Women At the Baggage Company

The Verge did an excellent expose on what happens when women run a company.

EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE

https://www.theverge.com/2019/12/5/20995453/away-luggage-ceo-steph-korey-toxic-work-environment-travel-inclusion

5 December 2019

Avery felt out of place at Away. Like many of the executives at the popular direct-to-consumer luggage brand, she’d gone to an Ivy League college, worked at a popular startup, and honed an intense work ethic that set her apart from the pack. But the higher-ups, who were almost all white and straight, still never gave her the time of day. “It was very clear who was in the clique,” she says.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an cis-white shaming article. The expose-writers tried to protect the Narrative while plumbing the depths of the Narrative’s consequences but all they could manage was that opening paragraph.

How, one wonders, did Avery know her higher-ups were all straight? “Hey boss, let’s fuck!” “I have a boyfriend.” “You freak!”

Originally, Avery had joined because of the brand’s popularity — the hard-shell suitcases were everywhere: in overheads, luggage carousels, subway ads — but she also wanted to believe in the mission. Away promised a lifestyle of inclusion and nice vacations.

Women see work as a source of money and status.

It was also founded by two women (one a person of color) who sought to run a globally minded business. “In my mind, it’s a trivial product but the brand is more than just luggage,” Avery says. “It’s about travel.” As the months went by and she got a closer glimpse at the growth and image-obsessed culture, however, she started to feel like the mission was just a smokescreen to get employees to work harder and longer.

THAT is the education she needed. And guess what, it was free! Work sucks, ladies, and the smart ones among you grabbed husbands while young. Ye who didn’t should think about them playing with their kids while you make that daily commute through NYC traffic to pay off your student debt by working in a call center. My cousin is a dentist and will make fat bank off your teeth-grinding.

Like many fast-growing startups, Away’s workplace is organized around digital communication. It’s how employees talk, plan projects, and get feedback from co-workers and higher-ups. Away used the popular chat app Slack, which has the motto “where work happens.” But of course, being a startup, a lot of other chatter happened there, too.

Away was a total henhouse. Gossip gossip everywhere! Women thirsting for travel to exotic locations and easy virtue-signaling, which was much more important than actually doing the work of making luggage! It’s early in the article but none of these women sound like they worked the factory floor.

And reading between the lines, that was the source of Away’s problems. Too few actual workers who were motivated to do good work. You’ll read a lot about the trouble they had responding to customer complaints… take one guess what they were complaining about. “Your product is shoddy!” “But we’re diverse and inclusive! You’re speaking to a pink-haired lesbian right now!”

When a co-worker invited Avery to join a private Slack channel called #Hot-Topics filled with LGBTQ folks and people of color, she was relieved to find that she wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable with Away’s purported mission and company culture. “It was a lot of like, ‘This person did this not-woke thing,’ or ‘Those people did something insensitive,’” she recalls. In other words, it was a safe space where marginalized employees could vent.

The pecking order was defined by victimhood and Narrative identity groups.

It was also against company policy. Away embraced Slack in more ways than one — its co-founder, Jen Rubio, is engaged to its CEO Stewart Butterfield —

Womens’ OTHER use for the workplace: finding a quality husband. But instead of working as the secretary for a couple years, Jen accumulated $$$ of student debt and Wokeness in college for years then began a high-profile career in order to find a husband in order to quit it all.

Muy inefficient-o!

…but it took things further than most startups. Employees were not allowed to email each other, and direct messages were supposed to be used rarely (never about work, and only for small requests, like asking if someone wanted to eat lunch). Private channels were also to be created sparingly and mainly for work-specific reasons, so making channels to, say, commiserate about a tough workday was not encouraged.

The rules had been implemented in the name of transparency, but employees say they created a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance. Once, when a suitcase was sent out with a customer’s incomplete initials stenciled onto the luggage tag, CEO Steph Korey said the person in charge must have been “brain dead” and threatened to take over the project. “Slack bullying is a thing,” explains a former member of the creative team we’ll call Erica*. “In my experience there, it’s extensive and relentless. It wasn’t just co-workers pinning things on other people — it came from the execs.”

