We’ve all heard the stories of startup founders evolving from do-gooder entrepreneurs to power hungry, obsessive and abusive CEOs in so many tech companies and startups it all becomes a little numbing, as if the transformation is acceptable and even warranted if you want a company to survive. Many believe it’s ok for staff to be treated badly or over-worked because they get to work at these ‘generation changing’ companies, that they should count themselves lucky. But a group of ex-employees from luggage brand AWAY see it differently in a tell-all feature with The Verge.
And it would seem another ‘startup’ founder(s) has joined the ever growing list of ‘toxic’ CEOs leading the helm at so many of the worlds leading startup brands. Stephanie Korey, co-founder of millennial suitcase brand AWAY has been accused of creating a toxic working environment as well as publicly shaming staff on Slack – the popular messaging platform built companies to communicate – in front of other employees as well as abusing staff and telling them they had to give up paid time off and holidays.
It all started in 2011 where Stephanie Korey and Jen Rubio met while working at the trendy direct-to-consumer eyewear company Warby Parker. There, Korey implemented the lessons she’d learned at Bloomingdale’s years before. “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,” she said in an interview in Fortune.
The aim of the AWAY was to sell “first-class luggage at a coach price” by cutting out the middleman and marketing directly to consumers. It was a model perfected by brands like Dollar Shave Club, Glossier, and Everlane: direct-to-consumer powerhouses that, through some alchemy of Facebook ads and freckled models had elevated themselves out of their business category to achieve tech company success. Following this blueprint, Korey and Rubio positioned AWAY as a travel company, not a luggage brand. “We’re working to create the perfect version of everything people need to travel more seamlessly,” Rubio said in a 2018 interview. “Luggage is only the beginning.”
To make their brand even more aspirational and appeal to social media, fame-hungry millennials, AWAY partnered with models and it-girls like Karlie Kloss, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, and Rashida Jones to promote the luggage on social media. This was Rubio’s speciality – she’d managed social strategy at Warby Parker and knew how to make Away hyper-relevant – as is needed in todays cluttered business world. Korey and Rubio founded AWAY in 2015 and have since raised more than $31million in funding.
In an article published by The Verge on Thursday, several former employees told how the company’s founders Stephanie Korey and Jen Rubio worked them to the bone while underpaying them and asking them not to take time off. They revealed that the founders banned emails between staff about work, only allowing them to communicate via Slack, a popular workplace messaging device, where they favoured group discussions that were company-wide and fully “transparent” they say it allowed the founders to publicly shame employees they were dissatisfied with, the article claims, leaving some so upset that they burst into tears.
It depicts Rubio as less hands-on in her management of the company than Korey, who would frequently send out Slack messages after midnight, asking staff to come up with ideas for the following day as well as punishing staff that didn’t answer a 2am Slack message. Some of the staff members interviewed were earning $40,000-a-year, but were apparently working 16hr days and told they couldn’t have time off for holidays or family events and were expected to be on-call 24/7.
The former employees say this ‘transparency’ seemed like it was just a pretence for Korey to micromanage and exert control over the company and its employees. Marginalised individuals felt silenced by the cutthroat environment and executives like Korey who used mistakes as an excuse to nitpick and abuse them publicly. Some messages, among others, that were sent by customer service director Alexandra Pasanen were also published, including one where she told the team on November 31 that they could either take New Year’s Day off, as planned, and fall behind, or work and be given a month of paid time off at a later date. Another employee described having to turn her car around as she made her way to the airport to take a family Thanksgiving break because she was watching one of her team members being obliterated by Korey on Slack.
Among the tales of manipulation and abuse is the overwhelming sense that Korey simply didn’t care about her employees needs, completely disregarding their mental and physical health in an aid to grow her own wealth and notoriety among her peers, a common thread among a number of founders. Whatever happens next we’d put our money on this not being the last accusation we hear coming from startup employees at AWAY or otherwise.