The travel startup Absent has endured serious turbulence. Now, it is co-founder Jen Rubio’s job to steer it to steadiness.
Rubio has just been appointed Away’s new CEO. She actions into the role at a challenging time for the firm. Following a meteoric increase that led to a $1.4 billion valuation in 2019, the organization confronted blistering allegations about a toxic workplace lifestyle, cycled by way of CEOs, and dealt with the fiscal turmoil of the pandemic, which drove sales down by 90% in March and April 2020. Rubio is tasked not just with stabilizing the company, but also planning it to go community. It’s a whole lot to accomplish—and she’s eight months expecting. “It’s crucial to alter the perception that starting off or acquiring a family has any effects on a women’s ambition,” she states.
Rubio says that she hardly ever prepared to turn out to be CEO. All over her occupation, she has been extra passionate about producing brands than controlling operations, a important piece of managing a enterprise. Her family immigrated from the Philippines to New Jersey when she was seven. Although an undergrad at Penn Condition, she interned at Johnson & Johnson, then acquired a task give to work at Neutrogena. To her parents’ consternation, she give up school to choose the position and that selection was finally the correct just one for her, mainly because it paved the way for her to turn into the head of social media at Warby Parker then the worldwide head of innovation at the London-dependent vogue manufacturer AllSaints.
When she released Absent with Steph Korey in 2015, she needed to remodel the humble suitcase—which several individuals saw as a dull commodity—into a item that could encourage a cult subsequent. She attained that as a result of strategic branding. “What manufactured Jen stand out is that she understood that travel isn’t a place-to-issue transaction,” suggests Eurie Kim, common spouse at VC agency Forerunner, whom Rubio pitched in 2014 (Forerunner invests in Absent). “She recognized that you could establish a strong marriage with the purchaser from this piece of baggage. And she was onto some thing major, mainly because Absent actually resonated with the millennial client.”
For six years, she served as main brand name officer and president, orchestrating collaborations with well-traveled icons like Serena Williams and Rashida Jones and curating Away’s social media aesthetic, which highlighted lush visuals of aspirational locations like Marrakesh and Iceland. Her working day-to-working day task included traveling about the globe to immediate photoshoots and supplying talks at glamorous occasions hosted by Vogue and Google, with talking service fees upward of $100,000. Rubio encapsulates the jet-placing life-style to which Away clients aspire. In the course of all of this, Korey stayed back again at the headquarters major day-to-day functions.
But things modified in late 2019, when The Verge posted a scathing investigative write-up about Absent. It highlighted latest and former staff members describing Korey’s harsh management model, which included excoriating workers publicly on Slack and expecting them to function all over the clock. The posting prompted Korey to step down as CEO in December 2019, but in January 2020, she introduced she was coming back as co-CEO along with Stuart Haselden, who had been recruited from his COO part at Lululemon. “We preferred to provide on a non-founder into the function,” Rubio points out. “As a skilled executive, he could aid the enterprise mature and go general public.”
At the time, Korey also posted a collection of Instagram tales attacking the press for their reporting on her. Rubio and Haselden tried to distance on their own from her statements. “Steph’s own social media action does not replicate the present-day priorities of the firm. We stand with you, our workers,” they wrote. But shortly immediately after, these tensions were eclipsed by the pandemic, which ground journey to a halt, driving Away’s revenue to a virtual standstill. The business furloughed 50 % of its 300-man or woman staff members, and laid off an additional 10%. It also halted its bold ideas to expand from 7 to 50 merchants and launch a apparel line made for travel.
In Oct 2020, Korey permanently parted ways with Absent and 4 months later on, Haselden left as properly, leaving a electricity vacuum. Rubio threw herself into the govt look for, interviewing retail professionals who had practical experience using businesses public. But the board advised she consider the purpose herself considering the fact that the enterprise was at a susceptible instant in its historical past and, as a founder, she was uniquely positioned to continuous the ship. “They had to communicate me into it,” she explains. “We essential anyone at the helm who knows the company definitely perfectly and can supply continuity and stability, but who can also go immediately and get threats. It is a really hard combine of features that only a founder would have.”
Forerunner’s Kim believes that Rubio has designed the abilities and awareness in excess of the earlier 6 years to recognize whom she desires to encompass herself with for the organization to triumph. She has assisted provide on new hires who can fill in some of her own gaps in operational expertise, which include the new CFO, Catherine Dunleavy, who beforehand ran world-wide functions at Nike. “She’s been particularly concerned in almost everything that has took place at the corporation to date—from workforce-building to money crisis—which has presented her new insights she
didn’t have as a initial time founder,” claims Kim. “She’s the most effectively-capable to know what the team requirements and who she requires to bring on to the bus to generate it ahead.”
