Why Away's new CEO reversed course and is embracing the term 'female founder' as she looks to revive the luggage startup while 8 months pregnant

  • Jen Rubio, the CEO of Away, said she initially didn’t want to be referred to as a “female founder.”
  • But, she told Insider, she has recently changed her thinking on that.
  • She is taking over as CEO while eight months pregnant.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Jen Rubio cofounded Away with Steph Korey in 2015, she wasn’t eager to be called a “female founder.”

“I just wanted to be seen as a founder and to be seen for the merit of what I do,” she said in a recent interview with Insider.

But now she’s changed her thinking on that. And it comes down to setting an example for others.

“Regardless of how people talk about you, or how you would be classified, there’s so many people out there for whom representation matters,” she said. “There are a lot of women out there who can see what I’ve been able to do with Away and who can see the progress that we’ve made, and that makes a difference to them.”

She pointed out that less than 3% of venture-capital funding goes to women-led companies each year.

“That hasn’t changed at all over the last couple of years,” she said. “If I have a role to play as a woman leading a successful business, then I’m not going to shy away from that.”

Rubio is taking the reins as CEO of Away at a pivotal time, both for the company and for the travel and retail industries. Demand for leisure travel is picking up after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, as more widespread vaccinations increase people’s confidence to travel. That means more business opportunities for the luggage and travel-accessories company, which suffered large-sales drops when travel restrictions first began in the spring of 2020.

It’s also a pivotal time for Rubio personally, as she is eight months pregnant. Rubio is married to Stewart Butterfield, a cofounder and the CEO of Slack, and they are expecting their first child together.

The past 18 months have also been turbulent for Away from a leadership perspective. Korey briefly stepped down in December 2019 in the wake of negative press coverage about her management style and a workplace that some employees described as toxic. She departed for the second time in October 2020. Stuart Haselden, who replaced Korey as CEO, left Away in January — having served as CEO and co-CEO with Korey for a brief period.

Around the time of her final departure as Away’s CEO, Korey suggested there was a disparity in the treatment of female and male founders. Her statements, posted on her Instagram Stories, centered around the claim that female founders were frequently being “targeted” by “click-bait-y” digital-news outlets with “nearly non-existent editorial standards.”

Rubio, who largely avoided the negative press, had been serving as interim CEO since January. Her role became official on April 21.

As a new leader, Rubio said she took “stock of how everyone was feeling, not just in the pandemic, but how they feel about the team and the workplace in general.” The Away workplace won’t go back to the way it was, she said.

And perhaps Rubio’s recent experience with the board is a sign of those workplace changes.

“It was especially meaningful when the board had asked me to take on this role not only knowing that I’m eight months pregnant but knowing that we have a very generous and flexible parental-leave policy, and they knew that I would take full advantage of that,” Rubio said.

She continued, “I think, obviously, that’s a vote of confidence from people who have so much invested into the business that they’re really looking at me as the right leader and that my role as a new parent isn’t gonna affect that negatively.”

“I think it just goes to show that if you’re building the right kind of group of people around you, in our case the board and investors and exec team, that this kind of move is really possible,” Rubio said.

But, she added, the fact that so many were surprised by her announcement about taking on the CEO role while pregnant shows how far there is still to go when it comes to supporting women.

“It kind of just reminds you that not every company gets that level of support,” Rubio said. “As a woman founder and CEO, it’s something that is really important for me to highlight.”

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