The motto for New York State, where I live, is “Excelsior” which translates as “Ever Upward”. It came to mind last summer when I interviewed Cathay Pacific pilot Christina Ho on The Caring Economy. She literally and figuratively is climbing ever upward, literally taking thousands of airline passengers with her across the skies each month, and figuratively taking countless girls and women with her as she enters a career long dominated by men.
We are often told in the gender equity space that, ‘If she can see it, she can be it.” Ho is exactly the type of role model that girls and women can look up to and see a potential career path that was not historically presented to them, that of a commercial aviation pilot with one of the world’s leading airlines.
Ho represents a new generation of pilots – women who were not socialized to aspire to become pilots, and pilots who were not trained in the military. There are historic examples of women pilots. In the early 1900’s Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to solo across the Atlantic and Bessie Coleman who was the first woman of African American descent, and the first woman of Native American descent, to hold a piloting license. Due to the stigma in the early 1900s regarding sexism and racism, these women were up against great odds but did succeed in getting their pilot’s licenses.
When I asked Ho about her way into commercial aviation as a young Hong Kong Chinese girl, she shared her story. She says in our interview: “I was a fine arts major and a fashion designer before becoming a pilot. I studied finance in school and did a lot of art and then found my way to an early career in fashion design. But after a couple years I was not satisfied. My dad told me that I was still young, and he encouraged me to try something different.”
With her family’s emotional support and encouragement, she threw herself into her career transition. She was intrigued by the travel opportunities of a flight attendant and decided to try it out. And at each turn, she ended up even more fascinated by aviation. She says:“I discovered my aviation passion while on a trip once with Cathay Pacific Airline when I made my way to the cockpit during a flight and suddenly realized that this is where I needed to be.”
After that fateful flight, Ho never looked back she pursued her aviation dream through the company’s pilot training program, an intensive and challenging experience thatwould pay dividends. She crammed for intense math, physics,and science related courses, flew simulators, and trained in Kansas in the United States.
“I wanted to be a pilot and I just kept that passion in my heart. I just said to myself that I must go for it, and I did. I ran through all these trainings and interviews. It was intense. But I did it.”
When I asked Ho about how her male colleagues responded to her arrival in ‘their’ cockpit, she shared encouraging news. She says that once working in the cockpit, she experienced a full range or responses from her fellow crewmembers, who were mostly white and male. She notes: “Looked at me like ‘You can’t do this’ while others were more like ‘Wow, welcome aboard.’ It was a little bit of everything. Broadly speaking, I was welcomed with open arms. I think my company culture is pretty good, especially because it is so international.
And now Ho is paying forward to make her profession more inclusive. She says:“And now that I’m a pilot I’m working a lot on our female pilot policies, trying to engage the next generation in aviation. I know that policy and education are really the key to helping change the world. If you know how to do influence that then you can really share it. I was once a little girl just trying my best to do something. Today we say play it forward, and I do. I want to help others.”
During our interview Ho also shares insights on how her mom weighed in on her education and career moves – being very supportive of experimentation – and encouraged her to research programs and scholarships online. This approach opened a world of opportunities for her. She tries to follow this approach to new thing to this day. She will research opportunities, but she does not over-plan.
She notes: “I never really plan most things. I never declared that by a certain day I will become a pilot, or that I will become a fashion designer. I’m very calm in my life and I just face what comes. I think that’s very reassuring because I don’t think anyone really sets out with a plan and achieves it exactly as they had imagined.”
This is some of her philosophy she shares on the public speaking circuit where Ho is in demand. She considers such opportunities as a way of paying it forward. During our interview she shares how she generally receives very positive responses. She says: “I feel like Hong Kong girls respond well to me because I speak the language, and I look a littlebit more like them than a big white guy. I become a little bit more approachable.”
Ho’s interpersonal style makes her easy to chat with, but she then grounds her discussions in facts and knowledge about her career and profession. She says: “I give them an overview of my training. I know what it took for me just to get my private pilot license before my commercial license. I help them understand the process and the type of commitment it takes. For commercial aviation it takes levels upon levels of training. I enjoy making it understandable and inviting for them. I think it’s important that they know that I am not from a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) background but that it didn’t preclude me from succeeding and it shouldn’t hold them back either.”
I know how hard I studied to get my private pilot’s license and really appreciate Ho’s efforts. It requires hours and in my case years of book study, practice flights and practical exams to earn my wings. But it was so worth it, and I hope readers of this column and listeners of The Caring Economy who have and interest in flying will heed Ho’s advice and go for it with dedication and eyes open.
As with all guests on The Caring Economy, Hoexemplifies how leaders with purpose-driven lives and careers are shaping our contemporary workplace for the better.