When she produced the choice to take the position, Rubio was intimately mindful of the scrutiny that gals CEOs encounter, especially at buzzy startups. Over the a long time, the female founders of Reformation, The Wing, Refinery29, Bando, and Out of doors Voices have been forced to step down in the midst of staff allegations of mistreatment. Some have argued that these women of all ages leaders had been taken care of a lot more harshly than their male counterparts. “Away has undoubtedly been the obtaining close of celebration and exhilaration about what we’re able to do as feminine founders, and then the backlash,” Rubio suggests.
But looking at all of these female leaders celebrated then introduced down has produced Rubio even a lot more adamant about using the top task at Away. She anxieties that rising woman leaders may possibly be afraid off by these tales, which will only exacerbate the gender imbalance in the startup world. Women of all ages-only founding teams acquire significantly less than 3% of all venture cash, and people who do get funding elevate a third of what adult males do. “I used to shy away from the feminine founder narrative, simply because I thought it took away from my achievements as an entrepreneur,” Rubio claims. “But I now embrace it mainly because it acknowledges that gals have to overcome more to be prosperous. If sharing my store encourages a lot more ladies to start off companies or overcome obstructions like fund-elevating or having solutions created, then I’m totally wonderful with it.”
In a twist, just one of Rubio’s 1st acts as CEO will be to lead by example and take comprehensive benefit of the company’s maternity depart policies, which provides all mom and dad 16 months of totally compensated time off that can be taken in a person steady block or split into scaled-down increments. In excess of the past 3 yrs, she has been focused on commencing a relatives. In 2019, she grew to become engaged to Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder and CEO of Slack, and this earlier December, she shared on Instagram that the few struggled to get expecting. But just after an early miscarriage and various rounds of IVF treatment plans, she’s a thirty day period absent from supplying delivery. “These developments in my personal life have opened my eyes to how significantly extra progress we have to have,” she suggests. “We need to have to make workplaces where by staff members at any stage can start off family members with out it affecting the up coming ways in their occupation.”
Rubio programs to get her maternity leave in compact increments, which will allow her to preserve tabs on what is taking place at the firm. She has also put in the pandemic pretty practically composing the brand’s future chapter. In advance of her appointment as CEO, she helped craft the brand’s method for the post-pandemic planet. At its main, Rubio wants Away to be grounded in the belief that vacation is a good force in the earth, due to the fact it encourages openness and inclusivity throughout nations around the world and cultures. For much more than a yr in lockdown, the planet has felt lesser, but as people get vaccinated, Rubio hopes that Absent can engage in a job in assisting clear away some of the anxieties close to vacation.
Just after the preliminary 90% lower in revenues, Rubio claims that revenue did return slowly, although the organization declines to specify by how a lot. The business designed the decision not to change its products or branding far too radically to adapt to the pandemic. It released a bigger duffle bag for people getting highway trips and backpacks and laptop baggage for every day use. When animal adoptions spiked, Away introduced forward plans to release a pet carrier. But, in several strategies, the brand has often been built for the jet-location millennial and that is not going to alter any time soon.
Sector indicators suggests that journey is about to rebound. Even prior to the U.S. vaccination campaign started, customers began to invest in Absent suitcases, apparently with the intention of touring in the near upcoming. In excess of the previous handful of months, the organization has tracked an improve in TSA checkpoint passenger figures, the number of flights departing globally, and Google queries for journey. And the European Union has claimed it would open up its borders to totally vaccinated U.S. citizens this summertime. “As a business, we’re a minor in advance of the trend,” she states. “But our knowledge is cementing the hypothesis that persons are actually psyched to travel again. They never even have outings planned, but they are acquiring all set for it.”
Rubio is profoundly mindful that the firm won’t get back again to usual right up until global vacation resumes. Even though far more than 40% of the American inhabitants has been vaccinated, other nations around the world are struggling to get their arms on vaccines. Meanwhile, India is encountering a devastating outbreak spurred by a new variant of the ailment. Rubio and Butterfield are donating $25 million of their own dollars to UNICEF to help COVAX, the world coalition to enhance vaccine distribution in 92 very low- to center-earnings nations around the world. “If people today in far more fortunate nations around the world enable it to acquire many years to vaccinate the relaxation of the world, the pandemic is not going to end for us both,” she suggests.
Rubio expects the months forward to be a whirlwind as she juggles staying a new mom with aiding Absent navigate the finish of the pandemic and enable create a more healthy firm culture. But she’s also keen to get Away back again on observe to becoming a substantial-progress enterprise, with dozens of suppliers all over the environment and a pipeline of new products and solutions. Then, she wishes to acquire her enterprise general public. She thinks an IPO is not so much absent. “My job is to bridge the gap in between becoming scrappy and scaling up,” she claims. “As a founder, it is my mother nature to flex between these two modes.”