Portrait of a Girlboss: Why Away co-founders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio want to change the way you travel
Technically speaking, Steph Korey and Jen Rubio never really agreed to start a business together. But back in 2011, when they walked in on the same day to start work at a promising little 15-person startup in New York called Warby Parker, some fast-moving wheels were set in motion. Steph, coming off working as a buyer for Bloomingdale’s and then Kate Spade, was one of the first employees brought on to work on the supply chain for Warby, while Jen, who had spent the years leading up to that point designing a heretofore nonexistent role for herself as a social media expert for companies like Neutrogena, Ford, Disney and Amazon, was brought on to incorporate the new frontier of social media into their marketing efforts.
Born three weeks apart, the pair bonded not over their similarities so much as their differences: “The thing was that we literally never worked together. There was very little overlap in what our day to day work was. We’re just completely left brain, right brain. Any time we wanted a breather or to talk about a work situation or anything like that, we would go to coffee with each other and get to vent, because that person wasn't involved in that particular situation ever,” Steph told us. After three years at Warby Parker, in the time it went from double digits to over 300 employees, both Steph and Jen decided it was time for a change; Steph enrolled in business school at Columbia and Jen moved to London to take on a position as the Global Head of Innovation for All Saints. But after about a year, Jen knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term fit: “I was heading up an innovation shop with a private equity-backed company, which means [my] goals were completely different [from the investors’]. It was an amazing, amazing experience, but it was also like ‘Holy shit. What have I done?’ It was just crazy.”
It was around that time that Jen was flying back home from Switzerland and her suitcase broke, and so she set out to buy a new one, which turned out to be more difficult than it sounds. She asked around for recommendations from well-traveled friends, but no one was particularly passionate about any one brand. “It got me thinking: Where is that brand with a great customer experience? Why does shopping for luggage suck so much? How come no one cares about it?”
This topic came up when her and Steph were catching up in January of last year, and the conversation stayed with them. Steph took her expertise in supply chain and manufacturing, bolstered by what she was learning at Columbia, and began to look into how, exactly, one goes about manufacturing a well-made suitcase. On the other end, they’d started doing consumer research and realized there was a significant gap in the market. To say they were ready to dive in is a bit of an understatement: Immediately after Steph’s last class for her MBA, she hopped on a plane to China to meet with manufacturers.
Now, almost two years, twenty employees, and $2.5 million in seed funding later, Jen and Steph are heading up Away, a direct-to-consumer luggage company that boasts high-end features and design at a fraction of the price, with an emphasis on durability and functionality. The suitcases come in three different sizes, seven different colors, are lightweight yet super durable, have a patent-pending compression system (a game-changer for overpackers, in other words!); and the carry-on version even has two USB ports so you can charge your devices while you travel. Jen and Steph talked with Girlboss about what you can learn from being on the ground level of a dynamic company like Warby Parker, how their diverse backgrounds influenced their career paths, and the irrelevance of work-life balance.
So you guys have both held a bunch of different jobs at a bunch of cool companies. You’ve traveled a bunch and worked with some of the most innovative entrepreneurs out there, and now you’re co-founders of a successful luggage company. And you’re not even 30 yet. What kind of upbringing did you have that enabled you to have such a jam-packed, awesome three decades?!
Steph: Neither of my parents are from the U.S. My father grew up in Lebanon and my mother grew up in Romania. I still have family all over the world, and sort of being a global explorer was definitely how I was brought up. Just to be curious, to understand. My father actually grew up during the civil war in Lebanon, and my mother grew up in post World War II communist Romania. I grew up in, like, a suburb in Ohio. I was definitely raised to understand that there are a lot of different situations around the world. Every culture is different. People are facing different things and I can't live my life in this American suburban bubble. I really had to understand what else is out there, not just from a book, but something you see first hand. I was lucky that I had an international family who really instilled in me the importance of understanding new places and having firsthand experiences with new cultures.
Jen: I grew up in New Jersey. I actually grew up in the Philippines [until I was 7] and then New Jersey. I have a pretty untraditional background. I went to Penn State and studied supply chain, which is actually what Steph does now. I got an internship at Johnson & Johnson, then I went to study abroad in Seville, Spain, where I studied the effects of Islamic architecture. Yeah, pretty random. Then I came back and did another internship. That internship turned into another, which turned into another. I basically kept doing a bunch of internships in a row and they gave me an offer to work at Neutrogena in L.A. I just did that and never went back to school. I actually grew up just wanting to be a lawyer. I can't tell you where I got that idea from. Took my LSATs, did great on them, and ended up never even coming close to being a lawyer.
You were part of the early team at Warby Parker. What was that like and what did you learn there that you were able to take with you to Away?
