regarding where you're going to go." Nor, Finney argues, is there as much discrimination of riders compared to traditional cabs, citing instances when she and her husband struggled to convince taxi drivers to pick them up. Washington claims that the lack of discrimination over rider and location creates ripple effects for businesses off the beaten path that a city's residents may not otherwise visit.

But the narrative of Uber as savior and defender of urban communities isn't quite so airtight. While Uber undoubtedly provides opportunities for workers regardless of their skill level or education, the company has continued to cut fares, which may make customers happy, but hurts drivers. (Uber argues that the reduced fares result in more rides per hour, which makes up for the losses to driver income). Nevertheless, that hasn't stopped drivers in Southern California from aligning with the powerful labor union, the Teamsters, in search of better worker representation.

As for Washington's claims that it's safer to drive an Uber car than a cab, it's worth noting that while Uber drivers don't carry cash, they are guaranteed to have a smartphone. She also mentioned a new partnership with Belkin to provide cars with $200 worth of phone charging equipment which, while good for riders, sweetens the deal for thieves even more. Indeed, Uber drivers in LA have reported a recent spate of robberies at gunpoint. It's unclear whether the criminals are using the app to locate the drivers first, but it's hardly an outlandish conclusion to make.

I mentioned these counterpoints to Washington and asked how Uber, as it continues its massive growth, can prevent itself from becoming as dangerous and exploitative to drivers and passengers as the taxi industry.

While she didn't deny that these issues exist, Washington claimed Uber will deal with these hurdles in a far more innovative and driver/rider-friendly way than the taxi industry historically has.

"We have the, dare I say, burden of being an innovator," Washington says. "You've disrupted the space, and now people expect so much more."

For example, in DC, background checks for cab and livery drivers go back three years, Washington says, while Uber's go back seven. That's an improvement, but now people are demanding lifelong background checks. It's not an easy request to grant, both from a business perspective and in the context of last night's event and the impact Uber has on urban workers. Regarding lifelong background checks, Finney says, "For many African Americans, that can be a challenge."

Washington responded by saying, "There's a balance. That seven-year threshold is based on federal guidelines around Fair Credit Reporting."

In any case, Washington says the key to Uber maintaining service and safety standards, as well as fair wages for drivers, lies in the fact that it operates like a tech company, not a transportation company.

"As a general manager, it's my job to look at our Net Promoter Score across all metrics, the rider side and the driver side," Washington says. "That's not how most businesses were previously run."

One of the most important things to keep in mind when considering Uber's impact on communities is that whatever positive contributions the company makes will be done first and foremost to benefit Uber's business. Hell, if there's anyone strongly opposed to running an altruistic operation, it's the Rand-crazed Travis Kalanick. Finney says that's something community-minded entrepreneurs should keep in mind when convincing big tech firms to get involved.

"Come at it from a business perspective, and not 'what are you guys going to do for me,'" Finney says. For example, the argument she made to convince Uber to participate in digitalundivided events was, "We know we have a lot of black folks, Harlemites, using your app. And by having a presence here you'll reach them."

It's advice that makes sense when dealing with outspoken libertarians like Kalanick, but also with other companies that are equally profit-obsessed, just less brazenly outspoken about it.

"Making the 'feel good' argument doesn't always work," Finney says. "Particularly in the tech world, it rarely works."

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]