Micromanagement is a strong indicator of insecure management. Leadership is a real-deal skill and not one you’re likely to learn from somebody who became a professor because he was scared to live in the results-oriented private sector.

Korey was infamous for tearing into people on Slack. “You could hear her typing and you knew something bad was going to happen,” says a former customer experience associate we’ll call Caroline*. Yet while her feedback was almost always sent online, its effects were felt in the real world, often when employees burst into tears.

Sigh, the Internet age. Where slutphone-addicted wimminz, and more than a few men, think management and leadership can be done remotely.

So when the executive’s name unexpectedly popped into #Hot-Topics the morning of May 16th, 2018, employees knew something was wrong. She’d found out about the channel from Erin Grau, the head of people, who said language in the room had made at least one person uncomfortable. “I thought, Damn, she’s gonna see us talking about some stupid stuff, but whatever,” recalls a former marketing manager named Emily*. She hoped Korey would at least find the conversations funny.

A good idea. Laughing helps in a high-stress job but if your coworker stops laughing then it’s time to run, not walk.

That hope evaporated the next day when Korey began calling people into a room one by one. There, flanked by the company’s head of people and general counsel, she told six people they were being let go. “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.” Emily, who is a person of color, was shocked. “That was jarring — three white people telling me I was racist,” she says.

HAHAHA! Take your own medicine, you trans-POC! “I chose to work here because they didn’t hire white people. Then some white people came along and said I was being racist!”

Korey disputes ever using the terms “racist” and “hate speech,” although multiple sources confirmed these were the words she used.

Burned! Honestly, K, the truth would have been fine. It was, y’know, the truth.

The situation bruised employee morale, according to leaked Slack logs and interviews The Verge conducted with 14 former workers. But it was consistent with a pattern of behavior from the company’s top leaders.

Employees were asked to work exceedingly long hours and limit their paid time off. Their projects were brutally criticized by executives on public Slack channels. They were reprimanded for not answering messages immediately — even late at night and on weekends.

The cutthroat culture allowed the company to grow at hyperspeed, developing a cult following with celebrities and millennials alike. But it also opened a yawning gap between how Away appears to its customers and what it’s like to actually work there. The result is a brand consumers love, a company culture people fear, and a cadre of former employees who feel burned out and coerced into silence.

Yeah, so, why did those women tolerate that? I know why I tolerated it during a McJob back in the day. I wanted to get promoted and overtime is nice, so I volunteered for all kinds of extra duty like that. Then I found out my female boss had sabotaged my promotion because I was the only person in the company that the client wanted to work with. (I was told that by the client.) We had a conversation about her attitude. She gave me a welfare application, I walked across the street to a better job and her company lost a client.

For all their high-level credentials, none of these female coloreds wanted to lead even themselves out of misery.

Korey and Rubio met in 2011 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.

“I’m an expert in shopping!” It’s legit female work so I can’t complain, but I’m still waiting for any of these female executives to drop a line about the time they got their hands dirty on the assembly line. Barbie was too busy giving interviews to Fortune magazine!

Their aim 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, freckled models, and bold sans serif fonts, 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.”

Women are good at copying men. Not so good at innovating. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so I’m still not complaining but this is why women make poor officers.

To make their brand even more aspirational, Away partnered with models and it-girls like Karlie Kloss, Julia Restoin Roitfeld, and Rashida Jones to promote the bags on social media. This was Rubio’s wheelhouse: she’d managed social strategy at Warby Parker and knew how to make Away hyper-relevant.

Men get shamed for watching porn and then women do THIS?! Hypocrites!

Korey, for her part, didn’t have to work hard to project an aspirational lifestyle. The CEO grew up in Ohio in a 55,000-square-foot historic mansion with an indoor swimming pool and three dining rooms. She’d gone to boarding school, then landed in Bloomingdale’s executive development program while at Brown University.

