I’ve been using Uber to travel everywhere in Penang, Malaysia. The public transportation system is quite unreliable (I’m shaking my head at my past self complaining about the STM in Montreal.)

Uber has been good to me. But Uber has been even better to the drivers.

Despite Malaysia’s capitol having trouble with angry cab drivers, Penang welcomed Uber about 6 months ago. To avoid the drivers being hassled by police or taxis, I always sit in the front seat. Turns out sitting in the front allows for better free flowing conversations, and it makes all the difference between taxis and Ubers.

The island is quite small, and I tend to ride with the same drivers often. Some have even begun to feel like friends.

Most stories are similar; they began driving on their spare time as a means of earning extra income, and best of all, it gives them the opportunity to meet people from around the world. Some drivers explain that they had never met anyone from Zimbabwe, or Switzerland or Texas, so picking up a client from the airport is like a game of roulette, and you might win a totally immersive one-on-one geography session.

Some drivers have confessed that there is no better way to network than to drive Uber and now dedicate their free time to driving and distributing their personal business cards. I couldn’t help but laugh at the truth! Instead of a 30 second elevator pitch, you can benefit from being stuck in a 45minute traffic jam to really persuade a sale.

But best of all have been those who drive Uber because it’s the best thing to ever happen to them. Turns out for some people, Uber is just what the doctor ordered.

I recently drove with K, a middle aged Indian-Malaysian who worked his whole life in the shipping industry. He told me how much he loved that job and the around-the-clock work, even when it required 1am wake up calls. But K was in an accident leaving him with a crushed leg. He could no longer walk, much less work. He told me how stir crazy he had become. Uber was just the thing he needed, a job that required him to do nothing but sit and drive.

Yesterday, I wanted to finish up some Christmas shopping. That’s when I hopped in the car with Carrie. She was full of smiles and everything I said seemed to make her giggle! I hardly noticed her right arm, which rested on her lap as she drove. She told me she had had a stroke 15 years ago which left her unable to speak nor make use of that arm. For a decade she could not utter a word and lived in total frustration. She couldn’t work and had little opportunity to be with friends. Years later, she successfully was able to speak little bits…but in english! A native Mandarin speaker, she could no longer pronounce anything in Chinese. English was better than nothing, but not good enough to converse with mandarin friends and family around her. Therapists continuously encouraged her to practice and surround herself with people she could speak to, so as soon as she discovered Uber, she applied. Rejected at first due to her condition, she marched to the Uber head office and managed to take the manager for a spin, and it was nothing short of 5 stars!

I’ve started to really love Uber, not only for what it offers me as a customer, but for the opportunities it drives. I’m not blind to the bad press it’s received lately…but for all intents and purposes, I’ve parked the issue. So next time you take an Uber, I encourage you to try sitting in the front!