What I love most about covering the D2C world is that it’s full of compelling founders’ stories: narratives of luck, pluck and a great product. What’s most distasteful? Watching founders self-destruct, trashing the hard work of employees along the way.
The latest case is the ongoing drama at luggage company Away. Employees are demanding that Steph Korey, the recently reinstated CEO, be sent packing. Again.
This time, The Verge reports two new complaints. One is a photo of her on social media dressed as a Native American. And then there are Korey’s Instagram posts attacking the media -- especially young women journalists -- for criticizing her, calling them “female founder hit pieces.”
Away’s board keeps trying to clean up Korey’s messes. The company responded that Korey would step down from her CEO position some time this year, assuring employees that Korey’s “social media activity does not reflect the current priorities of the company,” reports The Verge’s Zoe Schiffer, who has been all over the Away story.
Employees say that’s not soon enough, according to the report, and want her gone immediately.
This story is worth a closer look for any company trying to manage a struggling brand humanely. It’s hard to see Korey at the same level of D2C villainy as, let’s say Travis Kalanick, ex-CEO and founder of Uber (who reportedly maintained a toxic workplace culture and ignored sexual harassment claims) or Adam Neumann, ex-CEO and founder of WeWork (accused of corporate hijinks and overreach).
But for D2C brands wondering what leadership should look like in 2020, Korey’s behavior -- and Away’s bumbling handling of it -- is an object lesson in what not to do.
First, a quick recap. Since its launch in 2016, Away has been a powerful force in the D2C universe, achieving profitability in under two years. Plentiful buzz focused on Korey and Jen Rubio, co-founder and brand president, who had both been at Warby Parker. Glowing product reviews powered suitcase sales. So the December news that Korey was a management nightmare shocked many.(Doubtless, the employees she constantly belittled and bullied via Slack were less surprised.)
Away responded fast. It hastily hired new CEO, Stuart Haselden, recruited from Lululemon. And Korey apologized, stepping down.
Yet within weeks, Away changed its mind. Korey came back, announcing she would share the title of co-CEO with Haselden. She told The New York Times leaving had been a mistake. “Frankly, we let some inaccurate reporting influence the timeline of a transition plan that we had,” she said, with the board reversing its decision. “All of us said, ‘It’s not right.’” That report went on to quote Away board members, saying they “fell victim to management by Twitter mob.”
Then came COVID-19, grounding much of the travel industry. In early April, Away reported that sales had declined 90%. In a post on Medium, Korey and Rubio announced that the company was furloughing half its staff and laying off 10% to stay solvent.
Given a COVID-rattled staff and an uncertain future, Korey’s bad behavior seems especially unkind. And it’s hard to imagine anyone trusting Korey, or even Haselden, Rubio or the Away board, again. “How many times will we have our jobs disrupted by this woman who has a history of poor judgment? We all have financial stakes in this business, and she is putting that into jeopardy for all of us,” the anonymous letter says, quoted in the Verge’s latest post on the topic. “She is turning Away into an embarrassment. We cannot be complicit any longer. Steph Korey must go.”
And an unnamed executive tells Verge that Korey “has created a culture of fear.”
In the end, this mess probably has less to do with a dumb photo on social media or even her complaining about the world of journalism. (And it’s also worth pointing out that Korey is right that the media can be sexist, and that behavior described as demanding from a male boss gets criticized as outrageous when women do it.)
To me, it all comes back to the mythology of the founder. If your business is built on a story, you'd better make sure the founder is a hero -- not Cruella De Vil.