But for all of her privilege, no one denied the executive’s fanatical work ethic. Where Rubio’s job seemed to involve glamorous travel and speaking events, and many employees say they never interacted with her, Korey was always in the office. She managed all of the company’s operations and was regularly online past 1AM.

Probably following Daddy’s example. For a third time, I’m not complaining, but she would surely have been much happier finding a husband that resembled Daddy instead of becoming a workaholic ‘male’ herself.

The CEO often vacillated between being funny and relatable to hyper-critical and even cruel. Employees say she swore during interviews, cackled at people’s jokes, and took new hires to lunch, telling stories about her own mistakes. Once, during an interview, a woman remarked that she was drawn to Away because she was a millennial and it was a millennial-friendly product. “I’m a millennial, too,” Korey said. Later, that same employee was told by her manager that Korey had referred to the team as a bunch of “millennial twats.”

This must be the “frenemy” concept I’ve heard about. I do not think it would be good for workplace morale.

Korey was adamant that clear feedback was critical to employees’ growth. She was blunt when she didn’t agree with someone and encouraged managers not to shy away from harsh criticism. Erica, who managed a small team, questioned whether this strategy actually worked. “It didn’t feel like I was helping my direct reports grow,” she says.

Care-based morality. Employees grow the company, not the other way around. Mission focus, people!

When the photo team took suitcases to a shoot in the Hamptons and brought them back banged up and covered in sand, an employee who’d started that week was blamed for the “unacceptable” error and called out publicly on Slack. (The bags had eventually made their way to customers, and executives were furious.) “It could’ve just been a co-worker pulling them aside and saying this isn’t cool,” Erica says. “It felt like they were publicly outing the situation so that everybody could follow along.”

Yeah, the execs should be furious about the worn bags being sent out because it’s not an honest mistake. Somebody was passive-aggressively sabotaging the company. But blaming a new hire doesn’t make sense.

This company spent a lot of effort on fashion and no effort on quality control, so ultimately the execs have nobody but themselves to blame.

Korey often framed her critiques in terms of Away’s core company values: thoughtful, customer-obsessed, iterative, empowered, accessible, in it together. Empowered employees didn’t schedule time off when things were busy, regardless of how much they’d been working. Customer-obsessed employees did whatever it took to make consumers happy, even if it came at the cost of their own well-being. The framework echoed the tough company culture at Amazon where employees are taught to forget old habits and embrace a new set of ideals.

The intensity prompted employees to form small groups, chatting in texts about the toxic company culture. “Everyone kind of found their tribe and stuck to them because you needed to have allies there if you were gonna stay there,” says Serena*, a marketing manager.

But even this seemed like it could get them in trouble. From the beginning, Korey and Rubio had banned direct messages on Slack for anything related to work. Ostensibly, this was supposed to make the culture more transparent. “Over the course of our careers, Jen and I observed situations where women and underrepresented groups were often excluded from key emails or meetings,” Korey said in a statement to The Verge. “Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesn’t. With email the original author gets to pick who is included in the conversation and whose voices won’t be heard. That’s not the company we want.”

This is a level of sadism rarely found outside of women and dot-Indians. The latter, come to think of it, being from an exceptionally status-conscious society. I’ve always wondered why degenerate managers would go so far that they can’t live their own lives because of the effort they put into hating and fearing others.

In practice, however, it did the opposite. Transparency seemed like it was just a pretense for Korey to micromanage and exert control. Marginalized employees felt silenced by the cutthroat environment and executives like Korey who used mistakes as an excuse to nitpick. “Steph has the drive and the personality of someone who could be very successful,” Erica says. “She embodies what we all aspire to be. But she does it in a way that’s absolutely not what I want to be.”

Ohmigawd, NAGGING! The quintessential behavior of women! No wonder social media is a nightmare of NAGGING!

Ironically, Korey described Rubio as her “work wife” when the pair had worked at Warby Parker. “What was so nice about the relationship is we could lean on each other to complain every once in a while, like if a project wasn’t going well,” she explained in a podcast interview.

