Sizakele Mzimela made history when she became the first Black woman to found an airline, South African-based regional Fly Blue Crane, in September 2015. She has more than 20 years of experience as an aviation executive, serving as CEO of flag carrier South African Airways from 2010 to 2012. She served in a similar position at regional carrier SA Express from 2003 to 2010.
Mzimela, known as Siza, has served as chair of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) and the Airlines Association of Africa (AASA). And she was the first female board member of the International Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents the world’s airlines, in its 71-year history. She is well-respected in the airline industry and is known for being a trailblazer.
EBONY.com: Why did you decide to have a career in aviation?
Sizakele Mzimela: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I used to work as an analyst for an oil company whose offices happened to be across from South African Airways. I got a call from someone at SAA asking me to come in for an interview. I was happy in my job, but decided to go on the interview since it was so close by and I could do it on my lunch hour.
The person who interviewed me really wanted someone who looked like him. He and a panel of people kept asking me the same questions over and over again. I got angry because he was trying to trip me up, and I felt that he was so arrogant. But I was able to answer all their questions and found myself interested in joining the company. The fact that it was a male-dominated industry also caught my interest.
I was right, because the industry is always changing. Every day has been a different challenge, and I have never been bored. It was the perfect match for me.
EBONY.com: It’s 2016, but aviation is still White male-dominated. Why do you think that is so?
Mzimela: When I came into the industry, I never thought I’d stay in aviation as long as I did. But it’s an industry where people come in and never leave. It’s not unusual to find people who have been in the industry for between 20 and 30 years, so there aren’t a lot of opportunities where you can come in and work your way from the bottom to the top.
There’s also a perception issue. Whether you like it or not, those in executive positions tend to hire people who look similar to them. So when someone has been in the business for 20 years, who do you think they will hire?
EBONY.com: Although we are seeing more women in top positions in aviation, it’s still rare to see a woman leading a major airline. How did you work your way up to become CEO of South African Airways?
Mzimela: I was fortunate to start at South African Airways as a junior airline route analyst. In that position, I interacted regularly with the CEO of the company. I also found myself in the room with other top executives in the industry, which was fortunate for me.
These people were able to see how good I was in my job, which gave me credibility. It also gave me entry into an environment that gave me great opportunities across the company. It’s not like being in maintenance, where it can be 10 years before anyone sees your work. I came into a role that got me noticed, and people remembered me because I was able to deliver.
Before I became CEO of SAA, I was CEO of SA Express for seven years. By the time I was leading SA Express, I had already held several commercial aviation leadership positions at SAA. I had a combination of understanding the subject matter, along with an ability to get people to get behind me and build teams. If you know how to identify good talent, they will always support you.
EBONY.com: You are the first Black woman to start an airline. Why did you want to start Fly Blue Crane and how did you accomplish it?
Mzimela: Aviation is still male-dominated and embedded with people who have been around for many years. I wanted to do things my way. There are so many young people who want to enter the industry. With Fly Blue Crane, I found a way to match young people with those with more experience, so we can all problem solve together. There was some initial pushback because there were some who wanted to protect their turf.
But our experience is different. When you come to Fly Blue Crane, you sign a contract where you do your job, but you’re also required to support and grow new talent. I really hope that it will make a difference by showing that females and people of color are competent. I also hope that our work model will grow in the future as a way to meld experienced people with those trying to get into the industry. I want to offer a different way to help young people to join and influence the aviation industry.
EBONY.com: You are a woman in what has been a very male-dominated industry. You’re also a woman of color, which is even rarer. What is your success secret?
Mzimela: The secret is that I don’t see myself as disadvantaged as a Black woman. I was brought up being told I could do anything I wanted. I’ve never felt there were any barriers, nor did I feel intimidated by being a woman of color. I can be the best and nothing can stop me, which is a mental thing. I don’t think about being a woman of color in aviation. I refuse to let it intimidate me.
EBONY.com: What’s your advice to Black women who want to get into aviation and become as successful as you?
Mzimela: First, make sure you join the right department. Don’t just go in and take the first job you’re offered. Join a department that lets you use your skills and talents quickly. You’ll be in a White, male-dominated industry, but don’t worry about it; use it to your advantage. There are always expectations that you won’t be as good as others in your department. Catch them by surprise by being better. It will take a lot of hard work, and it won’t always be easy. Accept it and make an impact.
Find a shoulder to cry on, but find it away from your male colleagues so they never see it. Don’t feel like you have to sacrifice your womanhood to be like them. Bring things that no one can replicate. As females, we’re used to juggling many different things. So use that to your advantage and focus on the positive and less on the negative in the industry.