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Bridget Blaise-Shamai: A High-Flying Career at American Airlines

Bridget Blaise-Shamai has been fascinated with traveling since she was young, when a great aunt gifted her with exotic tchotchkes from her frequent travels. It is no surprise then that Bridget has worked for American Airlines for 20 years. What is extraordinary about Bridget’s career is her tenacity in making it to the officer level at the world’s largest airline where she is responsible for, as she puts it, “a 10-figure” profit and loss statement (P&L).

Current role: Engaging with customers and solving problems

At American, Bridget has not one, but two big jobs. She is both Vice President of Customer Insights and Loyalty and President of the AAdvantage Program. Leading a team she quantifies as “several hundred people,” Bridget directs marketing, analytics, customer service, partner relationships and business technology functions for the purpose of recognizing and rewarding American’s customers. In addition to overseeing the AAdvantage program – the loyalty and rewards program that motivates customers to choose American for their flight needs – Bridget says she is charged with “leveraging American’s rich repository of customer level data to be as relevant with customers as often as possible.”

Her team uses predictive modeling and machine-based learning to develop nuanced insights about its customer base, with the goal of creating loyalty among customers. Whether she is leading the 500-person customer contact center or developing alliances with partner airlines, hotels and other reward suppliers, Bridget says she appreciates that her job provides “endless opportunities to problem solve” and direct customer engagement.

She has found that American’s customers have emotional connections to the AAdvantage program and the experiences it affords. She recalls a customer who described a very meaningful holiday spent in Vietnam and how he could not have made the trip without the AAdvantage program. “Their stories are amazing, and they underscore how small our world is and the role American plays in that,” Bridget explains.

Commercial aviation: An industry that attracts special people

It is not just her customers who inspire Bridget, however. She also believes people who work in the airline industry are special, which she attributes to a general curiosity about the world around them. Working for American “affords employees – as part of their compensation – the benefit of travel,” Bridget explains, and people who work at American have “an innate desire to move around and air travel is one way to enable that.” This benefit makes for some interesting stories around the office. It is not unheard of for someone to travel to New Orleans for lunch or overnight to London to see a play or Buenos Aires for the weekend.

Bridget also describes her colleagues at American as resilient, who “would do anything to help each other.” Together they have faced distressed economic times in the airline industry and have pulled together to keep the business moving forward. The combination of fortitude, independence and wanderlust is what draws people to work for American and what makes Bridget feel fortunate to work there.

Bridget’s pre-American career: From banking to business school to Brno

Bridget did not start her career at American. After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a B.A. in Economics, Bridget worked for a bank in Nashville and later in Washington, D.C. Her interest in business was forged while working for the bank, and it influenced her decision to attend business school.

“I had a strong liberal arts education and a few years of banking experience and wanted to broaden and deepen my experience and round out my skills,” she says.

She chose Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis for her MBA, which she describes as a perfect fit because of its “global student body, top professors, and excellent community of driven, motivated yet grounded people.”  Olin also honed her speaking and analytical skills, and perhaps most importantly, it gave her a chance to work with diverse teams of people who think differently, which she notes “is how the world really is.”

After earning her MBA, Bridget did something unexpected. She turned down more traditional offers from U.S.  companies and moved to Brno, a small city in the Czech Republic, to work for a large manufacturing company. “This was the early 90s, soon after the fall of communism, and it was an exciting time to be in Central Europe,” she says.  After almost three years, Bridget returned to the U.S. and started her career at American where she has been for 20 years and has held positions in finance, sales, and marketing.

How she got to the top: Advice for young professionals

Bridget attributes her success to several factors and offers this advice to younger professionals:

  • Develop strong relationships: Invest in your relationships, and work to maintain them.. Your network should be alive and well and help you learn how to work across diverse groups and working styles.
  • Dare to disrupt a paradigm: If something is good, can it be better? You need to think about how to bring an organization along if you’re going to disrupt a paradigm. I did that a couple of times, and I was recognized for it. You also have to show results – it is more than just saying that this way is better.
  • Understand the power of time: Sometimes you need to be patient, and other times you have to speed things up. I have learned the power and influence of time. If you understand how to use time, it is a helpful tool. Some of that will come through experience.
  • Skip the comparisons to others: I had to learn about trade-offs and determine what was most important to me. What matters to me – for example, I have children – could be different than your or someone else’s priorities.

Commitment to mentorship

Bridget also sings the praises of mentorship as a tool to navigate the career path. “A couple of women I met through various business capacities have taught me a lot and take joy when good things happen in my life,” she says. She developed friendships that became mentorships, and now they provide valuable tips and contacts. Bridget is adamant about paying it forward. “When people invest in me, I want to be sure to put their advice to use,” she says. Her return to them: she spends a lot of time meeting with younger female professionals.

A consistent theme throughout Bridget’s career has been a strong connection to people. Whether she is helping them as a mentor, engaging with them in the workplace, learning about them through data, or communicating relevant information to them, Bridget lives her belief that “everyone’s story matters.”  As she inspires women to seek their own paths, her journey is definitely a story worth sharing.

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