JetBlue VP Bonny Simi to girls: Think about the brand of you

Lean Into Aviation (3)Bonny Simi is the vice president of talent and an Embraer E-190 captain for JetBlue Airways. The story of how she went from being the daughter of a single working mother on welfare to an airline industry thought leader and a role model for women who are interested in careers in aviation is one she regaled at the recent #KnowYourValue event, sponsored by NBC.

Simi’s career progression saw her obtain a BA in communications from Stanford University, become an Olympic athlete competing in the luge (and later a member of the US Olympic Committee board), secure a job as a television sports reporter, gain her pilot’s license, achieve a masters degree from Regis University and become a mother – all of which helped lead her to a career at JetBlue

“You need to think about the brand of you,” Simi told a packed room. “Whatever you think you want to be, challenge yourself to see what your heart says you are. If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

Simi says she started challenging what she wanted to do back in high school. “I grew up with a single mom on public assistance. Some would think that would have limited my opportunities, but I had a big imagination,” she says. “I wanted to be an Olympian, a pilot, be on ABC TV and build a log cabin. I wrote that list down.”

Simi changed her major at Stanford five times before going into broadcast journalism. “While at Stanford, I entered a contest to be an Olympic torchbearer, which was close to my Olympic goal,” she says. “I was accepted. And because of that, I learned about the luge, trained, got lucky and made the Olympic team.”

It took Simi seven years to get through college. “After the 1988 Olympics and graduation, I had to ask ‘what’s next?’”

A local San Francisco television news crew arrived to do a profile of her about her Olympic experience. “The reporter asked me what I wanted to do after the Olympics, and I said ‘I want your job.’ He also happened to be the station’s news director and a Stanford grad, and asked me to file stories from the Olympics as a freelancer.”

Thereafter, the station offered her a job. “They asked for my salary requirements and I told them I’d only be there six months because of the timing for the Olympics. I figured out what I needed, not what I deserved and came up with $28,000. So the station manager said, ‘OK – $14,000 for six months.'”

Simi was a woman sports reporter in the 1980s, which she calls scary. But she focused on feature stories, which allowed her to have some free time, so she decided to get a pilot’s license. “I spoke with our weatherman at the station, who was a pilot, and asked him if he thought I could do it,” she recalls.

“He said ‘go for three lessons’. After that, [he said] I’d be terrified and confused, but that I’d either love it or quit.” She eventually became a flight instructor while still working as a reporter. Leaving the reporting life behind, she went on to work for United Airlines. “I worked at United for 13 years. I loved it, but I wanted to do more. At United, I could only be a pilot or a management pilot,” she says.

Simi joined JetBlue when the New York-based carrier launched revenue service in the early 2000s. The first challenge after arriving at JetBlue was breaking out of the pilot brand, says Simi. “I decided to start doing special projects after receiving a project management certificate. That way, people would see me doing different things, a lot of things that pilots don’t normally do.”

Her hard work paid off, and Simi was appointed director of airport planning. “I had no experience with airports, but I was told that I had good planning skills, which is something that can carry over in different jobs,” she explains. “The job built breadth and was non-traditional, but helped build a career.”

On Valentine’s Day 2007, JetBlue had a complete systems operations meltdown, stranding passengers on a plane for 10 hours. “We were a start-up airline that grew too quickly and couldn’t keep up. We needed a complete overhaul of our systems operations,” she says. “It was high visibility and high risk. If I succeeded, I would be rewarded. If not, I would be fired, because it was a one-year special project and I could not go back to my old job.”

Simi had faith she could do the job. “It was very successful. I had in the back of my mind that I would become VP of systems operation. But one of the guys I recruited to be on my team asked me for a letter of recommendation for that job,” she remembers. “I didn’t know the job was available and the COO didn’t even tell me about it. I was hurt.”

Speaking with the COO, Simi was told that she wasn’t ready for the job, and neither was her co-worker. “So I didn’t apply and instead took a lateral job overhauling our call center in Salt Lake City. But I should have pressed the issue and applied for it so they would have had to tell me officially. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t get a ticket.”

Now VP of talent for JetBlue, Simi admits that her career has been “a winding road”, but she adds, “I have the perfect job. I love flying, and I’m achieving my biggest accomplishment: finding talent and bringing them to their full potential.”