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Captain Roman-Amador, a pilot for JetBlue, chats with some Queens students.
ALMOST WINGING IT

The best career advice for teens takes the unpredictable into account

Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

From our Obsession

Power in Progress

Exploring diversity from all angles.

New York has been a world capital for all manner of industries for decades, but the city’s first ever Career Discovery Week was held just this month.

This workplace festival of sorts, launched by the NYC Department of Education and Partnership for New York City, is meant to expose public school students to career possibilities they might not otherwise see firsthand, or imagine for themselves. More than 6,000 students took in job talks of varying candidness on visits to 180 businesses, including the global consulting firm PWC, utility giant ConEd, and the newer startup incubator New Lab.

So it came to be that, on Valentine’s Day, a class of 10th graders from the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (YWLSA), in Queens, gathered in a JetBlue conference room at the airline’s command center in Long Island City. They wore slate-grey “New York Career Discovery Week” t-shirts, paired with either their school’s grey kilt or, perhaps because it was a field trip, jeans. On round tables, several personal Nalgene water bottles sat next to JetBlue notebooks and pencils, and the odd pastel pink Valentine’s loot bag was tucked under a chair.

The school’s mission, according to its website, is to prepare “low income and minority women from diverse backgrounds for college and other postsecondary experiences.” Its curriculum emphasizes math, science, and technology. But this particular group of exceptionally attentive visiting students weren’t eager to chat about tech, even though all were part of YWLSA’s computer science academic stream.

Instead, they spent the day listening with rapt attention to airline executives who traced the surprising, meandering paths that brought them to JetBlue.

International airports director Giselle Cortes’s story was especially gripping. On a large screen, Cortes shared a life map that started with her unexpected emigration to the US from Puerto Rico when she was 16 years old. One summer spent with her grandparents in New York turned into a permanent relocation. She planned to stay and study criminal justice at John Jay College. A year later, she became a teen mother. School turned into a part-time pursuit while she worked full-time and cared for an infant.

Cortes found a job at Paychex, a payroll company, where a colleague she mentored gave her a tip: “My husband is working at this new airline that’s about to start flying to Puerto Rico. They’re looking for someone in payroll. Are you interested?”

She was. Cortes landed a role as a new hire specialist, and she was quickly promoted, twice, to rise to payroll manager. Seven years ago, she changed tracks entirely, and became the first Latina to hold her current title. In 2016, Cortes led the team that negotiated through sometimes all-night meetings to make JetBlue the first commercial US airline to open a passenger route to Cuba in half a century.

But before that, when her first child was still a baby, Cortes was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and became a cancer survivor, as she said. “As you focus on identifying where you’re going to head, I want you to remember that life is going to happen parallel to that,” she told the students, explaining why her career talk included mothering and illness. “Things might not pan out as you foresee them, but you’ll always going to find a way to correct and say, ‘Ok, here’s what I want my next step to be.’”

One girl asked Cortes how she initially managed to work with a baby at home. The executive credited her support system, including the boyfriend who became her husband. Another student asked whether she ever said no when the company asked her to travel for work. For sure, said Cortes, whose job entails operations in 24 countries. But it took time for her to work up that courage to assess every invitation and whether there was real value to her going in person.“In the beginning it’s very difficult, because you want to do it all,” she told the class.

The same student then wondered whether trips sometimes went badly, and how Cortes managed that. Oh, yes, Cortes said, launching into the tale of a debacle during an inaugural trip to Peru: Halfway through the flight, the crew learned that they were being rerouted to Colombia because a flight permit had fallen through. More course-correcting was required to replace the official ceremony Cortes had planned.

“The shortest path is not always the best path”

The second big theme of Cortes’ speech was about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. That pressure is fuel to her, she said. “People underestimate me,” she told the girls, noting that without her three-inch heels, she’d be “all of five-foot-one.”

“Then you get to sit at the table with the big boys and you get to say, ‘Wait a minute, I have a question,’” she continued. Your intelligence cforces others to rethink their preconceived notions, she suggested.

Next up, Ursula Hurley, treasurer at JetBlue, asked an almost hypothetical question: “Does anyone know what a treasurer does?” A collective “Nope!” erupted from the room.

Nevertheless, Hurley engaged the students, connecting her fondness for math in high school to her VIP job, flying around the world, and spending tens of millions on shiny new airplanes that are flown to the US empty, save for the two JetBlue pilots in the cockpit. She once thought she’d work at Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan, but her father convinced her to try a single year at JetBlue after an internship, and now she says she owes her dream job to that advice.

Later, during a panel discussion, the students met five women who work in operations and financial roles and one man, a plane mechanic and technical team leader who was the only panelist that had planned a career in aviation when he was a student. The others arrived at JetBlue in unlikely ways. One worked in education, for instance, but knew someone who was always happy to be heading off to his job at JetBlue, making her curious about the company and its culture. Someone else had taken the test to become a New York City police officer when a call came about this other steady, exciting position as a JetBlue crew member.

During a break in the programming, Afsana Rahman, one of the Queens students, reflected on JetBlue’s range of job types. “There’s back-end [departments]. There’s payroll and there’s finance. I thought that was really cool, because I didn’t know that was, like, available,” she said.

“At one point in my life, I was interested in aviation, but then I thought it was, like, too hard,” Cecelia Velesaca, her classmate, noted. “But it seems kinda cool now. They have a deeper meaning, they do work for the community too, it’s not just flying everywhere.”

Both students were excited to hear from captain Becky Roman-Amador, the pilot who had been sitting at a side table in full uniform all morning, upping the glamour factor in the room.

When she took the floor, Roman-Amador said she knew she had wanted to become a pilot when she was three years old. Her dad worked as an aviation mechanic and his life was planes. She was “attached to his knee,” she said, adding, “I was so fortunate that my father and my mother didn’t discourage me from hanging out with my father, doing all the boys’ things.”

Like most of the other women at JetBlue who spoke that day, Roman-Amador didn’t go from college straight into her current job. Instead, after studying electrical engineering, she got a designing role, working nine to five, Monday to Friday, which made her “very unhappy.” “The shortest path is not always the best path,” she said.

When she did become a pilot, she joined a tiny club. Only 3% of commercial pilots were women at that time. Now, about 5% of the 160,000 pilots for US airlines are women, and, according to Roman-Amador, about 1,300 of them rank as captain.

Roman-Amador shared some photos of her friends and family (“If you guys don’t have someone in your corner, get someone in your corner,” she advised), including one picture of her with a close peer, another pilot. “As a Latina pilot and an African American pilot, we understand challenges,” said Roman-Amador, pointing to that image. “And you guys are going to face challenges.”

When someone tells you “No,” she quipped near the end of her talk, “it doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you’re going to have to find another way to do it.”

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