Away Just Became a Unicorn. Its Leaders are Finally Ready to Embrace Being ‘Female Founders’

Away, the trendy luggage and travel brand, became a unicorn–a startup valued at more than $1 billion–last week when a $100 million investment took its valuation from an estimated $700 million last November to $1.4 billion. The funding, led by Wellington Management Company, is part of the brand’s plan to expand its retail footprint, reach more customers internationally, and move from luggage into apparel and other categories within travel.

The valuation put Away in a rarefied but growing group of women-led companies to hit unicorn status, a marker of startup success; as of May 2018, of 130 venture capital-backed unicorns in the United States, only 14 had a female co-founder. That number has inched upward this year after Emily Weiss’s Glossier and Jennifer Hyman’s Rent the Runway achieved valuations of $1.2 billion and $1 billion, respectively, in March.

Like Glossier and Rent the Runway, Away is entirely women-founded: the company was launched by CEO Steph Korey and president and chief brand officer Jen Rubio, both alumnae of Warby Parker. But unlike those two companies in its unicorn cohort, Away’s products are not strictly geared toward women. While female customers do account for two-thirds of the company’s transactions, Away’s founders attribute the trend to the fact that women make the majority of household purchasing decisions.

For that reason and others, Korey and Rubio had been reluctant to put too much stock in their status as female founders. But their latest achievement–the $1.4 billion valuation–has changed things. “Having reached this milestone, we almost have the responsibility of embracing it,” Rubio says.

Korey and Rubio spoke with Fortune about coming around to that point of view and the global ambitions of their travel–not luggage–business.

Fortune: What does becoming a unicorn mean to you?

Korey: We didn’t need the funding to understand the strength of the business we’re building, besides the size of the opportunity that we’re going after in the future. It’s three years into the business for us. This is the first inning of the business we’re creating, so we’re excited about the milestone, but we don’t think we’ve reached any kind of destination.

What type of business are you looking to build right now?

Korey: We started with the carry-on, but the business was never truly about luggage. What’s exciting about some of the investors that we’ve brought on is they’ve supported companies that have really scaled and expanded beyond what they were known for at the very beginning. Wellington has been involved with Peloton, which in the very beginning was really mostly selling bikes, and they expanded into content and really are a subscription software platform now.

What does it mean to you to reach this $1 billion milestone as part of a new cohort of female-founded companies, with Glossier and Rent the Runway?

Rubio: It’s actually something that in the past Steph and I have really shied away from. Any time someone wants to talk about being a female founder, woman entrepreneur–it’s something that we really kind of dismissed. Having reached this milestone, we almost have the responsibility of embracing it. I think we’re really proud of being one of the few companies founded and led by women that’s worth north of a billion dollars. If we become part of the case study that shows investors that this is possible, then we think that’s a great thing. And we no longer want to shy away from that.

Korey: My hope is it’s a step on the journey to be at a place, hopefully in the not-too-distant future where it’s so common that billion-dollar companies are female-founded. We get to a point where half of them are, and it’s not even noteworthy any more.

Why did you shy away from that label originally?

Rubio: Until we felt like we had really accomplished something, especially in the early stages of the company, we didn’t want to be highlighted or featured just because we were women starting a company. But now I think we have a unique opportunity to set an example for other people who want to do what we’ve done.

Glossier, Rent the Runway, and Away are all consumer-facing companies, but Glossier and Rent the Runway seem to be more geared toward women as consumers than Away. How do you think about your relationship with your customer right now by gender?

Rubio: As we look at all of our customers, the one thing they all have in common isn’t demographic or gender. It’s the psychographic of wanting to travel and explore and have new experiences. And that actually resulted in a very diverse customer base.

You say you’re expanding your product line into “things you put in your bag.” Is that moving into men’s apparel, into women’s apparel? What does that look like?

Korey: As we create apparel products, wellness products, lifestyle accessories, things that are really designed for the travel experience, we’re going to make sure that we’re making things for the full array of customers we have, which are men, women, teenagers, retirees, Americans, Europeans. It’s really all over the map, and what they have in common is they all love to travel.

One of the big differences between American and European travelers is American airlines will let you bring much bigger bags into the plane with you than airlines in Europe. Our bestselling products in the U.S. is called the bigger carry-on, and our bestselling in Europe is the carry-on, which is slightly smaller.

A lot of our older and retired travelers will be buying lots of big check-in bags for the long trips they’re going on. Whereas sometimes with our customers in their 20s, who’s maybe taking a Friday off work to go for a trip, there’s a lot more carry-on customers there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Esther Wojcicki on raising three daughters who are Silicon Valley superwomen

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