The journey startup Away has endured excessive turbulence. Now, it is co-founder Jen Rubio’s job to steer it to stability.
Rubio has simply been appointed Away’s new CEO. She steps into the position at a troublesome time for the firm. After a meteoric rise that led to a $1.4 billion valuation in 2019, the firm confronted blistering allegations a couple of poisonous office tradition, cycled by CEOs, and handled the monetary turmoil of the pandemic, which drove gross sales down by 90% in March and April 2020. Rubio is tasked not simply with stabilizing the firm, but in addition getting ready it to go public. It’s rather a lot to perform—and he or she’s eight months pregnant. “It’s essential to alter the notion that beginning or having a household has any affect on a girls’s ambition,” she says.
Rubio says that she by no means deliberate to turn into CEO. All through her profession, she has been extra enthusiastic about creating manufacturers than managing operations, an important piece of operating an organization. Her household immigrated from the Philippines to New Jersey when she was seven. Whereas an undergrad at Penn State, she interned at Johnson & Johnson, then obtained a job supply to work at Neutrogena. To her dad and mom’ consternation, she stop faculty to take the job and that call was finally the proper one for her, as a result of it paved the manner for her to turn into the head of social media at Warby Parker then the world head of innovation at the London-based vogue model AllSaints.
When she launched Away with Steph Korey in 2015, she needed to rework the humble suitcase—which many customers noticed as a boring commodity—right into a product that might encourage a cult following. She achieved that by strategic branding. “What made Jen stand out is that she understood that journey isn’t a point-to-point transaction,” says Eurie Kim, normal companion at VC agency Forerunner, whom Rubio pitched in 2014 (Forerunner invests in Away). “She realized that you possibly can construct a strong relationship with the shopper from this piece of baggage. And she or he was onto one thing large, as a result of Away actually resonated with the millennial shopper.”
For six years, she served as chief model officer and president, orchestrating collaborations with well-traveled icons like Serena Williams and Rashida Jones and curating Away’s social media aesthetic, which featured lush pictures of aspirational locations like Marrakesh and Iceland. Her day-to-day job concerned flying round the world to direct photoshoots and giving talks at glamorous occasions hosted by Vogue and Google, with talking charges upward of $100,000. Rubio encapsulates the jet-setting way of life to which Away prospects aspire. All through all of this, Korey stayed again at the headquarters main day-to-day operations.
However issues modified in late 2019, when The Verge revealed a scathing investigative article about Away. It featured present and former staff describing Korey’s harsh administration model, which concerned excoriating staff publicly on Slack and anticipating them to work round the clock. The article prompted Korey to step down as CEO in December 2019, however in January 2020, she introduced she was coming again as co-CEO together with Stuart Haselden, who had been recruited from his COO position at Lululemon. “We needed to carry on a non-founder into the position,” Rubio explains. “As an expert govt, he might assist the firm mature and go public.”
At the time, Korey additionally posted a collection of Instagram tales attacking the press for his or her reporting on her. Rubio and Haselden tried to distance themselves from her statements. “Steph’s private social media exercise doesn’t mirror the present priorities of the firm. We stand with you, our staff,” they wrote. However quickly after, these tensions have been eclipsed by the pandemic, which floor journey to a halt, driving Away’s gross sales to a digital standstill. The corporate furloughed half of its 300-person workers, and laid off one other 10%. It additionally halted its bold plans to develop from seven to 50 shops and launch a clothes line designed for journey.
In October 2020, Korey completely parted methods with Away and 4 months later, Haselden left as effectively, leaving an influence vacuum. Rubio threw herself into the govt search, interviewing retail professionals who had expertise taking corporations public. However the board urged she take into account the position herself since the firm was at a weak second in its historical past and, as a founder, she was uniquely positioned to regular the ship. “They needed to discuss me into it,” she explains. “We wanted somebody at the helm who is aware of the firm very well and might present continuity and stability, however who may transfer shortly and take dangers. It’s a tough combine of qualities that solely a founder would have.”
Forerunner’s Kim believes that Rubio has constructed the expertise and information over the previous six years to know whom she must encompass herself with for the firm to succeed. She has helped carry on new hires who can fill in some of her personal gaps in operational expertise, together with the new CFO, Catherine Dunleavy, who beforehand ran world operations at Nike. “She’s been extraordinarily concerned in all the pieces that has occurred at the firm to this point—from team-building to monetary disaster—which has given her new insights she didn’t have as a primary time founder,” says Kim. “She’s the most well-qualified to know what the group wants and who she must carry onto the bus to drive it ahead.”
