The travel startup Away has endured extreme turbulence. Now, it is co-founder Jen Rubio’s job to steer it to stability.
Rubio has just been appointed Away’s new CEO. She steps into the role at a difficult time for the company. After a meteoric rise that led to a $1.4 billion valuation in 2019, the company faced blistering allegations about a toxic workplace culture, cycled through CEOs, and dealt with the financial turmoil of the pandemic, which drove sales down by 90% in March and April 2020. Rubio is tasked not just with stabilizing the company, but also preparing it to go public. It’s a lot to accomplish—and she’s eight months pregnant. “It’s important to change the perception that starting or having a family has any impact on a women’s ambition,” she says.
Rubio says that she never planned to become CEO. Throughout her career, she has been more passionate about creating brands than managing operations, a crucial piece of running a company. Her family immigrated from the Philippines to New Jersey when she was seven. While an undergrad at Penn State, she interned at Johnson & Johnson, then received a job offer to work at Neutrogena. To her parents’ consternation, she quit school to take the job and that decision was ultimately the right one for her, because it paved the way for her to become the head of social media at Warby Parker then the global head of innovation at the London-based fashion brand AllSaints.
When she launched Away with Steph Korey in 2015, she wanted to transform the humble suitcase—which many consumers saw as a boring commodity—into a product that could inspire a cult following. She accomplished that through strategic branding. “What made Jen stand out is that she understood that travel isn’t a point-to-point transaction,” says Eurie Kim, general partner at VC firm Forerunner, who first met Rubio in 2014 and went on to invest in Away. “She realized that you could build a powerful relationship with the consumer from this piece of luggage. And she was onto something big, because Away really resonated with the millennial consumer.”
For six years, she served as chief brand 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 images of aspirational destinations like Marrakesh and Iceland. Her day-to-day job involved flying around the world to direct photoshoots and giving talks at glamorous events hosted by Vogue and Google, with speaking fees upward of $50,000. Rubio encapsulates the jet-setting lifestyle to which Away customers aspire. Throughout all of this, Korey stayed back at the headquarters leading day-to-day operations.
But things changed in late 2019, when The Verge published a scathing investigative article about Away. It featured current and former employees describing Korey’s harsh management style, which involved excoriating employees publicly on Slack and expecting them to work around the clock. The article prompted Korey to step down as CEO in December 2019, but in January 2020, she announced she was coming back as co-CEO along with Stuart Haselden, who had been recruited from his COO role at Lululemon. “We wanted to bring on a non-founder into the role,” Rubio explains. “As a professional executive, he could help the company mature and go public.”
At the time, Korey also posted a series of Instagram stories attacking the press for their reporting on her. Rubio and Haselden tried to distance themselves from her statements. “Steph’s personal social media activity does not reflect the current priorities of the company. We stand with you, our employees,” they wrote. But soon after, these tensions were eclipsed by the pandemic, which ground travel to a halt, driving Away’s sales to a virtual standstill. The company furloughed half of its 300-person staff, and laid off another 10%. It also halted its ambitious plans to expand from seven to 50 stores and launch a clothing line designed for travel.
In October 2020, Korey permanently parted ways with Away and four months later, Haselden left as well, leaving a power vacuum. Rubio threw herself into the executive search, interviewing retail professionals who had experience taking companies public. But the board suggested she consider the role herself since the company was at a vulnerable moment in its history and, as a founder, she was uniquely positioned to steady the ship. “They had to talk me into it,” she explains. “We needed someone at the helm who knows the company really well and can provide continuity and stability, but who can also move quickly and take risks. It’s a hard mix of qualities that only a founder would have.”
Forerunner’s Kim believes that Rubio has built the skills and knowledge over the past six years to understand whom she needs to surround herself with for the company to succeed. She has helped bring on new hires who can fill in some of her own gaps in operational experience, including the new CFO, Catherine Dunleavy, who previously ran global operations at Nike. “She’s been extremely involved in everything that has happened at the company to date—from team-building to financial crisis—which has given her new insights she didn’t have as a first time founder,” says Kim. “She’s the most well-qualified to know what the team needs and who she needs to bring onto the bus to drive it forward.”
