When Bonny Simi was 14, wearing overalls and T-shirts and living in a tiny Southern California mountain town, her life was transformed one day in high school by a guest speaker who preached the virtue of setting life goals.
“We had this assembly, and this guy came in,” recalls Simi, 56, the president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, the airline’s in-house investment firm. “He said when he was 14 years old, he made a list of 100 things he wanted to accomplish in life. And they were like: Go to the moon, canoe the Amazon, sail across the Atlantic, all the things an adventurous 14-year-old boy might think of.
“He had climbed Mt. Baldy, where I lived, and I thought that was cool. He told us we needed to come up with goals. I was 14. I couldn’t think of that many things. We had no money. My mom was disabled, a school teacher, and a single mom. We were on food stamps. Like, what was I going to dream of?”
That was 1976, an Olympics year, and Simi was watching the Games on TV. Her mom also often took her to visit the local airport, which was really cool. “I wrote down I wanted to be a pilot,” she says. “I wanted to be an Olympic athlete, and I wanted to work for ABC TV, because that was the Olympics [network]. I wanted to go to a good college, and I wanted to build a log cabin. Those are the things I wrote.”
Over the next 42 years, she achieved every one of those goals–except the log cabin. But more on that later.
Note that in the 14-year-old’s imaginings of her future, Simi did not include running a first-of-its kind travel-industry investment operation. But that’s just what she’s doing–in 2016 JetBlue’s leadership commissioned her to build a Silicon Valley-based venture arm aimed at driving innovation in the travel and hospitality industries, make the airline some money, and get it a seat at the table as some of the most exciting technologies come down the pike.
Already, JTV, as it’s known, has a portfolio of 16 investments, some of which are startups already integrated with JetBlue’s operations, and some which are more about promise and long-term potential. By 2020, JTV expects to have ongoing investments in about 30 startups at a time. Most are Series A or seed-round investments in companies of between three and 20 people.
From estimating flight delays to all-electric planes
Today, JTV is announcing its investment in Lumo, a Boston B2B company that’s built technology aimed at predicting flight delays as much as three months in advance. Meant to help airlines plan their schedules months ahead as well as to give individual passengers a day or two of warning that their flight is going to be 30 minutes late, Lumo leverages its founders’ years of work in airspace modeling. It hopes airlines, business travelers, app providers, and others will become customers.
According to Lumo CEO Bala Chandran, the company uses machine learning to analyze a variety of signals, from historical weather patterns to what air-traffic controllers are saying, to known runway construction projects, and more—all to estimate flight delays. The sooner the flight, the more accurate the prediction is, of course, but Lumo believes that even historical patterns that can be intuited a couple of months in advance are useful to airlines that, for example, are trying to plan crew shifts. Another use case is for helping insurance companies price travel policies.
Lumo’s an example of a company that could integrate into JetBlue’s operations–or that of other airlines–in the short term. Another is Gladly, which makes a platform that integrates many different customer communications channels–email, texts, calls, etc.–into one dashboard for easy consumption and action by customer service reps. Overall, Simi wants 40% of JTV’s investment to have a direct operational impact for JetBlue within 18 months. When considering potential investments, the firm looks for startups working on one of five themes–a seamless customer journey; an excellent service platform; the future of maintenance and operations; the distribution of tickets, loyalty, and revenue management; and regional travel.
At the opposite end of the short-term operational impact investment spectrum is Zunum Aero, a Seattle-based company that’s developing all-electric planes meant for short-haul regional routes. Zunum’s planes won’t be in the skies until at least 2020, and its unlikely they’ll carry passengers before 2025, so it’s hard to know if JetBlue will ever fly them.
But as Simi puts it, she and her team saw that electric planes could well be one of the aviation industry’s most important future innovations, and funding Zunum–and partnering with Boeing, another investor in the startup–gives JTV a seat at the table and invaluable early insight into how the technology is advancing.
Incredibly relevant but small
And that’s exactly the kind of thing JetBlue–a well-known U.S. air carrier with a 5% market share that is nonetheless dwarfed by its “behemoth” competitors: American, United, Delta, and Southwest–needs to stay in the game. “We’re an incredibly relevant airline, but we’re still small,” Simi says. “When we think about what we will be 50 years from now, at 5%, it’s hard to continue to be relevant. So how do we think about ourselves in a slightly different way, and how do we use that brand equity and extend the great experience that we have across the entire ecosystem?”
Air travel is high-volume, but low-margin. So in thinking about how to grow, JetBlue needed new thinking, new concepts. Its board came up with the idea of an in-house venture arm, one that could think more holistically about the entire travel ecosystem, “from the moment you think about travel until you come back and say ‘wow,'” explains Simi.
Other industries, such as fintech and IoT, had well-established investment ecosystems, recalls Eash Sundaram, JetBlue’s executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer, but there wasn’t anything like that for travel and hospitality. The airline wanted to disrupt itself and its industry. “Creating the ecosystem was key,” Sundaram says, “but the focus for us was also the consumption of these technologies, bringing them in-house, expanding the brand, and also going deeper into the existing brand and innovating ourselves.”
