Flying above the glass ceiling
For Bebe O'Neil, United's system chief pilot, a career in aviation was almost a no-brainer.
"My dad worked at Boston Logan airport as a private pilot," O'Neil said. "I would go watch the airplanes with him at work and got interested in aviation and aerodynamics."
O'Neil eventually decided to attend the Air Force Academy, and estimates that at the time, it was still just about 10% women.
"Women were not fully assimilated into the Air Force Academy, but we were no longer a novelty," she said. "You just had to execute, if not as well as your counterparts, then a little bit better."
The hard work paid off. O'Neil flew eight years in active duty with the Air Force and has been working her way up the ranks at United for 28 years.
While more and more woman are working in industries that are traditionally male-dominated, it's critical for those interests to be nurtured from a young age. We spoke with three United superstars — in flight operations, technology and global operations strategy — who all stressed the importance of having strong mentors from an early age.
For Linda Jojo, those role models were her father and later her high school math teacher.
"My father was an engineer and someone who really had high expectations of me and encouraged my interest in math and science," Jojo said. "He took me to the Air and Space Museum in D.C. in sixth grade."
Today, as United's executive vice president of technology and chief digital officer, she's been at the forefront of groundbreaking technology initiatives like ConnectionSaver, which helps reduce missed connections, and a chat tool that allows flight attendants and gate agents to communicate more seamlessly.
"One of the things that drew me to technology to begin with is the fact that things are always changing," she said. "You just think about the power you have in your smartphone and how that used to take up entire rooms."
It seems that Mandeep Grewal, United's vice president of Global Operations Strategy, Planning and Design, was destined for a career in aviation. She recalls spending her childhood traveling back and forth between her home in Zambia, Africa, and boarding school in India. "My brother and I grew up on airplanes," Grewal said.
Her mom was also one of the first women pilots in India back in the '50s. Growing up with these influences, "there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be in the airline industry from my early years," she said.
Grewal started out working in finance at Continental Airlines, and over the past three decades, she's gotten a breadth of experience in Pricing and Revenue Management and Customer Experience, Domestic Line Station Airport Operations and more. Through it all, she says she still wakes up in the morning excited to get to work and make an impact. "I couldn't imagine life anywhere else. Every day has brought new learnings for me," she said.
All three women said that they are constantly learning, and that this has been key to their success. Jojo noted that a simple way to make that progress is to prioritize listening as much as speaking. "Some of the people I learn the most from are the people I see every day," she said.
Her advice for women hoping to carve out successful careers in tech or aviation was simple: do what you love.
"We spend the majority of our lives at work, and we have to do something we're passionate about," she said.
As the founding president of United's uIMPACT business resource group, Grewal is passionate about creating a support network for women to help them step out of their comfort zones and take on new challenges. "As I've progressed through my career, I came to the realization that had I had anyone helping and guiding me, I may have made different decisions earlier in my career. [Five years ago,] I decided the time was right for me to step up and lead a group like that because I wanted to make sure I could guide many of the young girls entering United."
Grewal recalls being told by another women during her first week on the job at Continental that she'd never cut it in corporate America because she had three strikes against her: She was a woman, she was a woman of color, and she wasn't born in the U.S. Almost 30 years later, Grewal has shattered every stereotype that stood in her way, but she still thinks there's work to be done in terms of building more awareness about all the possibilities that are available to women in this industry. "It's amazing to me how many don't realize all the opportunities that exist in headquarters or in management roles or running airports," she said.
Luckily, young girls don't need to look very far for inspiration. "We have so many women in leadership roles right here," Grewal said. "Young girls have to see it done to envision it for themselves. Now there's a path they can follow."
O'Neil is also a proponent of clearing that path for the next generation, and proud that United is supporting the effort with a group of pilots that's 7.4% female.
"That is something that drives a lot of institutional change," she said. "We get out in the community and we celebrate women and their accomplishments."
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.