How does JetBlue think about corporate citizenship and philanthropy?

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Wednesday, 26 November 2014 16:55 GMT

Singer Victoria Justice joined JetBlue and Random House Children’s Books on their joint Soar With Reading campaign to keep children reading throughout the summer months.

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“Since JetBlue’s beginning, the airline set its sights on inspiring humanity beyond air travel,” explained Icema D. Gibbs, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for JetBlue Airways. In an in-depth interview, we discussed JetBlue’s philanthropic philosophy and programs, challenges to success, the launch of the JetBlue Foundation, and much more. 

Icema D. Gibbs is the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for JetBlue Airways. Ms. Gibbs is responsible for JetBlue’s corporate citizenship, working to enhance the company’s brand platform through global cause marketing and philanthropic initiatives. Through her leadership, JetBlue’s award winning Corporate Social Responsibility efforts have been recognized and applauded in the United States and abroad. 

Tell me a little bit JetBlue's philosophy towards corporate citizenship and social responsibility.

JetBlue was founded with the mission to bring humanity back to air travel. Now in our 14th year, we continue to inspire humanity in the air and in the community. As a founding member of JetBlue, when we started we wanted to set a new standard in the airline industry and beyond for service, performance and innovation. We wanted to not only be known as a great customer-service airline, but an exemplary customer service brand that is really entrenched in the communities we serve, a neighbor if you will.

I think Dave Barger, JetBlue’s CEO, says it best. When thinking our community presence, he classifies it as “citizenship” rather than “social responsibility.” Citizenship is part of our DNA, it’s who we are as a company, in the people we hire what we value, and how we look at the world.

Our five core values are Safety, Caring, Integrity, Passion and Fun. These are the principles that all of our crewmembers live by, whether it is in the air or on the ground. After polling our crewmembers and customers, a few themes resonated. Our customers shared that they actively seek out efforts and brands that impact children and education. Therefore, we designed our corporate CSR pillars to focus on youth and education, community and the environment.

Although these are our core pillars, we also support initiatives and causes that are important to our crewmembers. We create compelling volunteer experiences for our crewmembers and customers to support the communities serve and belong to. For example, one crewmember recently visited Haiti and partnered a local village under development. She requested that JetBlue support her work in the village. So we partnered with the agency to provide relief to residents still impacted by the Earthquake. It was so heartwarming to see our crewmembers break ground on the site where a fresh water well will be built. This well will provide fresh water not only to resident of the village, but also the local community.

What are some examples of how these principles and ideas have translated into concrete action over the years? 

Our signature CSR programs are reflective of our core pillars and mission as a company. We analyze local and national trends and designed our key programs to meet these specific needs. We actively seek out ways to engage our customers and crewmembers and communities.  In line with our Youth/Education pillar, we coordinate an annual summer reading initiative called Soar With Reading. As examples of our community pillar, we are also dedicated to bringing play back to children in underserved areas as well as providing the possibility of a family vacation to families touched by autism.

In 2011, JetBlue launched Soar with Reading, a program designed to inspire kids' imaginations to take flight through reading. A recent study reports that in middle-income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1 and in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is one age-appropriate book for every 300 children. Our Soar with Reading program was designed to help get age-appropriate books into the hands of kids who need them. For the past two years, JetBlue partnered with Random House Children's Books and Magic Tree House author, Mary Pope Osborne (along with characters Jack and Annie) to encourage children to share the magic of reading. Parents and customers were encouraged to visit to share their stories with us and be entered for a chance to win a $5,000 college scholarship or other prizes. To date, we’ve donated $1million worth of books to children in need.

Since 2005, JetBlue and KaBOOM! have partnered to create play spaces for children across JetBlue's communities and help fight the deficit of play for children in underserved neighborhoods. Why play? Kids aren’t playing enough—and the consequences are devastating:

  • Only one in four children gets 60 minutes of physical activity or active play each day.
  • One in five American kids has a mental illness.
  • One in three is obese or overweight. U.S. students rank 23rd in the world in science skills, and 31st in math.

Our crewmembers created grassroots initiatives on the local levels to able to better understand and serve the autism community. Autism now affects one in 68 children. In 2013, thanks to the support of our crewmembers, we embarked on a relationship with Autism Speaks to create the Blue Horizons for Autism program. This initiative is a unique air travel practice event for families affected by autism. Families are able to practice the airport experience in a realistic, yet relaxed setting, allowing them to be better prepared for future travel. We’ve received numerous updates from families that have been able we received a touching take their first family vacations.   