When looking for a president for JTV, JetBlue leadership knew they already had the right person for the job–Simi. She’d gone to Stanford (the good college part of her childhood goals), she lived in Silicon Valley and had a strong network there, she was a pilot (that goal, too), and she ran the airline’s talent operations. She’d even hired Sundaram.
‘I want a little freedom’
Simi knew that any in-house investment arm needed to be geographically separate from the mothership. JetBlue is based in New York, so she insisted JTV set up shop in Silicon Valley. Notwithstanding that it’s the thriving home of the technology industry, as well as to the lion’s share of meaningful venture capital firms, she just wanted distance. “If JetBlue were based in San Francisco, I’d probably say I want to be in New York,” she says. It’s like “I’m a little kid going off to college. I want a little freedom.”
Simi staffed up quickly with people from the venture capital world, from the travel and hospitality industries, and from technology. The goal was to bridge competing dynamics–investors who don’t have JetBlue’s needs in their DNA, and industry players who don’t intuitively understand investing. Simi herself brought the kind of political capital within JetBlue to move the decision needle, and to understand what the company needed not just today, but two, or five years, or more in the future.
And as she looks into the future, she sees the value of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, and now, blockchain. She’s not sure how the latter can impact JetBlue, but she’s confident that it could represent new ways to conduct transactions–perhaps for things like fueling planes, or for third-party ticketing systems.
She also thinks there’s promise in the way blockchain could be used to track parts inventories or airline loyalty points, or to pay across borders. And that’s why JTV brought its entire finance team to Silicon Valley recently for a tour of several blockchain startups. Learning about the technology has to come first, she knows. Only once the team understands it can it credibly invest.
By 1980, Simi had already made good on the first of her life goals. She was a standout field hockey player and had earned a scholarship to play the sport at Stanford. She was so good, in fact, that she harbored dreams of making the U.S. Olympic team.
She was also into track, and one day she read an article in Runner’s World about an essay competition to be an Olympic torch-bearer at that year’s Winter Games. She entered, and was selected as California’s representative (each state got one). She was soon on her way to Lake Placid, New York, where she had passes to everything. She ended up almost by accident in the front row for one of the greatest Olympic moments in American history–the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. men’s hockey team’s legendary defeat of the Russians.
The friend who insisted that she go to that game also was into bobsledding, and suggested they go watch some. “It was cool, but they said women were not allowed to bobsled,” Simi recalls. “I said ‘why?’ Don’t ever tell me not to do something.”
Bobsledding may have been closed to women, but its spiritual sibling, luge, was open. Simi thought that looked fun. In exchange for cleaning a Lake Placid hotel after the Olympics ended, she got room and board, and the ability to attend a month-long local luge camp.
Simi was good at luge, but raw, and didn’t have the resources to hone her skills. But just as good fortune in the essay competition had brought her to Lake Placid, she found out she’d won $5,000 in a clothing store’s prize drawing. So off to Germany she went, to pursue luge in earnest. Within four years, she was on the Olympic team, eventually suiting up for Team USA in the 1984, 1988, and 1992 Winter Games.
In 1988, as Simi was close to graduating from Stanford, ABC’s San Francisco affiliate KGO-TV interviewed her for a story about the Olympics. When the reporter asked what she wanted to do after graduation, “I said I’d love to come work for you,” she remembers.
KGO hired Simi to file a few stories from the 1988 Calgary Olympics, and the station liked them so much that they offered her a job. She ended up working as a writer/reporter/producer, checking off yet another of the life goals.
And then it was time to learn to fly. In 1990, after getting her pilot’s license, Simi went to work for United, flying Boeing 727s, 737s, and 777s for a total of 13 years until she left for JetBlue in 2003.
But there were two other entries in her Olympic resume. She did commentary during the 1994, 1998, and 2002 Games. And, closing a loop from 1980, she worked with the United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee to get women’s bobsledding added as an Olympic sport in 2002. She just missed making the team herself.
One Monday a month, JTV has an investment committee meeting in New York. Typically, Simi catches a flight to New York on the Saturday before the meeting, and then she steps into the cockpit of an Embraer 190 on Sunday to pilot short-haul flights somewhere on the East Coast.
Simi may be president of JTV, but she’s also a JetBlue officer, and like most in leadership at the company, that means she often works in customer service, especially during the holidays. She also likes filling in for pilots who would otherwise have to work. “I’m not a go out late type of person,” she says, “so I might call up a captain and say, Hey, would like to have New Year’s Eve off? And they like that. I don’t get paid anything different if I fly.”
But most of Simi’s time is spent back in California running JTV and helping shape the organization’s portfolio, as well as getting hands-on with some of the companies in that portfolio.
She likes to point to one of the ways she helped Recharge, a company that’s built a business renting luxury hotel rooms by the hour to weary business travelers.
