When Steph Korey, the embattled co-founder of the luggage startup Away, revealed in a New York Times story Monday morning that she had reversed her decision to step down as CEO, it shocked a startup world that was just beginning to move on from the drama that had enveloped the company a month earlier.
But inside of Away, more big changes were happening: Erin Grau, the company’s vice president of people and culture, told her bosses on Monday that she planned to quit, Recode has learned. She’ll leave the company in the next month or two. In addition to human resources, Grau also oversaw internal communications and recruiting for the company.
The timing of the resignation raises questions about whether Grau disagreed with Korey’s decision to reclaim the CEO title and/or if her planned departure is connected to the revelation that Away was considering a lawsuit over the article that led to Korey’s initial resignation, published by Recode sister publication The Verge. Before joining Away in 2018, Grau was a media executive, having worked for seven years at the New York Times, where she recently was vice president of transformation.
An Away spokesperson declined to comment on whether the timing of Grau’s resignation was connected to Korey’s CEO announcement or the threat of legal action against Vox Media, which owns both The Verge and Recode. Grau did not immediately respond to a message from Recode seeking comment.
“In the past two years I’ve been at Away, the company grew from under 100 people to 500+, the People & Culture team from a few people to several dozen, and we’ve implemented countless systems and processes to improve our culture and working lives,” Grau said in a statement provided by an Away spokesperson. “I’m proud of the impact we’ve had, the strides we’ve made, and I have the utmost trust in our leadership. I know my work will have a lasting impact on Away.”
The original investigation from The Verge depicted Korey as a chief executive who openly criticized employees publicly in Slack messages and micro-managed the company’s customer service staff, which all contributed to what employees interviewed by The Verge said was a toxic work environment.
“I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability,” Korey wrote in one series of middle-of-the-night Slack messages to her customer service staff (emphasis hers). “To hold you accountable...no more [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you...I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values.”
A day after The Verge story ran, Korey said in a statement posted on Twitter that she was “appalled and embarrassed” by the Slack messages published in the piece. “I’m sincerely wrong for what I said and how I said it. It was wrong plain and simple.”
Just a few days later, Away announced that Korey would step down as CEO in the new year and would move into an executive chairman role. In her place, the company announced the hire of Lululemon chief operating officer Stuart Haselden as new CEO.
Recode later reported that Away’s original plan was for Haselden to join as Korey’s No. 2 executive and transition into the CEO role later in 2020. But some Away investors were in favor of ripping off the Band-Aid and making the change immediately in the aftermath of the Verge investigation, Recode previously reported. Korey has subsequently said that the decision to step aside was hers.
But in the interview with the Times published this week, Korey said she always intended to remain in an active leadership rule, even under the new title of executive chairman, but that the chairman title led to confusion both internally and externally. So Korey decided she shouldn’t relinquish the CEO title after all and would now be co-CEO alongside Haselden, who will carry the same title.
So while Away now has two chief executives, it needs a new human resources chief.