Jen Rubio and Steph Korey, Co-Founders of Away

Amazing Perspective in conversation with Jen & Steph on their savvy disruptive business

 

During the last days of summer, Jen Rubio and Steph Korey, Co-Founders of Away, hosted a private dinner party at a sprawling Gramercy townhouse to honor their nonprofit partner, Peace Direct.

 

The evening was dedicated to unveiling Peace Direct’s new website, celebrating the amazing work this organization has done to stop war and build peace over the last 14 years, and recognizing the unique partnership between Away and its nonprofit ally.

 

Away, which was founded in February 2016, has completely disrupted the luggage industry with its direct-to-consumer model and sleek design – can we say: silk linings and removable laundry bags, TSA-approved locks included on each piece of luggage, and their very own charging ports. It has quickly grown into a mammoth of company (and role model), surpassing $11 million in sales in its first year and raising over $30 million of venture capital as of May 2017. Vogue called it “the perfect carry-on”, celebrities like Jessica Alba and Mandy Moore have named it their go-to luggage, and actress Rashida Jones collaborated to design a set of pastel pieces for the Away Edition, a special collection that’s based on the stories of known travelers and the experiences that changed the way they see the world.

 

While their rapid growth and accolades with celebrities, their latest pop-up shop, and concept store have garnered copious amounts of press and attention from Vogue, InStyle, Travel + Leisure, Elle, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Harper’s Bazaar, and Fast Company (to name but a few), in the two years since they launched, it’s worth noting the social impact piece Jen and Steph built directly into the fibers of Away’s foundation with Peace Direct.

 

Peace Direct is a charity based in London, England that supports grassroots peacebuilders in areas of conflict around the world. They believe indigenous peoples are key to preventing, resolving, and healing conflicts.

 

Rather than just throw money at the organization, Away collaborates with Peace Direct in a way I’ve never observed a corporate entity and nonprofit partnership. Away dedicates working hours to serving and assisting Peace Direct with their marketing, branding, and messaging. They completely re-engineered and -designed Peace Direct’s website. The Away team even travelled with Peace Direct to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet directly with the grassroots organizations and local leaders they support to see first hand the kind of work they’re doing in the field.

 

Jen and Steph have not only disrupted the luggage industry, they’ve disrupted the corporate social responsibility model, the role (and duty) corporations should adopt when partnering with nonprofit organizations who dedicate their lives to saving humanity and our world.

 

Read about the journey of how they founded Away, their partnership with Peace Direct, and #travelaway with Jen and Steph…

 

AP: What sets Away apart from other luggage brands? 

 

Steph: Our suitcases were developed from hundreds of true travel stories and designed with thoughtful features that solve real problems. We use premium materials and distribute through a direct-to-consumer model to give customers a high-quality product (that will last a lifetime) at a fraction of the price.

 

AP: What has been the most challenging part of this journey? How have you overcome that challenge? (Or do you still struggle with it) 

 

Steph: There are many challenges every single day, but we’re always in problem solving mode. It’s about staying in that mode so that we’re equipped to handle whatever challenges come our way. Also, keep in mind that challenges are how you grow and advance. If you push yourself in your career, you’re constantly being challenged because you’re always taking on things that push your boundaries.

 

AP: How did you generate interest and get buy in from customers before there was an actual, physical product?

 

Jen: We knew that if people heard about what we were doing from their most in-the-know friends, we’d be able to show not just the product we were bringing to market, but the brand we were trying to build.

 

We launched with a book. We interviewed 40 friends of friends from the creative community — writers, artists, photographers, entrepreneurs, etc. and in November 2015, published a beautiful hardcover book which we sold with a gift card for the suitcase (which would be available a few months later). It was a way to assemble a great, influential group of people across food, fashion, and culture to talk about what we were building before it was even available. It piqued the interest of press and media, and we’ve just built on the momentum since then.

 

AP: How has this journey – going from employee to founder and overseeing a rapidly growing company – changed you? 

 

Steph: When we started the company, Jen and I did everything. Over time (and not that much time), we’ve both learned to empower our teams and trust that they’re going to deliver. This has been made easier by the fact that we’ve been careful to hire people that are a perfect fit for their roles (which sometimes means having a job opening for longer than we’d like).

