Away CEO Steph Korey on hiring for culture fit and advice for business leaders

In 2015, Steph Korey set out on a journey with cofounder Jen Rubio to create a better luggage product than the market offered at that time. Now, as Away has transformed into a travel, luggage, and modern lifestyle brand, Korey is excited about the company’s continued expansion. Ladders spoke with Korey to hear more about her advice for business leaders, the company’s culture, and her advice for getting hired.

What are you most excited about at Away right now?

“Right now at Away, expansion across the board gets me most excited, whether it’s building out new product categories, growing our physical retail footprint or scaling the international business. It’s all happening!”

What’s your advice for scaling a business at an organic rate?

“There are times where you might feel pressure to choose a path that will rapidly accelerate short-term growth but might not be the most beneficial for the long term. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize strategic decision making at every level – especially as you scale. At Away, we purposely take a measured approach in order to be really thoughtful about the team, culture and business that we’re building. Ultimately, we want to make sure we get it right as we grow, so that what we’re creating a truly sustainable business for the future.”

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Reading railroad. 📷 @hannastefansson #travelaway

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As many companies scale back their brick and mortar presence, Away continues to expand its own. Can you explain why that is?

“In the beginning, we didn’t think physical retail would play as big of a role in our business as it does now. But after opening a few pop-ups as a test, our community quickly showed us just how much they value in-person experiences. Now, we have seven retail locations across the U.S. and in London, with plans to open an additional 50 stores in the next three years.

Anyone who visits one of our retail locations sees our brand brought to life and can make a personal connection with our brand. They have experiences not available when buying online, like touching and testing our products, seeing how light our suitcases are or how easy the wheels glide. We’ve found that our brick and mortar business drives online sales and vice versa, by creating a consistent loop of touchpoints with our community.”

What’s been the most difficult part of stepping into the role of CEO?

“In many ways, the most challenging part is also one of the most rewarding, which is learning as I go. No one prepares you to be a CEO and there’s no playbook for what we’re building at Away, so there have been a lot of firsts for me in this role. Fortunately, I have an incredibly thoughtful and smart team around me, and we’re all learning from each other.”

Away is expanding into wellness, skincare and travel apparel. How do you think Away will stand out in such competitive categories?

“We’ve always viewed Away as being about so much more than luggage, and we know that there is an endless number of problems that need solving within the travel space. When it comes to category expansion, whether it’s apparel or CPG and wellness, people are still missing a go-to brand for all of their travel-optimized essentials. We know these categories are crowded, but we also know that we’re uniquely equipped to provide the perfect version of whatever is people need when they travel. We’re constantly listening to our community to gain insights on personal pain points and we’re able to leverage that data internally to create products that are specifically tailored to meet their needs.”

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Sleep-Away camp. 📷 @allybmartin #travelaway

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How would you describe your management style at Away? Has it changed as the company has grown?

“Something that I’m particularly proud of is the way Jen and I encourage our team to embrace failure. Reframing mistakes or moments of ‘failure’ as a chance to iterate and grow has been one of our biggest keys to success. As leaders, it’s our job to make sure the team isn’t shying away from taking thoughtful risks, and when someone does fail, we make sure to talk about it—and even celebrate it as a means of ‘failing forward’.”

How would you describe your company culture? What makes it stand out?

“Something I’ve heard from a number of people when they first join the team is how surprised they are by the extent to which we empower decision making at all levels of the organization. At other companies, it might be senior leadership driving every decision, but our view is that whoever is closest to the work should be making the calls. This, along with the core belief that innovation can and should come from anyone on the team, creates a culture that’s rooted in growth and learning.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at Away?

“We hire for mindset rather than experience, so what we want to hear from candidates is how they’ve handled particular challenges or periods of change. If you can show us how you navigated a problem from the offset, by staying unflappable and getting creative with solutions, that will trump anything else we might see on your resume.”

Is culture fit important when hiring new talent? How do you test for it?

“When we hire, we’re looking for someone who’s a culture add, not a culture fit. Our customers are global and diverse, so we want the team that we’re building and the brand we create to be as well. Every prospective team member meets with a diverse hiring panel and we don’t limit our talent pool with a fixed list of requirements, like a four-year college degree or MBA, or by recruiting from a single industry. By doing this, we prioritize difference over sameness, ensuring we’re bringing on as many varying perspectives as possible.”