When Recharge launched, its CEO Manny Bamfo was invited onto Fox Business star Maria Bartiromo’s show. Bamfo hadn’t had real media training yet, and there was no doubt that Bartiromo, known as the “Money Honey,” would push the hotels by the hour idea–in other words, that that’s traditionally been the province of prostitutes. “I’m like, ‘Manny, you’re not ready for this yet,'” Simi says. “‘You need to be able to convey how that is not the case, and [prostitution’s] not what we’re seeing at all. And message that.’ And he wanted to do it, wanted to do it, wanted to do it. We had a hard talk with him [and] he came in and did the [media] training. And a week later he rocked” the interview.
And JTV brings value to its startups in other ways too. The firm brought a “ton” of industry expertise to Zunum, helped them connect with Boeing, and got the electric-plane company set up with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Last year, JTV was considering whether to invest in Skyhour, a startup that had come up with a new way for people to give flights as gifts–treating time in the air as flight hours, and allowing people to gift a certain amount of those hours. Everyone on the JTV team was excited about the potential investment–except Simi. “I look at it, and it’s like, It’s never going to work,” she remembers thinking. But the team implored her. “‘Bonny, everybody we bounce this idea off of who’s not an airline person says this is amazing. That’s the problem: You’re an airline person.'”
She demurred, at first saying that maybe the way to go was to do a very small investment, but the team–made up of people with a variety of backgrounds outside the airline industry–insisted on at least a 5% stake. “I finally thought to myself, this is precisely why we need to have this yin and yang. ‘I know you’re all excited, and you’re passionate about this, and that I would be squelching if I just said no. So let’s just move forward with it.”
At the time, Simi was still unsure, but she recognized the potential for what she said could be an entirely new form of currency for airlines. JTV did end up investing, and the episode illustrated the power of having a team with diverse backgrounds. She knows she could have just said no, since after all, she’s in charge. But “if I just went with my own gut, always, why [do] I have a team,” she asks rhetorically. “They’re not paper monkeys to do the research and serve it up to me.”
One member of the team is Raj Singh, who had a long career as a CEO and VC prior to joining JTV. Simi likes to tell a story about Singh’s coming on board that illustrates the airline’s commitment to what’s an unusual type of organization in the aviation industry.
Singh was worried that JTV had no track record and wanted assurances that it would be around for awhile. So Simi suggested he speak with numerous board members and JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes at a board meeting at an airport. Simi says she’ll never forget what one of the board members told Singh. “He said, ‘Well, you would have to have a turnover of both the senior leadership, the CEO, and the board, in order for [JTV to shut down],'” she recalls. “‘If the senior leadership goes, the board’s invested. If the board changes, the CEO’s invested. It’s the best of both worlds.'”
Simi’s recollection about the story of Singh’s hiring is illustrative of her passion both for JTV and for the commitment by JetBlue’s leadership and board. You can tell she really loves the airline, and its people–which is why she’s been there since 2003, working in a wide range of roles including director of airport and people planning, director of customer service, director of customer experience, vice president of talent, and of course, pilot.
When you ask her, though, what she’s most passionate about, her answer isn’t one of the startups she’s funded, or a new technology that’s helping JetBlue be more competitive.
It’s actually about what’s known as JB Scholars, a program she started that’s aimed at helping any JetBlue employee without a college degree get their diploma–at no cost.
JetBlue worked out a deal with Thomas Edison State University to let the employees take courses at a cost to the airline of about $2,000 a year. Already there have been about 100 graduates, and there are about 800 more employees enrolled in the program–call center people, baggage handlers, pilots, and even company officers. “We had a 67-year-old grandma who got her associate’s degree,” she says proudly.
Simi knows that working in the travel industry is addictive, and that once people get in it, they often put their education on hold–sometimes forever. She wants to interrupt that cycle. She got the idea because her own husband, a firefighter, never got his degree. “He said, ‘Honey, I want my degree. I want my daughter to have a college degree, so I should have one.’ He was the first one. He was the first JB Scholar.”
Asked if he was worried that a program like JB Scholars might inspire JetBlue employees to take their new talents elsewhere, Sundaram says it’s quite the opposite. “The best thing we can give people is an opportunity to look beyond us,” he says. “We shouldn’t be selfish about keeping people with us. As we grow, there is always opportunity for people to grow. But it’s also important for us to future-proof them….Being a good corporate citizen, you have to look through the lens of what is bet for the people rather than thinking about what is best” for the company.
For Simi herself, what’s best is knowing that no matter what happens inside JetBlue’s boardroom, or in JTV’s Silicon Valley offices, it always does come back to airplanes themselves. JetBlue is, after all, an airline. And for her, she’ll always need be able to climb into a cockpit and lift planes into the sky. That was a deal-breaker when she was offered the opportunity to run JTV.
“I’m a pilot, at the end of the day, to my core,” she says fiercely. “A pilot’s gotta fly. Don’t cut my wings. You can take anything from me, but you can’t take flying away.”