The uptick in the number of active corporate venture units in recent years has added plenty of new faces to the entrepreneurial ecosystem, but few of them are as unique as former Olympic athlete, long-time commercial pilot, and former airline executive Bonny Simi, the President of the new JetBlue Technology Ventures.
NVCA recently sat down with Bonny to talk about the new corporate venture firm she is leading. A Bay area native who went to Stanford for undergraduate and graduate business and engineering degrees, Bonny was an executive at JetBlue before taking on her current role. She has also piloted commercial planes for over two decades—and continues to do so—giving her a unique perspective on the travel industry that she now brings to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
NVCA: Why did JetBlue decide to enter the corporate venture ecosystem? What were its motivations for creating a corporate venture arm?
Bonny: JetBlue has always been an innovative company, but with the speed that technology is moving, we decided having a dedicated arm of the company looking for technologies and startups that can help us stay ahead was an important move. We believe that the travel and hospitality sector is ripe for disruption, and that startups can fuel that change, helping to move the whole industry toward a more seamless travel experience. There are very few venture firms that are specializing in the travel and hospitality industry, and fewer still that can offer the real world experience and industry knowledge that we have. The partnership potential easily extends beyond a simple financial investment.
Our approach is somewhat unique in the CVC world, as we are not looking for M&A activity, rather we operate more as a strategic partner to help startups in the travel and hospitality world far beyond JetBlue. By partnering with early stage startups, we have the opportunity to share our experience, and what might be beneficial to JetBlue, but believe that many of those concepts are relatable across the travel industry, and are excited to see startups flourish in the broader ecosystem, partnering and inspiring the next generation of industry leaders.
NVCA: Could you describe the structure of JetBlue Technology Ventures and your team?
Bonny: The company was announced in February of this year. We are a wholly owned subsidiary of JetBlue. While the “mothership” is based in New York, the venture subsidiary is based in Silicon Valley, allowing for independence. As the President of the team, I am building a team with strong venture expertise and industry expertise, as both are important to be successful in corporate venture. Managing Director Raj Singh is an experienced venture director and leads several Investment Associates and Analysts. The team also has representation from the airline industry, with my experience as well as a Program Manager embedded at JetBlue and resources on JetBlue’s IT team.
NVCA: What sectors and technologies is your fund looking at and investing in? And why those particular sectors/industries?
Bonny: We are looking at the entire travel and hospitality sector. Think about everything that powers a travel experience, from the moment you decide you want to travel somewhere, to the time you step back into your home at the end of your trip. So that means we’re looking at both customer facing and enterprise facing technologies. On the customer side, we want to find ways to provide a seamless travel experience, as we know the travel experience end to end is fragmented. On the enterprise side, we’re looking at platforms for maintenance, operations, and technologies that empower airline employees to provide even better experience. We are also looking into broader areas like other modes of travel, technologies serving the hospitality industry and cross industry startups powered by AI, Machine Learning, VR/AR, IoT, Biometrics, Cyber Security and quite frankly any technologies that can positively impact the travel and hospitality industry.
NVCA: Why did you and your fund decide to become a member of the National Venture Capital Association?
Bonny: I firmly believe that being part of the ecosystem is important. No company, no entity, no venture capital firm can be an island onto themselves. When we began here in Silicon Valley, we wanted to be full participants in the venture capital and startup industries. By being part of NVCA, we believe that we can be add value to the ecosystem, and receive value from the ecosystem and from NVCA.
NVCA: Could you describe some of the unique experiences you’ve had in your career and how you feel those experiences help you bring a different perspective to corporate venture?
Bonny: I think that this is a perfect role for me. I worked with JetBlue in quite a few different operational roles across the entire company, which has given me unique industry knowledge and allows me to understand practically every aspect of the industry and how a startup could integrate with an airline. Furthermore, I was the head of talent for JetBlue for a number of years, so I spent quite a lot of time evaluating talent. So I can judge both the idea that a startup has as well as the talent of the people behind the idea. The venture team provides excellent support to determine the investiblity of the startup.
NVCA: There is a great deal of discussion about diversity in the venture capital industry. How have you found the state of diversity in the industry? And how do you perceive your own role regarding diversity and inclusion in the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Bonny: The venture capital community and ecosystem in Silicon Valley has been extremely supportive, both of me personally, and of our firm. So I have not experienced any challenges and instead nothing but great support.
I’ve long been a person who believes in just going for it. I became a female pilot at a time when there were very few female pilots, but I always considered myself as simply a pilot, and today I just consider myself a venture capitalist, not necessarily a female venture capitalist. That being said, I definitely think about my status as a potential role model to other young women, to be out there and to show other women that it’s possible for them to become a venture capitalist. If you don’t know something is a possibility, you won’t do it. So I want to help those women who are out there, answer their questions and show women that it’s possible to become a female venture capitalist—that’s important to me.
NVCA: How have you found working in the corporate venture space so far? And how would you describe your interactions with traditional (financial) venture capital firms?
Bonny: It’s been fabulous on both sides. Every big-name corporate venture unit has reached out to me or my team. Experienced CVC’s like GE, Samsung, Amadeus and Airbus, have been reaching out to us to learn more about what we’re doing in this space—especially since there isn’t really anyone else in the travel and hospitality venture space at the moment—and want to know how they can help support us.
On the VC side, we are seeing increasing interest in the travel and hospitality space (likely due to success of startups like Uber and AirBnB). Several VC firms have reached out to us to get our thoughts on industry specific startups, as we can provide the domain expertise and validation. Several have brought us in as co-investors. We don’t compete with the financial VC’s, we’re there as a strategic partner, and we bring a great travel brand to the deal.
Right now, everybody’s taking our calls and everyone is meeting with us. Thank goodness we have an awesome team, because otherwise I would not have enough time in the day!
NVCA: What are you most looking forward to about your fund and its portfolio companies over the next several years?
Bonny: I really want us to transform the travel and hospitality industry. My vision is for us to lead the industry and be a Launchpad for startups to come and incubate. The startup community has embraced us and the deal flow is incredible and very diverse, and we’re getting a solid reputation of a supportive “friendly” to the startups, who can make quick decisions and make industry introductions for them. We want travel-tech startups to consider it a badge of honor that they have JetBlue Technology Ventures on the cap sheet. And of course, we want to also help JetBlue innovate, become more efficient, and stay ahead.