JetBlue today announced the formation of an in-house venture capital program that will invest in startups “at the intersection of technology, travel and hospitality.”
The program, called JetBlue Technology Ventures, will be led by Bonny Simi. Her name may not be familiar to many in Silicon Valley—even though she’s a California native who attended Stanford—but her resume is pretty remarkable.
Simi is a three-time Olympian in singles luge, finishing as high as sixth in the 1988 Calgary Games. She would later compete internationally in bobsled, and provide television sports commentary for both NBC and CBS. At the same time, Simi was one of precious few female commercial pilots, flying planes for United
She joined JetBlue
in 2007 as director of airport and people planning. She would subsequently hold several other positions with the carrier, including director of customer service and VP of talent. All the while, she has also continued to pilot—logging at least a few flights each month for JetBlue.
Fortune spent some time on the phone with Simi to discuss her new role. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:
FORTUNE: Why was JetBlue Technology Ventures formed?
SIMI: For some time now, at the very highest executive and board levels, there has been talk about expanding the JetBlue brand. About a year ago, Robin Hayes was promoted to CEO and said that he wanted to be thinking about the impact of technology on our business five years down the road. By last fall, we began doing due diligence on what has and hasn’t worked in corporate venture capital and decided that it should be based in Silicon Valley.
I was brought in for a variety of reasons. Obviously I don’t have venture capital experience, but we realized that, in corporate VC, it can be hard for a venture person to crack the code of getting startups through the larger organization. I’ve been through a large spectrum of jobs at JetBlue, so shouldn’t have that problem. Plus, when looking at early-stage startups, you’re often looking at the talent, or the founders, as much as at the idea. I bring talent evaluation to the table. Also, I’m originally from Silicon Valley.
You mentioned due diligence on corporate VC. Did that include other airline programs?
Yes. There was a Delta
venture program, and American
had a small thing. There also are some international ones now forming. For us, what we felt would work best was the highly personal touch and physically being where many of the startups are. Not just in Silicon Valley, but actually being inside the incubators and accelerators. I’ve only been back in Silicon Valley for a month, but it’s been very welcoming of us. Corporate venture units still have big challenges, including if their primary motivation should be strategic or financial, but one of my professors from Stanford [Charles O’Reilly] is literally writing the book on what works in corporate venture capital. It’s not out yet, but he shared the chapters with me.
So is your program more strategic or financially motivated?
For JetBlue, it’s primarily strategic. We’re certainly bringing money to the table and don’t expect to lose all of it, but this is more a way for us to explore brand extensions. We were a startup 16 years ago today, and one of our three partners was a small voice-over-IP division within Lucent that eventually became Avaya. So we have a history of this and, because we do, companies constantly ping us with their ideas, including many of the unicorns when they were smaller. But we haven’t really had a good framework for exploring if these ideas make sense. That’s what we’ve now put together.
How much money is JetBlue committing?
It’s millions of dollars, but it’s not a set amount in a fund.
So it’s directly from the balance sheet?
Yes. If a great opportunity comes around, we’ll try to take advantage of it. There have been a number of times that we’ve partnered with startups to launch their product, but have not gotten equity. So now we will have a better process, where we might be able to invest in the company or possibly form some sort of joint venture.
Do you plan to add staff to JetBlue Technology Ventures?
Yes, we’ll be expanding the team. I don’t have venture experience, so I’ll be hiring an investment professional to be my right-hand person. We’ll also add some analysts.
Last question, not related to investing. Do you really still fly for JetBlue?
One thing here is that our senior leadership is very active in the operations, whether in airports or as flight attendants or pilots. I fly just as much as any management pilots we have. I’m in New York once a month for meetings—and now to meet with startups—and fly several times each month out of New York.