 

AP: What have you learned about yourself during these last two years?

 

Jen: As cliche as it sounds, we’ve learned that we can really do anything we set our mind to. We disrupted a multi-billion dollar industry in which we had no prior experience, but we were willing to put in the work (and countless all-nighters) to create a game-changing brand and product.

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“As cliche as it sounds, we’ve learned that we can really do anything we set our mind to. We disrupted a multi-billion dollar industry in which we had no prior experience, but we were willing to put in the work (and countless all-nighters) to create a game-changing brand and product.”

AP: What’s next for Away?

 

Steph: Expansion is the number one thing on our minds — expanding our product line, content channels, physical retail footprint, and global awareness.

 

AP: What advice do you have for people with an idea?

 

Steph: Research! You need data to back up your idea and get people on board with what you’re hoping to do.

 

AP: What advice do you have for people wanting to find that “thing” that drives them each day?

 

Jen: Don’t expect it to be easy. People expect that in finding their “thing,” they’ll be ecstatic 24/7, but work (even meaningful, purposeful work) is hard. Think about how you feel at the end of every day — are you working towards something that fulfills you?

 

AP: Tell me about your partnership with Peace Direct. How did that come about?

 

Jen: We work with a non-profit partner called Peace Direct that has a grassroots approach to peacebuilding — instead of forcing a foreign hand in conflict areas, they support community partners in those places who are making a difference on the ground. For example, a local partner that we visited in DR Congo who focused on negotiating the release of child soldiers and reintegrating them back into society. In Northern Nigeria, we met a former Boko Haram member who started a boxing club to keep kids as young as six from being lured into terrorist groups. The immediate impact Peace Direct’s local partners have in peacebuilding is extraordinary.

 

Steph: We think it’s important to support Peace Direct holistically and totally, so we don’t pick and choose certain initiatives or projects to fund — we support them with unrestricted funds and time and resources from our team. We’re hoping to bring a more thoughtful, fully considered approach to our giving model, something that takes the complexity of global issues into account. That takes time, dedication, and constant support, and those are three things we’re proud to give to Peace Direct, and will continue to give as long as we’re here. Our support of Peace Direct scales as we grow. The bigger we get, the more time, experience, and resources we have to share with Peace Direct. And as we reach more and more customers, we can introduce more and more people to Peace Direct and the idea of peacebuilding.

 

AP: How has your organization benefited from this partnership? Peace Direct?  

 

Steph: It’s been incredibly rewarding for our team. Every member of our team spends part of their time working on a project for Peace Direct: our graphic designers have helped with their branding, our finance team helps them with accounting, our copywriters help them tell their stories, and our marketing team has set them up on social media accounts. For our team members who have never considered working for or with a non-profit, they’re able to see that their skills and creative energy have a direct impact on the work that Peace Direct is doing in the world.

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“It’s been incredibly rewarding for our team. Every member of our team spends part of their time working on a project for Peace Direct: our graphic designers have helped with their branding, our finance team helps them with accounting, our copywriters help them tell their stories, and our marketing team has set them up on social media accounts.”

Jen: With this partnership, we want to raise Peace Direct’s profile through storytelling and branding (what we do best). Our ultimate goal is to make “peacebuilding” a common term that everyone understands, and for Peace Direct to become a household name.

 

AP: Where do you find inspiration? 

 

Jen: Travel and relationships. I’m energized by new people and conversations and am at my most creative when I find myself really connecting with those around me.

 

AP: Favorite life experience and why.

 

Jen: Getting my pilot’s license with my dad—he got me to take flying lessons when I was in high school. It’s a meditative experience for me.

 

AP: The thing you can’t live without.

 

Steph: Slack. It’s what keeps me connected to our team at all times, and has been instrumental in the way we shape and build our company culture.

 

Keep up with Jen and Steph, check out Away, and see how you can get involved with Peace Direct: 

w: www.awaytravel.com and www.peacedirect.org
t: @away and @peacedirect
i: @away and @peacedirect
f: @awayluggage and @peacedirect

 

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