Steph Korey is the CEO of Away, a successful direct-to-consumer luggage company that’s popular amongst millennials. She’s received a mountain of negative press this week stemming from an article by The Verge that alleges she mistreats her employees and fosters a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance.
The Verge talked to a number of ex-employees at Away who claim they were overworked, underpaid, and mistreated during their time at the company. They cite several examples of including being publicly humiliated for simple mistakes, not being allowed to have private conversations at work, and having their PTO restricted to keep up with the company’s explosive growth.
“They prey on people who were never cool like me,” former employee Caroline told The Verge. “It’s a cult brand, and you get sucked into the cool factor. Because of that, they can manipulate you.”
Caroline said Korey was one of the worst when it came to “Slack bullying”. “You could hear her typing and you knew something bad was going to happen,” she said.
In one anecdote, LGBTQ employees and people of color started a private group called #Hot-Topics where they vented about the company. “It was a lot of like, ‘This person did this not-woke thing,’ or ‘Those people did something insensitive,’” Said one employee.
Away employees are not allowed to email each other and direct messages were supposed to be used rarely (never about work). Private channels were to be used sparingly and for work-specific reasons. When Korey found out about the group, she fired 6 of the employees.
“You’ve been discriminatory,” employees remember her saying. “The stuff you said was hateful, even racist. You no longer have a job at this company.” Ex-employee Emily was shocked. “That was jarring — three white people telling me I was racist,” she says.
Korey would also micromanage employees on Slack, publicly embarrass them, and regularly have them cancel their travel plans or restricted the use of PTO when things got busy. Employees got burnt out. “I would leave at nine. I wouldn’t eat until midnight, then I’d get in bed and work until I fell asleep,” said one employee.
Steph responded to The Verge article in a letter she posted on Twitter and admitted that the messages don’t look good. “I can imagine how people felt reading those messages from the past, because I was appalled to read them myself,” she said. “What you read in the article doesn’t reflect the company we want to be,; and we will continue to work and improve. I want to be clear that the Away I am committed to is one where we set the highest standards for how we treat our people and help them grow.”
Former employees aren’t satisfied with the response. “While it’s nice to see they are taking steps to better the environment, from my personal interactions with current employees, I know they are far from fixing the toxic environment they have already created.” An employee told The Verge, “it doesn’t correct the pain she caused me or any of the other former employees — either on a personal, emotional or financial level.”
Steph Korey grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and studied international relations at Brown University before getting her MBA at Columbia University.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Steph Korey and Her Business Partner Got the Idea For Away While Working at Warby Parker
While at Brown University, Korey was part of Bloomingdale’s executive development program. She left to work at direct-to-consumer eyewear company Warby Parker where she was able to leverage her knowledge. “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.
Korey met Away’s co-founder Jen Rubio at Warby Parker and the two took the direct-to-consumer blueprint and started Away. “I learned so much about working at a fast-growing, direct-to-consumer brand, and about how to build a supply chain from the ground up.” Korey said.
Rubio was the social media expert from her time at Warby and knew how to market to millennials and make the brand relevant. They partnered with influential celebrities including Karlie Kloss, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, and Rashida Jones to make the luggage the hottest new travel product.
“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.”
2. She Grew up Rich
Korey was born and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio area. Her parents are both immigrants, her father hails from Lebanon and her mother is from Romania, and she spent her childhood traveling to Europe and the Middle East to visit family.
She lived in “Roundwood Manor” during her childhood, a 55,000 square foot mansion that features an indoor pool, 3 dining rooms, and nine fireplaces.
Korey attended boarding school and prestigious universities before getting her first job at Bloomingdales.
3. Her Company Almost Went out of Business Due to Batteries
Away almost crashed and burned before it ever got off the ground. The luggage features built-in lithium batteries for charging your phone which meant it wasn’t TSA friendly. Their first customers posted on social media that they weren’t allowed through security with their Away luggage leaving Korey and Rubio to scramble for a solution.
“Steph and I were scared. We kept trying to contact anyone at the airlines–even gate agents.” Rubio told Inc. Magazine, “At one point, we were at my apartment, in the middle of the night, scrolling through LinkedIn for every airline executive we could find and cold-emailing them. There were reports that we were going to go out of business.”
They ended up fast-tracking a suitcase with a removable battery pack and offering a free transition kit to existing customers that allowed them to make their batteries removable.
“It took 100 percent of our company. We could have gone out of business. But we took responsibility, and took the long view.” Said Rubio.
4. She Claimed That She “Empowered Decision Making” and Encouraged Her Team To “Embrace Failure” at Away
The former Away employees interviewed in The Verge article portray Korey as a micromanager that embarrasses her staff publicly for failures. Before the news came out, she claimed in October 2019 that her management strategy was encouraging her team to embrace failure.
“Something that I’m particularly proud of is the way Jen and I encourage our team to embrace failure. Reframing mistakes or moments of ‘failure’ as a chance to iterate and grow has been one of our biggest keys to success.” She said in an interview with The Ladder, “As leaders, it’s our job to make sure the team isn’t shying away from taking thoughtful risks, and when someone does fail, we make sure to talk about it—and even celebrate it as a means of ‘failing forward’.”
She also claimed that she “empowers decision making at all levels of the organization.” and said that “At other companies, it might be senior leadership driving every decision, but our view is that whoever is closest to the work should be making the calls. This, along with the core belief that innovation can and should come from anyone on the team, creates a culture that’s rooted in growth and learning.”
These remarks came less than two months before The Verge article was released. It seems that Korey’s public persona was completely at odds with how she actually ran the company on a day-to-day basis.
5. She Enjoys Shooting Skeet
Korey and her husband, Pedro Goodwin, are shotgun enthusiasts according to her Instagram. She posted a few photos posing at the shooting range and shooting clay targets.