Since JetBlue’s beginning, the airline set its sights on inspiring humanity beyond air travel. One way we have done this is by showing support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs. We recognize our responsibility to the world below our wings and the future of our industry. As such, in 2013 we announced the launch of the JetBlue Foundation, a company-sponsored foundation to advance aviation-related education. The JetBlue Foundation will continue the airline’s efforts to place aviation top-of-mind as a career choice for students by igniting interest STEM programs.

What kinds of results have these programs had?

Our program’s successes are all thanks to our most important asset: our crewmembers. 

A few key successes include:

  • Over the past nine years, JetBlue and KaBOOM! have brought together more than 4,500 volunteers to build 20 playgrounds, which now serve more than 44,000 children. JetBlue and KaBOOM! also partnered to build three playgrounds in areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Nearly two years after Hurricane Sandy, dozens of communities in the New York metro area are still rebuilding. With essential infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and roads being the primary focus, playgrounds and play spaces often take a lower priority. Following natural disasters, play becomes even more critical as it creates a sense of normalcy and provides an emotional outlet for kids.
  • From check in at the ticket counter to walking through security, to date over 700 children with autism and their families will have the  opportunity to navigate the airport experience firsthand in an effort to help reduce stress on an actual flight. Taking a family vacation with an autistic child  can be stressful, and for many families, it is often an impossible dream. Anxiety, long lines, loud noises and unfamiliarity all come into play when navigating the airport. Blue Horizons for Autism provide families with the time, resources and compassion for their children to become more comfortable with this experience. So far, the rehearsals have resulted in several families being able to utilize their experience to take an actual vacation.
  • To date, the JetBlue Foundation has provided three $25,000 grants to schools and educational alliances focusing on STEM and aviation-related programs geared towards underserved groups and communities. The Foundation has also created once-in-a-lifetime experiential opportunities for students including the Aviation Career Education (ACE) initiatives. We are taking a vested interest in the future of our industry. Based on our support, Aviation High School, the nation’s largest public aeronautical high school is using its grant to launch an Aviation Welding Improvement Plan to ensure students have the resources to earn an FAA certification as an Aircraft Maintenance Technician. This includes purchasing the advanced technologies and materials needed to prepare students for today’s job market. Over 2,300 students, primarily from under-represented groups, attend Aviation High School. Also, York College was able to develop a curriculum to establish an FAA-approved Aircraft Dispatcher Certification program, making it the first public education institution in New York to offer this type of program. More than 82% of the student population is from under-represented groups and 66% of the undergraduate student body is women.

What are some of the challenges you've had to overcome during this time?

Our biggest challenge is finding partners that are aligned with our mission, vision and values. One thing we work to highlight is the importance of public/private partnerships. These partnerships are much more than money, they go beyond just financial contributions. More important than monetary support, these partnerships greatly benefit from time, talent, resources. One such partnership that comes to mind is our partnership with PENCIL.

As part of PENCIL’s Partnership Program, JetBlue leaders have been among the hundreds of private sector leaders that have joined with public school principals across New York City to help transform the schools and provide new opportunities to students. It has been a great partnership. In addition to our impact on principals, more than a dozen fifth year students have participated in internships over the past few years at the JetBlue hangar at JFK and in our corporate office, learning about our fleet, participating in safety courses and shadowing technicians during engine changes and routine maintenance checks.

How would you assess social responsibility more broadly across the airline industry?

Industry-wide, brands are doing things that are so results driven and not exclusively commercial. These initiatives are not always quantifiable or measurable. Some efforts that were design as purely philanthropic are now being viewed with returns in mind. 

Brands need to clearly define who they are, what they stand for. JetBlue is an airline and flying is our core business. However, we are constantly thinking how we can utilize our core business to impact humanity. Whether it’s providing flights to a veteran to make it home for the holidays, using our internal knowledge to help impact school administrators or restoring play for kids, we find ways to utilize our business to provide and meet needs. These tie in our customer-focused mission, our core values and our crewmember’s passion.

Finally, what are some of the leadership lessons you've learned along the way when it comes to business and societal responsibility? 

Listening and valuing your team are key to becoming a great leader. JetBlue is a people-focused brand. We are only as good as our crewmembers and we are in business because of our customers. We are people serving people. 

We must listen to our customers. The top lessons I’ve learned along the way:

  • Don’t assume that you know what the need is. It’s ok to ask what is needed. This is the best way to be able to meet the actual need.
  • Needs don’t always fit into what you’d like to offer as support.
  • Resources are just as important as money
  • Listen, always be willing to learn and listen again