How the Founders of Cult Travel Brand Away Like to Roll
Jen Rubio and Steph Korey never planned to be entrepreneurs. Rubio moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when she was seven, and “growing up in an immigrant family, it was always assumed that I’d pursue a career in medicine or law,” she tells Fortune. “Growing up, I didn’t know anyone in a creative or entrepreneurial field who looked like me…so I never knew what I was doing now was a possibility.”
Korey, meanwhile, grew up traveling the world (her mom is from Romania and her dad is from Lebanon) and ended up studying international relations at Brown. But a broken suitcase zipper would change both their career paths—and inspire a new generation of travelers with their cultish, made for Instagram suitcases which have rolled Away into startup unicorn territory. We asked Rubio and Korey, both members of this year’s 40 Under 40, about how they got started and what they can’t travel without.
Tell us about your first job.
Rubio: I left college a few credits shy of a degree and after an extended externship at Neutrogena, I channeled my personal passion for social media and struck out on my own as a social media consultant in LA, tweeting for food trucks and small businesses, and eventually, movies. This was in 2008 (the early days of this era of using social media to drive business), and it was incredibly gratifying to see how something like a simple tweet could generate buzz and excitement and actual results.
Korey: One of my first jobs was at Bloomingdale’s as part of an executive development program. The things I learned there about retail markups, markdowns, wholesaling, licensing, and the department store supply chain all later became the very things we would avoid at Warby Parker and Away, which is a key part of our business model. That firsthand experience in the very business model we ended up disrupting was crucial for me to understand why DTC (direct-to-consumer) makes so much more sense for Away.
Who were your mentors? What did they teach you?
Rubio: Mentorship has always been a fluid concept for me. I’ve never subscribed to the notion of going through your entire career having just one mentor, especially because I’ve switched industries and career paths so often. Instead, I think of it has having a board of directors for my career: who’s the group of people with a range of experiences whose strategic advice I want as I evolve and grow? And then, what specific things can I ask them about one on one? For example, my partner Stewart Butterfield [the founder and CEO of Slack] has taught me a lot about building teams and then giving them a platform to do the best work of their lives. My good friend Whitney Wolfe Herd [the founder and CEO of Bumble] is constantly pushing me to be a leader without sacrificing authenticity. Rashida Jones is a creative mentor of mine and pushes me go beyond what I think is possible.
Korey: Throughout my career, I’ve found peer mentors to be the most valuable, because your peers can truly understand where you’re coming from and give the most relevant advice. Jen and I were friends and colleagues years before we started Away together, and she’s always the first person I go to when I need to pressure-test a big decision or idea.
Talk about how you got to where you are now?
Rubio: By asking questions! The idea for Away came from my broken suitcase, but we decided to pursue the opportunity after asking ourselves, “Why is good luggage so expensive? How come there are no luggage brands that people are proud to recommend?” And then, when we first started designing the luggage, we asked even more questions of even more people—we interviewed 800-plus people about their packing habits and travel stories, which led us to design the perfect suitcase. Good questions lead to answers, but great questions lead to even more questions, and that’s how we built a new, disruptive company in an industry that was completely new to us.
Korey: What I care most about isn’t the technical knowledge I’ve gained throughout my career, but the ability to build and lead high-performing teams. In five years, I went from managing my first direct report to becoming the CEO of a company with over 250 employees. While I was getting my MBA at Columbia, I focused on management and leadership courses because I knew those were the skills that would matter when eventually building my own teams or companies—and they’re by far the classes that have helped me get ahead the most.
What apps/tech/stuff/tools are your must-haves for work and life?
Rubio: I can’t live without Superhuman for triaging my email inbox, noise-cancelling headphones that keep me sane in busy airports or on loud flights, and the Glo app so I can squeeze in yoga or Pilates no matter what hotel room I’m in.
Korey: We’ve outlawed internal emails at Away (they’re very exclusionary!), so I can’t live without Slack. I use travel time to catch up on my favorite podcasts (like Worklife by Adam Grant), and strangely enough, if you look in the right places on Twitter, there’s a ton of great wisdom from other founders about building companies and teams.
Favorite way to recover from the work week?
Rubio: In another life, I think I’d be an interior designer. I’m constantly scouring Instagram and 1stdibs for vintage objects and furniture—it’s my favorite way to enjoy myself while still inspiring creative energy.
Korey: For me, there’s no better place to unwind than Nantucket. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to, but quiet morning walks along Ladies Beach and making a fire (year-round!) are such a far cry from my weekdays, and I can’t think of anything more relaxing.
Best travel or work hack?
Rubio: I’m on the road about 50% of the time, so I have pouches of things that never get unpacked so they’re never forgotten: one for toiletries (which always gets replenished), one for chargers and converters, and one with small bills in a few different currencies. I keep at least two photocopies of my passport in a bag separate from my actual passport (and I’ve had to use them a few times: in India, Nigeria, and Cambodia). But the strangest thing I always pack? A lacrosse ball, which I put behind my back or roll under my feet for a DIY massage on long flights.
Korey: I’ve become more conscious of the weight my messages can carry, even if it’s just a casual, non-urgent question in Slack—especially because I tend to work at off hours or several time zones apart. I preface every single message I send with a level of urgency and an expected response time, and it’s (unsurprisingly) put my team at ease because there are no unspoken expectations.
This article is part of the 40 Under 40, our annual selection of the most influential young people in business. Click here to see the additional 2019 coverage of these disruptors, innovators, rebels, and artists.
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