When she made the decision to take the role, Rubio was intimately aware of the scrutiny that women CEOs face, particularly at buzzy startups. Over the years, the female founders of Reformation, The Wing, Refinery29, Bando, and Outdoor Voices have been forced to step down in the midst of employee allegations of mistreatment. Some have argued that these women leaders were treated more harshly than their male counterparts. “Away has definitely been the receiving end of celebration and excitement about what we’re able to do as female founders, and then the backlash,” Rubio says.
But watching all of these female leaders celebrated then brought down has made Rubio even more adamant about taking the top job at Away. She worries that emerging female leaders might be scared off by these stories, which will only exacerbate the gender imbalance in the startup world. Women-only founding teams receive less than 3% of all venture capital, and those who do get funding raise a third of what men do. “I used to shy away from the female founder narrative, because I thought it took away from my accomplishments as an entrepreneur,” Rubio says. “But I now embrace it because it acknowledges that women have to overcome more to be successful. If sharing my store encourages more women to start companies or overcome obstacles like fund-raising or getting products made, then I’m totally fine with it.”
In a twist, one of Rubio’s first acts as CEO will be to lead by example and take full advantage of the company’s maternity leave policies, which gives all parents 16 weeks of fully paid time off that can be taken in one continuous block or split into smaller increments. Over the past three years, she has been focused on starting a family. In 2019, she became engaged to Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder and CEO of Slack, and this past December, she shared on Instagram that the couple struggled to get pregnant. But after an early miscarriage and multiple rounds of IVF treatments, she’s a month away from giving birth. “These developments in my personal life have opened my eyes to how much more progress we need,” she says. “We need to create workplaces where employees at any level can start families without it affecting the next steps in their career.”
Rubio plans to take her maternity leave in small chunks, which will allow her to keep tabs on what is happening at the company. She has also spent the pandemic quite literally writing the brand’s next chapter. Before her appointment as CEO, she helped craft the brand’s strategy for the post-pandemic world. At its core, Rubio wants Away to be grounded in the belief that travel is a positive force in the world, because it promotes openness and inclusivity across countries and cultures. For more than a year in lockdown, the world has felt smaller, but as people get vaccinated, Rubio hopes that Away can play a role in helping remove some of the anxieties around travel.
After the initial 90% decrease in revenues, Rubio says that sales did return slowly, although the company declines to specify by how much. Away made the decision not to change its products or branding too radically to adapt to the pandemic. It released a larger duffle bag for people taking road trips and backpacks and laptop bags for everyday use. When animal adoptions spiked, Away brought forward plans to release a pet carrier. But, in many ways, the brand has always been designed for the jet-setting millennial and that is not going to change any time soon.
Market indicators suggests that travel is about to rebound. Even before the U.S. vaccination campaign began, consumers began to buy Away suitcases, apparently with the intention of traveling in the near future. Over the past few months, the company has tracked an increase in TSA checkpoint passenger figures, the number of flights departing worldwide, and Google searches for travel. And the European Union has said it would open its borders to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens this summer. “As a business, we’re a little ahead of the trend,” she says. “But our data is cementing the hypothesis that people are really excited to travel again. They don’t even have trips planned, but they’re getting ready for it.”
Rubio is profoundly aware that the company won’t get back to normal until international travel resumes. While more than 40% of the American population has been vaccinated, other countries are struggling to get their hands on vaccines. Meanwhile, India is experiencing a devastating outbreak spurred by a new variant of the disease. Rubio and Butterfield are donating $25 million of their own money to UNICEF to support COVAX, the global coalition to improve vaccine distribution in 92 low- to middle-income countries. “If people in more fortunate countries allow it to take years to vaccinate the rest of the world, the pandemic is not going to end for us either,” she says.
Rubio expects the months ahead to be a whirlwind as she juggles being a new mom with helping Away navigate the end of the pandemic and help establish a healthier company culture. But she’s also eager to get Away back on track to being a high-growth company, with dozens of stores around the world and a pipeline of new products. Then, she wants to take her company public. She believes an IPO isn’t so far away. “My role is to bridge the gap between being scrappy and scaling up,” she says. “As a founder, it’s my nature to flex between these two modes.”