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Change Agent, Suzanne Boda—Beating the Gender Odds in the Executive Suite

Suzanne_Boda
Suzanne Boda, Senior VP, American Airlines

By Victor Greto

Suzanne Boda had no idea what she wanted to do after she graduated from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. “I just could not bring myself to start on a specific career, but thought I needed to do something different,” said Boda, who, at 54, is a senior vice president at the recently-merged American Airlines-US Airways, the largest airline in the world.

“After I left college, I was a ski bum for a year, worked in a ski shop, and then came back home to Minnesota,” she said. Boda had earned her B.A. in Asian studies with a concentration in Japanese from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, “and the best way to get back to Asia was to join Northwest Airlines when I was living in Minneapolis,” she said. “I put an application in and was hired to be a passenger service representative and Japanese interpreter.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, she rose through the ranks of Northwest and, in 2008, jumped to US Airways on her way to becoming one of the most successful women in the transportation industry.

The former ski bum eventually oversaw the mammoth new American Airline’s Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Washington D.C. hubs, as well as its international airport operations and cargo division. Based in Philadelphia, she is now responsible for Asia, Canada, Europe and Cargo operations at American Airlines.

“When I went to college I wasn’t focused on being one thing, so a liberal arts education gave me a broad perspective on life,” Boda said. “I went to Japan for a semester, and I also went to Madrid for a semester, and it afforded me an opportunity to get into the global environment.”

Moving frequently for short periods of time–whether to Asia, Europe, or other places around the globe as part of an industry that’s all about going from one place to another– was nothing new to Boda. “When I was young, we moved around a lot,” she said. Her father was a minister and often hosted exchange students in their home. Her parents supported her wish to be an exchange student and she applied through the Rotary Club to go to northern Europe. Instead, the group offered her Japan.

“I read everything I could about Japan, and we had a Japanese exchange student at the time and I picked her brain,” Boda said. She also learned the language. It was a life-changing experience for someone now responsible for all airports in Asia, Europe, Canada, and the Middle East for American Airlines. "Studying and living abroad and immersing oneself in different cultures affords you the opportunity to appreciate diversity. Working in a global environment as we do today, it certainly helps to have that understanding," she said.

When Boda began working for the airlines in the early 1980s, women were rarely found in high positions. “In entry level there were a lot of women working with me, but the minute I started to move into higher roles in management, that’s where I got some sideway glances,” she said. During an interview for one of those higher positions, a man told Boda there were many better roles for women aside from those at the executive level. “I walked out of his office after the interview and said, ‘Watch me, I’m going to have your job,’ and five years later I did. Back then, I would walk into a room with my colleagues, and there may have been two or three women out of 100. Today, it’s more diverse.”

After her first job at Northwest, Boda worked for the airline in Japan for eight years working in the marketing, sales, and support of the airline's global distribution system. When she returned to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, she worked at LAX in Los Angeles as a manager of operations, returned to Minneapolis for nearly two years as an international manager, and then moved on to Memphis and ran the airline’s hub operation, and became a vice president after about five years. She again returned to Minneapolis and became, at different times, vice president of Ground Operations, of Airport Customer Service, and of In-flight services.

In 2007 Boda chose to leave Northwest to work for her former boss, Robert Isom, the Chief Operating Officer at US Airways. "I enjoy Robert's management style and respect how he operates, she said.

The challenge of the American Airlines-US Airways merger, which won’t see the two airlines fully integrated for another 18-24 months, will occupy much of Boda’s time. But so will her other activities, like supporting the work of WTS International.

“WTS is my favorite association,” Boda said. “I think they do so many great things for young women who are getting into the transportation industry. I have been impressed by the educational opportunities for women and with WTS scholarship opportunities.”

Her ultimate career advice for young women is simple: “Keep your options open and diversify yourself. Keep moving out of your comfort zone; take new positions. It involves taking calculated risks, but you will see more doors opening as a result.”

 

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