Simi has not only had a variety of dreams, she has mastered turning them into reality.
“I grew up in a very small town not of great economic means,” Simi said at the Feb. 25 Women Leading Travel & Hospitality Virtual Exchange. “One time, we had this school assignment to think of as many things as we could for what we wanted to accomplish in life.”
Simi recalled listing participating in the Olympics, attending a good college, working for ABC News, and becoming a pilot.
“For the life of me I’m not sure where that [ambition to be a pilot] came from” Simi said. “I remember my mother used to take us to the airport to watch airplanes take off and land, and I was fascinated by that, but at the time there were very, very few women airline pilots.”
Simi went on to attend Stanford University and competed in three different Olympics for luge. She majored in broadcast journalism and went on to work for ABC’s affiliate in San Francisco. But dreams of being a pilot lingered.
“Then I was earning enough money to learn to fly,” recalled Simi. “I didn’t know anything about aviation, but I was captivated right away.”
Eventually, Simi decided to make a career change, taking a pay cut to become a pilot for United Airlines.
“You have to follow your heart,” Simi advised. “It can’t just be about a paycheck.”
Raise Your Hand
Though Simi loved her 13 years as an airline captain, she wanted to be more involved in the business side of the industry, so she took a risk and left her secure position.
“JetBlue was a startup at the time,” recalled Simi. “So this was about 18 years ago; I decided to go to JetBlue as a pilot, but with a dream and desire to do more … I had done a ton of research and felt like I could rise to my place of potential there, whatever that could be.”
Dreams are different from goals, Simi clarified. She said a goal involves specific steps and is tangible, while a dream floats in the background and feels a little scary. The dream can be out there as a direction, to then be figured out and turned into a goal.
Simi started out as a frontline employee for JetBlue before working in various operations, gradually working her way up through the organization.
“I volunteered for various things, putting myself out there,” Simi said. “I just kept raising my hand. That’s something we as women don’t do enough of, and we should.”
However, “you can lean in almost too much and get in front of your skis,” Simi cautioned, explaining she felt she needed a business education. Therefore, she went back to school to master financials, operations, marketing, human relations and other essentials.
When the topic of expanding the JetBlue brand beyond the core airline arose, Simi said the company needed corporate venture capital. Ultimately, she was asked to be the one to make it happen.
It was another huge risk, but Simi’s skills of speaking up, raising her hand, embracing education and living her dreams paid off.
Setting Others Up for Success
Throughout her career, Simi would look to leaders and wonder who was up there that could serve as a role model for her.
“They were mostly men,” she recalled. “As an airline pilot, or TV reporter, or venture capitalist, and when I started at JetBlue, there were very few women in leadership.”
Simi said these truths made her wonder if organizations were not set up for women to be successful.
“As I’ve moved up, I’ve put myself back in my former self’s shoes and said, ‘How do I make sure our organization sends the right signals to young up-and-coming stars?’”
Simi said it’s important that organizations are designed to allow not only women, but people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds and perspectives to rise up in an inclusive and open environment.
“There are tons of studies saying cockpits are safer when more diverse, and board rooms see better decisions made when they’re more diverse,” noted Simi. “[This is applicable] literally from the frontline to the top. It’s a business imperative.”
Regarding challenges for women in particular, the largest is self-imposed, according to Simi. These ingrained feelings can be overcome, though it takes hard work.
“Women tend to not want to speak up as much in meetings, and if they do speak up it might be perceived that they speak up too much,” Simi said. “[The key is] finding a way to command the room, to be seen as a leader. It’s the confidence inside, measured and tempered through the relationships and trust you’ve built. It’s not holding yourself back. So many times I’ll be in meetings and there may be one other woman and I’ll note that woman is not speaking as much, so it’s my role to pull that person into the conversation more.”
There’s a balance in speaking up but not too much, and always using a tone of confidence, Simi said. “Upspeak” is an issue she noted in younger women.
“It’s when you say something, but at the end it sounds like a question, which means you’re questioning yourself,” Simi said. “Speak more declaratively and with authority, and you can then gain more authority.”