In December 2019, the Verge chronicled the grueling, verbally abusive, and all-round physically and emotionally exhausting experiences reported by employees at luggage startup Away. In particular, the story focused on the ways CEO Steph Korey allegedly built her Instagrammable brand on the backs of an underpaid and relentlessly harangued workforce. It’s not a new story. In the past few years, any number of women startup founders have been exposed as being no better than their male counterparts. Once hailed as the “SheEOs” who would bring feminism to the modern office, these founders, reporting revealed, were just a different packaging of the same exploitive start-up culture.
In a series of Instagram Stories, Korey has spoken out against the investigations of woman founders, such as the Verge report—and ostensibly the employees who felt they had no recourse beyond going to the media. “Society expects women to be motherly and nurturing,” she writes. “Being tough and ambitious is a positive quality in a man, but icky in a woman.” That’s the ethos of the “girlboss” argument: that it is good for all women to have any women in positions of power and that criticisms discourage women from taking on leadership roles. Korey paints recent news coverage of Away as hit pieces targeting her because she’s a woman, and she ignores employees’ complaints and her own alleged part in their exploitation, using euphemisms like “tough” in place of words like “abusive.”
The narrative laid out in the report on Away has become a common outcome of the startups launched by a generation of heralded women founders. In September 2019, employees at ThirdLove, the Instagram-popular bra startup, said that co-founder Heidi Zak, along with her husband, co-CEO David Spector, created a toxic work environment built around bullying. Thinx period panty startup CEO Miki Agrawal was ousted after employees accused her of firing employees because they were pregnant. At the co-working startup the Wing, once hailed as a feminist alternative to male-dominated workplaces, employees allege that ousted CEO Audrey Gelman created an inhospitable, racist work environment for BIPOC employees that protected abusive bosses and clients. At the woman-founded sustainable clothing startup Reformation, employees claim that CEO Yael Aflalo turned away models of color and discriminated against non-white employees. The list seems to go on and on.
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And while men CEOs might not have faced a similar onslaught of workplace exposes in recent years for bullying and exploitative behavior, that’s not necessarily the result of shoddy, clickbait journalism, as Korey suggests in her Instagram stories. It’s more likely because the Ivy-educated, majority-white women in her cohort were painted as the feminist answer to discriminatory, abusive workplaces in the fawning media coverage that announced their arrival on the startup scene. Feminism was a useful “trend” to build their companies, secure lucrative backing, and earn press—just as long as they didn’t have to adhere to any of its tenets, besides being women.
Almost from the moment of the company’s inception, Korey and co-founder Jen Rubio were included in 30 under 30 lists as the Ivy-educated best friends looking to disrupt the luggage industry one feminist soundbite at a time. “We’re having a moment right now,” Korey told Bumble Biz back in 2017, “and I hope that moment lasts a long time of empowering women and encouraging women to feel comfortable.”
But while Korey’s Instagram Story posits that writers, particularly millennial women writers with millennial male editors, target women co-founders like her because “they’re juicy fodder for cancel culture,” she doesn’t address the fact that there would be nothing to tear down if she and others hadn’t billed themselves as a feminist alternative. Creating a progressive work environment means more than boasting a woman’s face as the founder and rebuilding the workplace environments of “miserable” Google employees who call their workplace a “white collar sweatshop.” At Away, and other women-founded startups, many women report that they did not feel encouraged or comfortable, and instead felt miserable and harassed.
And while Korey posits that she may have been “targeted” by the Verge because her story was “juicy or entertaining drama” taken on by millennial reporters who don’t have the same “high journalistic standards” as their older media colleagues, reports like those at the Verge, The New York Times, and even Jezebel take weeks (if not months) of research, interviews, and vetting. Even then, some harrowing stories never make it to print because they’re never verified. As clickbait, exhaustive investigations don’t get a fraction of the traffic enjoyed by aggregated stories about “keto crotch” or the Kardashians.
Allowing workers to talk about their experiences at a company—which Away employees say they were not allowed to do in their workplace Slack channels—isn’t defamation; it’s an important part of holding those in power accountable for the way their workers are treated.
Setting impossible goals and deriding employees who fail to meet them has long been the highly praised blueprint for a successful startup founder. But putting women in the role of the volatile founder is not the way to fix a broken system. Last year was record-breaking for CEO turnover, with 1,640 CEOs leaving their positions. The MeToo movement made employees more comfortable taking their frustrations around shitty working conditions to the media, presumably hoping that speaking out will affect some sort of change. Everyone needs to cut the shit. And a big part of cutting that shit is holding both men and women accountable and changing the narrative of what creates a “successful” company.
However, Steph Korey wasn’t one of those ousted CEOs. Just over a month after the Verge report on the conditions at Away, Korey was re-instated at the company. Heidi Zak is still CEO at ThirdLove, and Miki Agrawal has gone on to found a bidet startup. In the end, all that reporting documenting hundreds of employee complaints amounted to little more than a few women CEOs reading some things about themselves that differed from the glowing narratives they had read previously. And even that, apparently, is too much.