Jen: It was amazing. I initially came on board to head up their social media. I literally signed them up for Instagram. A lot of Warby's early success was just purely word of mouth and really building a community, especially around social media. There wasn't a truly defined marketing team when I first got there. I got to work really closely with the partners, really learning all aspects of building a brand from experiential to retail to social media to online advertising—realizing every single touchpoint affects how people perceive your brand.
You guys have raised $11 million in funding to date—$2.5 million in seed money and $8.5 in series A. I think our readers would be very keen to find out how one goes about raising $11 million.
Steph: At this point we had prototypes and a marketing plan and a whole business plan, and we're like, "Okay, this plan has been moving forward but the only thing holding us back from continuing is we need capital to keep going." We reached out to a couple people who are in our network, and we sort of got introduced to friends of friends who were investors in the e-commerce space.
One of our first meetings was with Forerunner Ventures, who specializes in branded e-commerce. They were extremely excited about the category. They had been investors in Warby, so they sort of understood the background Jen and I were coming from and really resonated with how we were approaching travel goods and the consumer experience around it. They almost immediately were like, "Okay, we're in. This is going to be huge. We want to be involved." We didn't know what we were doing at all. We just sort of took everything one step at a time and, you know, the opportunity was so compelling that everyone we met along the way believed in it and was excited to be a part of it.
Jen: I think when you have an idea and it's so clear that you're the right person to execute on it and it's all you can think about and it's all you can talk about, there's not that waffling around of "Should we do this? Is it worth it? Are we making the right decision?" It never felt like it was even a question. Steph and I have a lot of knowledge about a lot of different things and have surrounded ourselves with other entrepreneurs and have learned so much from our time at Warby Parker. There was never a point in creating this company that we were like, "Okay, what do we do next?" It was so clear to us what the steps were and how to do it.
You’re both passionate about travel and taking the time to experience different cultures. Now that you’ve got a company to run, how do you find that balance between enjoying life and the daily grind?
Steph: If you love what you do, it's not two separate things. Every single day of my life is work and life. I enjoy the life part and I enjoy the work part, and it's all very integrated. If I go somewhere new, I would never choose to not be thinking about Away while I'm there and seeing things that are inspiring me for the company. I think that's something that's very unique to our generation for the first time as well. Not only this love of travel and experiences, but also the sort of mindset about work that it's not like, "Oh, I'm at work until 6:00 and then after 6:00 I'm at my normal life." It's all very seamless and integrated. I think our generation demands having work that they’re passionate about.
Jen: My life right now is very much consumed by Away because it's what I care about the most. I optimize for happiness by surrounding myself with people whose company I enjoy and who I learn from and who challenge me. What I want to do right now all the time, every waking moment, is work on Away. But on this next level, with mindfulness and balance and things like that, there are so many times where I just need to put my phone down. There will be that point in the night where sitting at my computer for four more hours just isn't going to be productive. I think I've learned so much about myself in the last 10 years, about how I work, when I'm at my most creative, when I do my best work, and what routines I need to do to keep me doing that. I can definitely sit here and be like, "We should work out every day and meditate for 10 minutes, and that's how you have work/life balance,” but it's not. I think it's just about knowing yourself.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of starting your company and building to this point in such a short amount of time?
Steph: We're very slow to hire people. As co-founders, we've definitely been juggling a lot of hats for longer than we were expecting to, and a lot of people on our team are still wearing a lot of hats for longer than we were expecting. We’re just extremely particular about who we'll allow to join our team. We have a saying in the office that we'll never hire a nine out of desperation. If you meet with ten candidates and one of them is a nine, and they're almost perfect, we're still not going to hire them. We're going to keep doing that job in addition to our own until we can find that perfect ten.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own company, or to take an idea and grow it into something bigger?
Steph: I think the best advice I could give is try to get feedback from everyone. Anyone you can be put in touch with who can give you perspectives on how you're approaching things, advice on different areas of the business. Take those suggestions. Seek them out. Seek out that advice whenever you can and then put a very thick filter on it. You'll have some people giving you advice that you completely disagree with. Just because they're giving you advice doesn't mean that they're right. If your instinct and your business sense tells you this person's advice actually doesn't make sense you, just say to yourself, "I'm glad I had the opportunity to hear it, but I don't agree with it so I'm not taking that advice."
Jen: My advice would be make sure that the passion is actually there. At the end of something particularly challenging or really trying, what keeps you going is your passion for that thing. I can't tell you how exciting it is. I literally flew 20,000 miles this week and was in a ton of different airports, and I saw a lot of Away bags. I can't tell you how rewarding it is.
Jen: It's literally the best feeling in the whole world to be like, "Oh, I made that." I follow people around and try to take pictures and be discreet about it. It's knowing that and knowing that that feeling is super rewarding that keeps you going when things are super tough or when you just don't feel like doing it anymore.
interview by Deena Drewis