An Ellsworth Toohey Award for Zoe Schiffer

This is a Guest Post by Rukmini Nanda, Product Manager at COOLPHABETS.
Have anything interesting? Submit it here.

What Happened So Far?

Steph Korey, Co-Founder and CEO of Away rebuked a few employees for things they did (shipping unacceptable luggage to customers) and fired a few employees for being ‘hateful and racist’.

Zoe Schiffer wrote a hit-piece in The Verge which vastly exaggerated the nature of Steph Korey’s actions. ‘Toxic Work Environment’ and ‘Scandal were the words she used. As expected the article was widely spread and read on the internet.

Well meaning industry leaders like Paul Graham, have questioned the nature of the article with statements like, "Almost all companies in the world can have a negative article like Away’s written about them. All it takes is a reporter wanting to write a negative article." Some have called it unfair.


I fully support Steph Korey and her team. Here are my views on this issue as well as a few other issues.

  1. Building a company from scratch is hard. The decision to ‘Startup’ is in itself a bold move to make - knowing that you will fail 99% of the time. A Startup involves many near-death circumstances during its early years. It takes super human strength, both physical and mental, to build and sustain a company. Not everyone can do that. Founders deserve our respect and gratitude. Founders make hard business decisions. Some decisions go bad. Founders deserve forgiveness for those bad decisions. No Founder would ever make decisions to the detriment of their company. NEVER.

  2. A successful company doesn’t happen by people working 9-5. The 9-5 laws were enacted to protect manual laborers toiling in the fields from being exploited. White collar workers just usurped the same laws for themselves. Understandably you don’t want a guy toiling under the hot sun for more than few hours a day. But if you work a desk job in an air conditioned office, why go mental when you have to reply to emails or take calls after office hours. This is expected of you if you work in a startup or an early stage company.

  3. Harsh Bosses? I’m pretty sure there are employees within FAANG and other top companies who have to deal with harsh bosses. Yes there are bad bosses. But most bosses are just people in accountable roles who have to meet targets and deadlines.

  4. 9-5 and Moral Rights. Anyone who expects to work only 9-5 shouldn’t have the moral right to hail an Uber or order a pizza after 5 PM or same day delivery from Amazon. If you don’t like a company don’t work there. Please don’t stay and undermine the company from within (as long as the company is not doing anything illegal). For every disgruntled employee at Away, I’m sure sure there are many others who like working for the company.

  5. Being Dependable. A Founder/CEO’s time is scarce and valuable resource. You can probably ignore a work request from your teammate after 5PM. But if your Founder sends you a work request after 5PM, you must just see it as an opportunity to impress them. Being dependable to your boss is how you get fast-tracked into managerial roles. I believe, in Capitalism a dependable employee is cherished, not exploited. You can be the most intelligent person in the room, but nobody would care about you if you are not the dependable type.

  6. Please leave your personal agendas and preferences at home. If you expect to carry your personal agendas/preferences to office, then you should not mind carrying some office work back to your home. Don’t expect everyone to empathize with you. Racism is racism coming from any direction. Belonging to a group such as LGBTQ or any other minority group does not exempt you from consequences when you make racist comments against other groups. Most people are inherently nice and neutral. But by being ‘in-your-face’ you make it hard for such people to like or sympathize with your cause. People remain silent to your cause because you make it unpleasant for them to participate in your cause.

  7. Have people gone soft? Yes, I guess so. Within the walled gardens of social media, if somebody doesn’t like something you did, they might just just reply with a benign ‘thumbs down 👎’ emoji. However, in real life, you will be told to your face that you are stupid. Real life will seem extremely harsh to people who have gotten used to a decade of social media - especially fresh graduates starting out on their first job. IRL, being called ‘brain dead’ is the least offensive in the list of least offensive terms.

  8. Stop bashing the rich. Zoe Schiffer’s hit-piece refers to Korey’s rich and privileged upbringing (lived in a mansion with a pool, went to boarding school, etc.). Irresponsible blanket statements like these insinuate ‘rich-people-are-bad’ without actually saying so. They trigger and direct social unrest towards rich people and organizations - leading to gradual societal collapse. Steph Korey won the birth-lottery by being born into a rich family. She didn’t choose that. Similarly Zoe Schiffer won the birth-lottery by being born/brought up in a rich country and not some third world slum.

  9. How did the rich become rich? Somewhere in the past there was an ancestor who faced unsurmountable odds and worked their ass off to found a successful business. Their successors now enjoy the fruits of that hard work. This is invariably the story of  every rich family. Instead of pitchforking the current generation of wealthy, take inspiration from them and work your ass off to lay the foundation for ‘your’ future generations. Everybody who blames the rich for all the problems wouldn’t mind being rich themselves.

  10. I object to labelling Zoe Schiffer's hit-piece as investigative journalism. Zoe Schiffer just talked to a handful of former disgruntled Away employees. Selective bias at its highest. I like to believe that ‘real’ investigative journalists are filled with remorse because they understand their reporting has profound collateral damage and impact on society. Hit-pieces on the other hand kill or maim organizations that are otherwise good. 

  11. Trigger Happy Journalism. The current generation of trigger happy blogger-reporters like Zoe Schiffer seem to treat their reporting as battle victories. She pinned her article to the top of her Twitter feed and basked in the glory of its echo chamber. She wrote a couple of follow up articles about the spoils resulting from her main article. She then took a dig at Slack and other platforms for failing to achieve her impossible ideals. It is easy to preach impossible idealism when you are not the one held accountable for not achieving that idealism. The likes of Zoe Schiffer don’t seem to understand the kind of havoc their reporting does.

  12. Steph Korey should have taken a bold stance. She should have said, “Yes, I did it. The company is more important than keeping employees who goofed up in good humor”. Steph Korey, you are building what will probably be a multi-billion dollar company. Zoe Schiffer is just a glorified blogger. You (and other Founders out there) must learn to ignore the Ellsworth Toohey’s of the world.

    VC’s and Investors of Away. Why couldn’t you rally behind your CEO? Are you really the spineless weasels everybody assumes you to be?

Proposing the Ellsworth Toohey Awards. I propose to institute the Ellsworth Toohey Award(s) for Bad Journalism - something on the lines of the Ig Nobel Prize. I nominate Zoe Schiffer for an Ellsworth Toohey - 2019 award.
     - - -