Breaking down barriers and leading by example, Air Asia Indonesia CEO Veranita Yosephine is changing the face of aviation in the world’s fourth most populous nation
With more than 1,000 domestic and international flights every week – at least in non- COVID times – Air Asia Indonesia is a huge operation that serves a vast population across the world’s largest island nation. But until joining them in 2019, CEO Veranita Yosephine – known to all as Vera – admitted she knew almost nothing about aviation, having come from leadership positions across consumer goods businesses including Kraft Heinz Indonesia and Danone. Despite this, she has become the tenth person, all of whom are women, to be presented with an AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award for her dedication to duty through the pandemic and to promoting equality across our sector.
Talk about a professional baptism of fire. She not only led the airline’s rapid pre-COVID expansion with double-digit growth but has also successfully navigated the unimaginable challenges of the last 16 months. As Indonesia’s only female CEO of an airline and the holder of a United Nations Women award for her work in gender equality and women’s empowerment, she is clearly blazing a trail in more ways than one.
“I took my degree in engineering and liked it because it’s about building, I like to build things. But then again I found excitement doing commercial because it’s about people and dynamics, that energy. So I spent two decades in consumer goods, a fantastic experience. I was approached by a headhunter looking for candidates and I thought ‘It’s a one-hour interview with (Air Asia founder) Tony Fernandes, I’m not going to get the job anyway, but it is good to get more people in different industries to talk about things.’ So I went and met Tony, right in his office, in his t-shirt. He asked me questions, I asked him questions, I challenged him and so on.”
Yosephine clearly made an immediate impact, with her honesty and directness about being – on paper – unqualified for the job. But then a spark was lit:
“I wasn’t a CEO and I wasn’t an airline person. I had no clue about engines, spare parts and so on, and how I can be recognised as being stronger than male CEO candidates? But Tony said, you’ll figure it out, we’ll teach you how an airline works. And then I took a leap of faith. I said, you know what? I’ve been talking about this all the time with all the female leaders, especially young ones, because as women we tend to underestimate what we’re capable of doing. So I said okay, let’s take a leap of faith and I’ve already spent almost two years already and it’s fantastic, the most rewarding professional experience I’ve had throughout my career.”
She explains that at Air Asia Indonesia, senior executives in flights, operations, engineering, and safety are all men – but ‘all very open-minded’. They believed in her ability to bring new insights, new energy and new perspectives.
“I had a minimum clue of how an engine works. When we went into the belly of the aircraft, I was showed how things work and what things I need to ask my teams, that I need to look into. What are the statistics, what are the really important questions that I need to ask engineers?”
But it was barely a year into her tenure that Indonesia announced the first Covid case in March 2020, so in April Air Asia Indonesia had to make the extremely difficult decision:
“We hibernated our operations as the government stopped the company’s entire operations. So it was really intense. We had experience on how to deal with crises, but that size and that intensity, we had to really work ourselves. There was a lot of change in terms of regulations, news, negativity, and so on. It was an experience for me to understand much, much more than before, about the company, the organization, the people and including myself – it’s a self-discovery experience. I never thought that I could be that calm.”
Yosephine goes on to explain how open and transparent communication was critical in gaining the trust of the public and employees alike through regular Town Hall meetings and two comms teams, one for the here-and-now and one more strategic. There were also unexpected new opportunities, such as a massive increase in cargo demand, making for the company’s highest revenue of cargo in history. Other new ventures have included mutual partnerships with Indonesian hotel and restaurant associations, helping the hospitality community to rebound, while establishing platforms in order to be the first to take the opportunities when the situation improves. Ultimately Yosephine remains convinced the aviation industry has a bright future given the country’s huge population and Air Asia Indonesia’s growing market share.
What Yosephine is arguably more passionate about than anything, however, is diversity, inclusion, and supporting women to reach their full potential:
“I am fortunate that I’m in Air Asia Indonesia, an airline that embraces concretely diversity, allowing people of all kinds of backgrounds, gender preferences, experience, and so on to come and contribute with all that they have. If Tony didn’t tell me in person that I can do this job, I might not have convinced myself. By having women in top positions, you have diverse perspectives. Very senior legacy executives tend to see things in a specific way, not the way I see it. Women have the tendency of being less aggressive in risk-taking, so we calculate much more than men. So it helps balance is the company, right? Risk-taking is fantastic, but at the same time, you need to also be cautious. When women come and help the organization makes decisions, the information is richer.”
Yosephine received a prestigious award from UN Women in 2016 for establishing Indonesia’s first HeforShe community, the global solidarity movement and campaign for gender equality. She has continued to build on this recognition, constantly championing and encouraging women everywhere to seize opportunities:
“I’m always championing diversity in business, and it’s kind of prominent that I’m the only female CEO in the Indonesia airline industry. After COVID, I have many plans on bringing more women to leadership because there are still so many men. What is more important is the inclusiveness where you create opportunities and space where people, everyone feel that they’re part of the decisions they are included in the decision-making process that will amplify the diversity, the different points of view that we have. Regardless of their gender, regardless of their backgrounds, you need to have the best people.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s about knocking on doors. And if the doors aren’t there? Then build them:
“The message that I would give to all the women in the industry is take the opportunities. If you don’t find doors, if the opportunity doesn’t knock on your door, build the door. So don’t wait, just embrace it. We women, we kind of calculate and think too much. We just need to take more risks.”
AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award
For her work as a champion of equality and a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion, Veranita Yosephine becomes the tenth person to be awarded the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award. Veranita now joins nine other senior women around the world being recognised for their work in changing the aviation sector and encouraging the next generation.
AeroTime CEO, Richard Stephenson OBE, said, “Our global executive had no hesitation in endorsing the nomination of Veranita for this award. She is an energetic and passionate voice for equality and even as a relative new comer to aviation, she has already made a difference to the sector. This is a much deserved award and I was honoured to have the chance to present it. Thank you Veranita for all you have done and for all you will continue to do.”
(Quotations used have been abridged and edited for clarity)