When she made the choice to take the position, Rubio was intimately conscious of the scrutiny that girls CEOs face, significantly at buzzy startups. Over the years, the feminine founders of Reformation, The Wing, Refinery29, Bando, and Out of doors Voices have been compelled to step down in the midst of worker allegations of mistreatment. Some have argued that these girls leaders have been handled extra harshly than their male counterparts. “Away has undoubtedly been the receiving finish of celebration and pleasure about what we’re capable of do as feminine founders, after which the backlash,” Rubio says.
However watching all of these feminine leaders celebrated then introduced down has made Rubio much more adamant about taking the high job at Away. She worries that rising feminine leaders may be scared off by these tales, which is able to solely exacerbate the gender imbalance in the startup world. Girls-only founding groups obtain lower than 3% of all enterprise capital, and those that do get funding elevate a 3rd of what males do. “I used to draw back from the feminine founder narrative, as a result of I assumed it took away from my accomplishments as an entrepreneur,” Rubio says. “However I now embrace it as a result of it acknowledges that girls have to beat extra to achieve success. If sharing my retailer encourages extra girls to start out corporations or overcome obstacles like fund-raising or getting merchandise made, then I’m completely high-quality with it.”
In a twist, one of Rubio’s first acts as CEO will probably be to guide by instance and take full benefit of the firm’s maternity go away insurance policies, which provides all dad and mom 16 weeks of totally paid time without work that may be taken in a single steady block or break up into smaller increments. Over the previous three years, she has been centered on beginning a household. In 2019, she grew to become engaged to Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder and CEO of Slack, and this previous December, she shared on Instagram that the couple struggled to get pregnant. However after an early miscarriage and a number of rounds of IVF therapies, she’s a month away from giving start. “These developments in my private life have opened my eyes to how way more progress we’d like,” she says. “We have to create workplaces the place staff at any degree can begin households with out it affecting the subsequent steps of their profession.”
Rubio plans to take her maternity go away in small increments, which is able to permit her to maintain tabs on what is taking place at the firm. She has additionally spent the pandemic fairly actually writing the model’s subsequent chapter. Earlier than her appointment as CEO, she helped craft the model’s technique for the post-pandemic world. At its core, Rubio desires Away to be grounded in the perception that journey is a constructive drive in the world, as a result of it promotes openness and inclusivity throughout international locations and cultures. For greater than a 12 months in lockdown, the world has felt smaller, however as folks get vaccinated, Rubio hopes that Away can play a job in serving to take away some of the anxieties round journey.
After the preliminary 90% lower in revenues, Rubio says that gross sales did return slowly, though the firm declines to specify by how a lot. The corporate made the choice to not change its merchandise or branding too radically to adapt to the pandemic. It launched a bigger duffle bag for folks taking highway journeys and backpacks and laptop computer baggage for on a regular basis use. When animal adoptions spiked, Away introduced ahead plans to launch a pet provider. However, in some ways, the model has all the time been designed for the jet-setting millennial and that is not going to alter any time quickly.
Market indicators means that journey is about to rebound. Even earlier than the U.S. vaccination marketing campaign started, customers started to purchase Away suitcases, apparently with the intention of touring in the close to future. Over the previous few months, the firm has tracked a rise in TSA checkpoint passenger figures, the quantity of flights departing worldwide, and Google searches for journey. And the European Union has mentioned it will open its borders to completely vaccinated U.S. residents this summer season. “As a enterprise, we’re a bit forward of the pattern,” she says. “However our knowledge is cementing the speculation that individuals are actually excited to journey once more. They don’t even have journeys deliberate, however they’re preparing for it.”
Rubio is profoundly conscious that the firm gained’t get again to regular till worldwide journey resumes. Whereas greater than 40% of the American inhabitants has been vaccinated, different international locations are struggling to get their fingers on vaccines. In the meantime, India is experiencing a devastating outbreak spurred by a new variant of the illness. Rubio and Butterfield are donating $25 million of their very own cash to UNICEF to help COVAX, the world coalition to enhance vaccine distribution in 92 low- to middle-income international locations. “If folks in additional lucky international locations permit it to take years to vaccinate the relaxation of the world, the pandemic is not going to finish for us both,” she says.
Rubio expects the months forward to be a whirlwind as she juggles being a new mother with serving to Away navigate the finish of the pandemic and assist set up a more healthy firm tradition. However she’s additionally desirous to get Away again on observe to being a high-growth firm, with dozens of shops round the world and a pipeline of new merchandise. Then, she desires to take her firm public. She believes an IPO isn’t so distant. “My position is to bridge the hole between being scrappy and scaling up,” she says. “As a founder, it’s my nature to flex between these two modes.”