In May, the suitcase company Away, which Jen Rubio co-founded with fellow Warby Parker alum Steph Korey in 2015, raised $100 million, at a valuation of $1.4 billion. The company has sold a million suitcases and estimates 2019 revenue will hit $300 million. But Rubio's path wasn't always easy wheeling--especially when a controversy threatened to sink her company. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
When I was 7, my family moved from the Philippines to New Jersey. In the Philippines, I'd had the best schools and the best teachers. In New Jersey, I was the girl with an accent who ate different foods. Who was put into lower classes, because I was an ESL student. All of these things, I wanted to hide.
I asked my mom to get me a speech coach, to get rid of my accent. I read a lot and watched a ton of TV. By high school, I was in all honors classes. The only downside is that I can no longer speak Tagalog.
My career has been so weird and nonlinear. So many times, I was so uncertain. I wish my younger self could have known that that's OK.
One of my first jobs was at Johnson & Johnson, during college, where I first encountered how real marketing is done. When I told my manager I wanted to go into marketing, she said, "You'd need an MBA to join our team."
But I didn't get an MBA. When I was 20, I left school. I juggled jobs. I became a social media consultant before that title existed. (I tweeted for a café.) That led to my becoming head of social media at Warby Parker in 2011.
When Steph and I were going to our first investor meeting for Away, we were so nervous, we were still practicing our pitch on the subway. When we got there, the guy was like, "I just got my Apple Watch"--it was the day it came out. He started unboxing it. We're pitching, and he's at the other end of the table configuring settings and plugging things in and then unplugging them. I didn't know what to do: Should I just stop? Was he kind of a jerk, or was I just not engaging enough?
Now, he wishes he'd invested. But a year ago, Away could have shut down.
In December 2017, customers started tweeting things like: "United wouldn't let me on the plane with my Away" or "Delta just made me rip out my suitcase's battery." Airlines had just banned lithium ion batteries inside suitcases. Ours were removable, but only from the inside and with a screwdriver--it was not an amazing process. Some customers were told they couldn't fly with their Away suitcases, and ended up dumping their stuff in garbage bags.
Steph and I were scared. We kept trying to contact anyone at the airlines--even gate agents. At one point, we were at my apartment, in the middle of the night, scrolling through LinkedIn for every airline executive we could find and cold-emailing them. There were reports that we were going to go out of business.
But, as leaders, you have to get your shit together and really lead. So we told our team, "These reports are not true. We've done $12 million [in revenue] in our first year. And we are going to do right by our customers."
We already had a suitcase with an easily removable battery in development. We expedited that. But we didn't want to replace every suitcase--tens of thousands of our suitcases in landfills was not a great option.
In less than 24 hours, our web team had a page on our website completely dedicated to the topic. Our product development team fast-tracked an easily installed kit that turned a customer's internally removable battery into a pop-out one. The customer experience team interacted with every affected customer through emails and phone calls, and sent out replacement tools. It took 100 percent of our company. We could have gone out of business. But we took responsibility, and took the long view.
You don't have to graduate from an Ivy League school, and work at a particular place, and get an MBA to start a billion-dollar company. But you have to have a purpose. If you start a company because you think you should, but your heart is not in it--that won't give you the fuel to get through the hard stuff. We had the passion, so when the battery ban happened, we knew how to push through it.
And we knew we could.