That partially explains Avery’s frustration at discovering the company officers were heterosexual.

To Avery, this was just more hypocrisy at Away: the founders were allowed to complain to one another in private, but employees were expected to have almost every conversation in public.

Yep, status-driven behavior. The little people don’t deserve to be treated well!

In the summer of 2017, Lauren joined Away as a customer experience associate. She was one year out of college, thrilled at the prospect of working for a brand she’d seen all over Instagram.

At the time, the company had around 50 employees. “The energy was light and supportive,” she recalls. Her salary, which was around $40,000, wasn’t a lot to live on, but it also wasn’t out of the ordinary for someone just starting out in New York City.

Nobody lives in NYC on $40k unless it’s in a dumpster. One vote for “Sugar Daddy”. Not an option for low-ranking men, which helps explain why NYC is feminist central.

Lauren’s job was to answer customer calls and emails, getting the “queue” of customer inquiries down to zero. On a busy day, Lauren and her co-workers answered about 40 phone calls and responded to 100 emails each.

Her bachelor’s degree was in “Stupid”, if the best work she could find after graduating was a call center.

From the beginning, Korey and Rubio were masterful at getting these young employees hyped up about their jobs. “You are joining a movement,” they would say. “Everyone wants to be a part of this.” Lauren and the 12 other associates on customer experience felt lucky, even chosen. They worked long hours and bonded over crazy customer stories, intoxicated by the energy of the company.

…A few weeks later, Korey asked the customer experience managers to have their associates cancel future travel plans, at least until the holidays were over. Those who’d already booked tickets would be asked if they could work from home. “We were like ‘No, no we’re not gonna do that. That’s not moral,” Caroline says. But she knew she didn’t have a choice.

You DID have a choice, Caroline. Your slutphone has an off switch. Go on vacation. Play with your family. Dare to relax. I can only fault management so far.

Caroline was protective of how close her team had become. If one person was forced to stay, the rest were likely to follow suit. “They exploited the fact that we were close,” she says. “They knew we would take a bullet for each other and they just used it. Everyone was crushed. But they weren’t going to leave if their friends stayed.”

Ah, the herd instinct. Another explanation for the privacy invasion: they didn’t want to allow a second “herd” to form.

By January, the team was completely burnt out and the positivity was starting to wane. “I would leave at nine. I wouldn’t eat until midnight, then I’d get in bed and work until I fell asleep,” Caroline remembers. And yet, customer emails kept piling up.

To Korey, this was unacceptable. She began randomly calling the customer experience line to see whether someone picked up, often berating the managers and screaming, “What is this shit!” at her desk if her call went unanswered.

When managers don’t know how to solve a problem, the natural instinct is to look for problems that they can solve. Passing the buck is popular, too.

Korey says these “spot checks” are a typical part of any retail company. “This isn’t the only area we do this,” she adds. “In fact, we use secret shoppers at our retail stores, and we regularly place multiple combinations of e-commerce orders to ensure our fulfillment facilities are packing orders correctly.”

Management paranoia began extending to suppliers and retailers. An early indicator of “regime change”.

…When [Korey] noticed two managers still had time off on the calendar, she was livid. “If you all choose to utilize your empowerment to leave our customers hanging…you will have convinced me that this group does not embody Away’s core values,” she said. (Emphasis Korey’s.)

Full Commissar achieved.

Days after Korey’s 3AM tirade, she announced that she was hiring a buffer to put between herself and the team: a vice president of customer experience, Monte Williams. The associates were thrilled.

Williams looked people in the eye, spoke to them with respect, and had over a decade of experience leading teams at brands like Rent the Runway. Those who’d been planning to quit decided to stay to learn what they could from this new manager.

Finally, a man to the rescue! Look, Ma! People skills! But I fear poor Monte is doomed. Buffering Korey from the worker bees won’t stop Korey’s obsession with control.

