"We need more female CEOs"
What happens when we get what we want
It’s a day ending in ‘y’, which means someone somewhere on the internet is demanding that we have more female CEOs of publicly-traded companies and venture capital-backed startups.
“We need to do more,” we’re told. Well, what happens when someone steps up to the plate and answers the demand?
It’s not what you might think!
Steph Korey is the Founder and former CEO of Away Travel. It’s fair to say that she did the impossible. Building a billion-dollar luggage brand in an industry dominated by a handful of household names and an endless array of budget options.
I have no shame in saying that she’s one of my business heroes. And if you look at the broader culture(?), you’d assume we were going to build statues of her.
But that’s not what happened. Instead of being celebrated, Steph Korey was fired from the company she built and tarred and feathered on her way out the door. Some of the same people that cry out for more female executives wrote scathing articles tearing her down.
Case in point, a December 2019 article in The Verge, an online tech publication.
What was Korey’s crime? Creating a demanding environment with exacting standards and pushing employees to do more to serve the customer and grow the business. In other words, she was guilty of being a CEO of a high growth VC-backed startup that was effectively disrupting an existing market.
But if you read The Verge’s one-sided article (and others like it), you’re told that she created a “toxic” atmosphere and made employees work “long hours.” The brand is described as a “cult.” She sent late night Slack messages to customer support staff and even engaged in customer support work herself. In a world in which CEOs are often described as out of touch with frontline workers, Ms. Korey’s efforts in the trenches are framed as negative.
Just what do people think it takes to build a billion-dollar company?
Do you have The Right Stuff?
At one point, The Verge’s article states that “in an intense office environment, having a safe space to talk about work is necessary, even critical, to employees’ sanity and well-being.” This is in defense of a Slack channel where employees, often a year or two out of college, would come together to vent their frustrations and then act dismayed when there was pushback from senior leadership.
Perhaps I will state this too often, but my first job out of college was extremely intense. I regularly worked until 11pm on weekdays and would spend at least part of the weekend in the office. All-nighters were not out of the question. I worked during Thanksgiving on more than one occasion.
And did I complain about it? You bet!
But like a normal person, I would vent to a good friend at work who shared in the experience…when we’d take a ride out of the office to grab a bite to eat. Or I’d call my folks.
I didn’t list out all of my frustrations in writing for the senior staff to see and then act surprised when they didn’t like it.
I also had some idea of what I was getting into when I took the job. There are countless opportunities to pursue in the world, but I made a conscious decision to pursue a position in investment banking. Long hours and arduous work were to be expected. And I had to beat out serious competition to secure the role because it afforded me a great deal of opportunity early in my career.
And by the way, the person that ran the group I worked for was a woman. As was another senior banker that I frequently worked with. They were hard charging, serious people who got shit done. You could complain about the long hours or you could get down to business, consistently deliver, and build meaningful working relationships with them.
I chose the latter and it served me well. I continue to admire both of them to this day.
If you don’t want to put in long hours or work in a demanding environment, then don’t. No one puts a gun to your head. Away Travel is not the Dutch East India Company. There are thousands of other businesses you can work for.
I’d be willing to bet that a role with Samsonite would be a helluva lot easier than a similar job at the Away rocketship. But I suppose it’s not as cool to tell people you work for the brand where your dad shops.
What’s incredible is that Steph Korey was once in a similar boat to the employees at Away who said she was toxic. She joined Warby Parker, another high growth e-commerce brand, in her early 20s. In a few short years she rose to become its Head of Supply Chain before going to business school and launching Away.
I bet she had to bust her ass at Warby to get into that role. And I have no doubt that doing so prepared her to launch the first real challenger to Tumi in decades.
Was she a very difficult person to work for? Unquestionably. If she wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t see her suitcases on every flight I ever take anywhere on Earth.
Her story is one I think of with regularity. It’s hard not to when we’re inundated with calls for more female leadership.
What I’ve come to believe is that the loudest voices making these demands don’t actually want more female leaders. They might say it, but when faced with the reality of what it takes to build a world beating business, they sing a different tune.
Rather, what I think they want is to live in a fantasy world where building a great business is easy. Where it doesn’t require great sacrifice. They want specific outcomes, but only if they happen on their terms.
I think they see what it really takes to do something great and reject it. Not because they can’t understand it intellectually. But because they themselves aren’t capable and would never even dare to try.