Before Jen Rubio co-founded Away, a startup suitcase company dedicated to producing "first-class luggage at a coach price," she was jet-setting to far-flung destinations as the head of innovation at AllSaints, a leading global fashion retailer. Although the shift from fashion to travel might seem surprising, it was a natural fit given her insatiable wanderlust and her passion for building brands that people genuinely love. And if our Instagram feed is any indication, people genuinely love Away luggage.
So how did Rubio end up leaving fashion to disrupt the travel industry? Well, it all started with a broken suitcase, she told MyDomaine. "I wasn't necessarily looking for a change and definitely hadn't set out to launch a business for the sake of being an entrepreneur," she explained. "But the luggage I wanted didn't exist, and I felt confident that my previous experiences combined with [Steph Korey]'s expertise in the space made us uniquely qualified to create the brand we wanted to see," she added.
In this installment of Second Life, a series in which we spotlight women who've made major career changes, we ask Rubio about her impressive professional pivot, including how she started a successful company, what she loves most about her current role, and why she has absolutely no regrets.
Tell us about your first career path.
My whole career has been built around connecting brands with consumers—I've always been naturally interested in how people and companies communicate with one another. Before launching Away in 2016, I worked with a variety of brands (both in-house and on the agency side) to help them identify their unique point of view and how they could share that with the world!
My career path hasn't been linear by any "traditional" standards. I've worked on campaign strategy at an agency, built the social media and community marketing foundation at a startup, and led innovation efforts at a global fashion retailer—but the common thread has been figuring out how to define the way companies position themselves and how to make it relatable to real people.
How did you make the transition from Warby Parker and AllSaints to luggage design?
My experience working on Warby Parker's early social media, content, and partnership efforts showed me that a good brand had the ability to disrupt an entire industry. I saw how good storytelling could capture an audience and, ultimately, build an authentic and lasting relationship. I left Warby Parker to join AllSaints in London as its head of innovation, which took me all over the world to find ways to use technology to bring the AllSaints narrative to life on a global scale. Getting to use my startup skills on a whole new scale was challenging but exciting.
Then came Away. Before Away, luggage—like eyeglasses—just wasn't something people got excited about. I truly believed we had an opportunity to take a unique stance to not only talk about the features of our bags but also what you could do with them. So it wasn't so much about designing luggage, per se, but about capitalizing on an opportunity to combine all of the things I loved (travel, branding, and good design) while also filling an obvious gap in the market.
Tell us about your current career path/business?
The idea for Away came out of a personal need. My suitcase broke while I was traveling, and none of my most well-traveled friends could suggest a high-quality, decently priced replacement. I called Steph (mostly just to vent), but it quickly turned into a conversation around how we could turn this into a business opportunity.
Her background was in building and scaling supply chain and product development efforts for other direct-to-consumer companies, so our skill sets were aligned to make it happen. Shortly after that call, I moved back to New York and literally slept on Steph's couch while we dug into this more. Over the next few months, we spoke with hundreds of travelers to get a sense for their travel needs, and we launched Away in February 2016.
Today I oversee the brand and creative identity of Away to build meaningful relationships with people around the world. The business has really evolved over the last two years, and it's been incredible to see what the team has accomplished. We're expanding our product line, leaning into our media arm (which includes a print and digital magazine, Here, as well as a podcast called Airplane Mode), and discovering other ways to inspire our community to plan their next trip.
What have been the biggest challenges in your many careers and why?
In every role, challenges have been a bit different, but I've learned so much from each of them. Today, as a founder, my biggest challenge hasn't been what I am doing, but what I'm not. It's not always easy to let go and take a step back from a company that you've literally built from the ground up. I have a genuine interest and love for so many parts of the business, so it can be tough to fight the temptation to be actively involved in everything. We've hired incredible people, so I'm conscious of creating an environment that lets them do their best work, which means taking a step back to ensure they're empowered to do what we've hired them to do.
Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
I grew up traveling the world, and my work has always led me to helping brands connect with people. Away allows me to combine both of those things, and it's been really fulfilling to align my personal interests and professional expertise!
What's the most important thing you have learned in making a big change in your career life?
Don't stress! Your career path won't always be linear or even "successful" at every step of the way—if you don't feel like you're taking risks or making mistakes, you're probably playing it too safe. We actually apply the philosophy of leaning into mistakes in the way we've built the culture at Away. We embrace taking thoughtful risks and moving at a rapid pace (even if that means we don't always get it right) because we know that's what will truly drive the business forward in a meaningful way.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I've always thought of my career as a larger narrative, so I don't get caught up in the fear of change and instead, think of it as a chapter in the book. Every choice you make will take you in a slightly different direction, and it won't always be where you thought.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
The honest answer is that we actually haven't made huge mistakes that have crippled the business, because we've created a company that embraces making little mistakes along the way. Mistakes are inevitable unless you're totally avoiding risks, in which case, you're not learning as much as you can be. Our culture is built on leaning into mistakes, iterating on those, and coming out stronger. We make a lot of little mistakes every day, but that mentality and ability to iterate means that we've always been able to bounce back quickly.
What do you love most about your current role and why?
I love that I can be incredibly creative in my role. Every day is a new challenge, and there are so many opportunities for us to embrace a different way to tell our brand story—whether through collaborations with people or organizations (like the recent one we did with the NBA), or thinking about how to introduce our audience to new products we're rolling out. That creative challenge keeps me inspired and excited.
When you look back and reflect on your previous career do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
No regrets. I've had so many great experiences and learned so much from each role I've had; I feel grateful for the decisions I've made because they've ultimately brought me here. I'm most focused on being present and enjoying the journey at this point.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Your career is definitely going to take many turns, and that's okay. It's better to embrace curveballs as exciting opportunities because you'll eventually come out stronger for it, rather than worrying what you can't control. The best advice I could give to someone considering a career change is to go for it. Remember what you love, what you're good at, and what kind of work you enjoy, and find something that really fulfills you. When you're getting to do what you love, you won't look back and see any regrets.
For more inspiring stories from successful women who've made major career changes, tune into MyDomaine's Second Life podcast.