Then, in mid-April, the team started to notice something strange. Customer emails were piling up during what was supposed to be a slow period. “We had 100 extra people in our inbox. We were like, what’s going on?” Caroline remembers.

It was a Groundhog Day scenario. The company was rolling out new customization options on the luggage, and the operations team was woefully understaffed. Bags weren’t going out on time and, once again, the customer experience associates couldn’t get a clear estimate on when they were expected to ship.

Too many photo shoots in the Hamptons. Too many overpriced supermodel shills. Not enough unsexy men on the factory floor.

This time, however, Korey couldn’t push the team to tackle their ever-growing inbox: Williams was standing in her way.

The customer experience executive wanted to prioritize his team’s mental well-being, but the inbox of customer emails was the highest it had ever been. The associates oscillated between feeling grateful that someone finally cared about them — Williams was the first person who’d ever really voiced appreciation for their work — and feeling worried he didn’t understand how behind they were getting. At its peak, the inbox of customer inquiries was 4,000 emails deep.

In May, Korey created a Slack channel titled #may-cx-issue to try to address this issue. If Williams wasn’t going to push his team, then she would have to step back in. She began grilling him on why managers — many of whom were working 16-hour days — weren’t answering more customer emails.

Once, a team member tried to explain that managers didn’t handle as many customer emails because they were charged with leading the team. But Korey didn’t buy it. “I’m just going to be honest here, your response to me reads like [the managers] don’t really do anything positive for the business anyway so it doesn’t matter if they’re here or not,” she said.

Williams tried to smooth things over, explaining that some team members were missing calls simply when they stepped away to use the bathroom. “We all always assumed people went to the bathroom,” she responded. “Let’s please stop talking about that as if it’s a surprising Friday update.” Of the interaction, Caroline says, “It was like watching him get stoned to death.”

On May 25th, the team saw a 5:30PM meeting on their calendars and knew the time had come: Williams was being fired. He’d lasted less than six months.

Another man learns the pain of working for a female boss.

For Caroline, that was the final straw. “I just lost my shit,” she says. “Everybody loved Monte. Everybody. I was just like, ‘This is the first time anybody has cared about the team, and you’re taking it away from us. You really don’t care at all.’”

Within a few months, she would give notice as well.

Thus began the exodus from Away: when the man was fired, the abused women chose to follow him into the sunset instead of loyalty to the herd. If Williams was a smart cookie, he saw this coming from the beginning and used the opportunity to identify and headhunt Away’s talent. No idea if he actually did that.

Korey wouldn’t comment on what people had said in the channel that she determined was racist. But employees say she pointed to two comments that called out “cis white men.” “It just became really obvious that this happened because someone white and powerful got offended,” says the customer experience manager, Lindsey.

Probably Korey’s father. Few trust-fund babies have POC parents and I can’t think of any reason superwealthy Korey would have ridden herself and her company to exhaustion, except to impress her father.

Every person interviewed for this story has since left the company. Some, like Serena, feel conflicted about the founders, two women she both admires and fears. “It’s so fucked up,” she says. “I still want their validation.” When asked what she learned from her time there, she pauses, reflecting on the tumultuous year.

Herd instinct combined with the need to signal virtue… but most of all, the need to fill a husband-shaped hole in her heart.

 

3 thoughts on “Women At the Baggage Company

  1. Could just as well have titled this “Baggage at the Women Company”. They don’t learn. Reminds me of that Samantha Brick Daily Fail story from years ago about her all-female company. It’s still hilarious after all this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reminds me of that Samantha Brick Daily Fail story from years ago about her all-female company. It’s still hilarious after all this time.

    Yeah I remember that one. I laughed my ass off while reading that the first time. But yeah it’s still funny even now.

    Like

  3. … much more important than actually doing the work of making luggage! It’s early in the article, but none of these women sound like they worked the factory floor.

    It goes without saying. If they had had to rely on estrogen on the factory floor, not a single thing even remotely resembling a suitcase would have ever been produced (hell, NOTHING AT ALL would have been produced) and Away would never have gotten off the ground.

    Like

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