By Cheryl Robinson
Although the airline industry has made continuous efforts to employ more females in executive positions, FlightGlobal reports that it will still take the sector until the mid-2050s to reach gender equality. Its latest report states that there were 85 female incumbents in 2020 compared to 76 last year, meaning an increase of 12% versus a rise of 5.5% (four women) in 2019 and 11% (seven women) in 2018.
With only 3% of the world’s top 100 airlines being led by females, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) initiated the voluntary 25by2025 campaign for member airlines to increase female representation by 25% or up to a minimum of 25% by 2025. Companies like VistaJet, a global business aviation company making private flying affordable and accessible, understand the value of appointing a woman as president.
Leona Qi, president of VistaJet U.S., is not only setting an example for the younger generations of female leaders but is making it possible for other women to be appointed into executive roles in the industry.
“When you fly someone,” Qi states, “I always say that the job is exciting because every single flight is different, especially for the flights involving in the personal side, flying families. During COVID, we’re flying families to their loved ones or to their safe places; you’re very much involved in your customer’s life. I’m raising that because I found that there’s a similarity between that and managing my team because a lot of times, through the years, I became friends with my customers…When you come to negotiate the deal, there is a fine balance between I am friends, but at the same time, I’m negotiating a deal with you. They would negotiate and deal with me and then you need to be very professional to make sure that our business is profitable.”
By trade, Qi trained as a financial engineer. After graduation, she worked on Wall Street in sales and trading. The products that she sold all had an underlying asset, including real estate, cars and aircrafts. She was stationed on the trading floor, covering hedge funds, mutual funds and some private equity firms. After 9/11, some of the major funds began to experience a cash shortage during the financial crisis.
Two colleagues approached Qi, stating they were starting a firm that only financed private aircrafts and wanted to know if she would join them. With Wall Street primarily financing commercial airlines, there was an opportunity in the market for this type of firm.
“I knew them personally and professionally,” Qi explains. “I also wanted to start my own company. I thought it was time. I always wanted to do something very entrepreneurial. So I said, ‘I will help you raise the money.’ That took us about two years. I was working my full-time job at the same time we were raising money.”
A former Wall Street colleague who transitioned to CFO at VistaJet introduced Qi to the company in 2014. She liked the culture and how the founder listened to his employees. At the time, he was in the process of searching for someone to run the Asia-Pacific business for him. In 2016, Qi officially joined VistaJet and began commuting from New York City to Hong Kong.
“That was one of the best decisions I ever made for my career,” she smiles. “I have a lot of autonomy to run my ideas.”
As head of the Asia-Pacific market, Qi expanded her team from seven to 26 and tripled the customer base. In 2018, she pivoted to the president of the U.S. market. As the company continuously innovates new ways to engage with new customer bases, during Covid-19 it offered complimentary flights to the government to transport PPE and critical medical supplies throughout the country.
Additionally, VistaJet is committed to reducing its carbon footprint in a fast and efficient manner. Since introducing its Carbon Offset program to customers in January 2020, 80% of VistaJet members have opted-in to compensate for their fuel use-related emissions. The company has offset almost 100,000 tons of CO2 (tCO2)on behalf of its customers, equating to over 21,600 passenger vehicles driven for one year or over 12.7 billion smartphones charged.
As Qi pivoted in her career, she focused on the following essential steps:
- Prepare for your next step. Success doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be prepared for your next opportunity, which entails research and networking.
- Find your passion. As you transition to your next position, if it doesn’t excite you, it’s time for you to look elsewhere. Having a passion keeps you focused and determined to succeed.
- Focus on your strengths. Don’t let imposter syndrome paralyze your progress. Let your skillset speak for itself and steer the narrative in your favor.
“Luck doesn’t just happen,” Qi concludes. “It happens to people that are prepared. We, as individuals, we always need to constantly learn and do the hard work and be prepared, so that when the opportunity presents itself, you can successfully do it.”