- Bonny Simi is the president of JetBlue Technology Ventures. It’s the venture capital arm of New York-based JetBlue Airways.
- Simi is a former Olympic luger who gave up a career as a television sportscaster to become a pilot at United Airlines.
- Simi joined JetBlue in 2003 a pilot and eventually became the airline’s head of HR.
- In 2016, Simi became the founding president of JetBlue’s VC arm that invests in early-stage start-ups.
Bonny Simi is the president of JetBlue Technology Ventures — the venture capital arm of JetBlue Airways.
Founded in 2016, Simi’s JetBlue team is an unlikely presence in Silicon Valley’s start-up scene. Airlines usually don’t spend much time investing in early-stage tech start-ups. And, yet, here they are.
In many ways, it’s only fitting that the leader of this unorthodox firm is someone who took such an unorthodox route to get here.
A to-do list for life
The Mt. Baldy, California native told Business Insider there was one point in her youth that helped her determine what she wanted to achieve.
During a high school assembly, the motivational speaker John Goddard challenged the students to make a list of 100 things they wanted to accomplish in life.
"I thought to myself, I can’t think of 100 things to do, but I can think of five," she said.
APIt’s common for people to come up with to-do lists. It happens every day. But Simi’s list is special. If not only for its varied interests and sheer ambition but also for the verve with which she tackled each entry — to go to a good college, to work in television, to become a pilot, to compete in the Olympics, and to build a log cabin.
After high school, Simi, then known as Bonny Warner, ticked off the first entry on the list. She attended Stanford University on a field hockey scholarship.
Simi noted that the financial challenges faced by her family meant a scholarship was really the key to her being able to attend college.
"We didn’t have a lot of money," Simi said. "My mom was a single mom with two kids and was a disabled school teacher."
From Stanford to the Olympics
Simi thrived at Stanford where she was the goalie of the field hockey team. However, it was her victory in an essay writing contest that propelled her into the next chapter of her life.
Read more: JetBlue is going to London in 2021.
The contest was to serve as a torch bearer for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.
It was during this experience when Simi was first told that women were not allowed to participate in the bobsled competition.
"You can’t tell me I can’t do something," she said of her reaction."So I said ‘I want to bobsled!’"
Since the women’s bobsled event was not added to the Olympics until the 2002 Salt Lake City games, a change for which Simi helped lobby, she chose the next best thing by becoming a luger.
Leo Mason/Popperfoto/Getty ImagesSo she took time off Stanford and entered a training program to become an Olympic luger all the while cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills. By 1984, Simi was considered America’s best female luger and went on to compete in the 1984, the 1988, and the 1992 Winter Olympic games.
In between her Olympic appearances, Simi graduated from college and went to work as a sportscaster with ABC in the San Francisco Bay area 1988.
She also earned her pilot’s license.
Even though Simi would continue to work as a television commentator during the Olympics until 2002, she would leave her full-time TV career behind in 1990 to join United Airlines as a pilot.
"I was so excited to become an airline pilot. To me, it was equal or even potentially greater than becoming an Olympian," Simi said.
She spent 13 years at United Airlines where she flew a range of aircraft including the Boeing 727, 737, and 777. Eventually, she was promoted to Captain on United’s 727 and 737 fleets.
Betting big on JetBlue
But in 2003, Simi gave it all up to join David Neeleman’s New York-based start-up JetBlue Airways.
"I decided I wanted to work for a startup, I loved flying and I didn’t want to leave aviation," Simi said of her decision to join JetBlue. "I wanted to work for an entrepreneur, I wanted to work for a company that had a caring culture, and a great brand."
"People thought I was crazy, I left United as a very senior captain to go to JetBlue to be junior first officer," she added. "It was a huge pay cut. It was a sort of leap of faith."
Simi compared her departure from United to entrepreneurs who quit their jobs to pursue their endeavors because they have the feeling there’s more out there to accomplish.
Her gamble paid off.
Simi quickly moved into managerial positions within the airline — eventually becoming its head of human resources.
Which brings us back to JetBlue Technology Ventures.
The idea for the VC firm came from JetBlue’s board of directors as a way to keep the company at the forefront of innovation in the airline industry.
"Innovation is only innovative for that snapshot in time, if you don’t continue to work on it and continue to find new ideas, you’re not innovative anymore," Simi said.
According to Simi, JetBlue’s goal is to be become "ambidextrous" in that it wants to not only achieve everyday operational excellence but also remain an innovator.
ZunumTwo of Simi’s most high-profile investments offer a glimpse into the firm’s ambitions.
First, there’s Zunum Aero. It’s a Kirkland, Washington start-up that is working on a new electric-powered regional airliner. According to Zunum, it’s small regional aircraft could help bring affordable and environmental air travel to the masses while cutting travel time for many American’s by utilizing smaller airports.
And then there’s Gladly. It’s an integrated customer service software system that allows customer service agents to have a holistic view of customers’ communication with the airline. That way, an airline’s social media team knows what a customer has communicated by telephone while its phone operators now know what the passenger has included in emails.
This cuts down on the likelihood of miscommunications and reduces the level of frustration for everyone involved. Gladly software is already in use at JetBlue. While decidedly less ambitious than electric airliners, Gladly’s technology could still greatly change the way airlines and its customers communicate.
If you’ve been following along, you probably noticed there’s one item on Simi’s list that hasn’t been able to tackle — that is to build a log cabin.
Based on her track record, I wouldn’t bet against this renaissance woman.
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