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JetBlue CIO drives innovation through IT’s ‘toolkit’

Brian Watson | Dec. 13, 2016
Eash Sundaram has built on JetBlue’s technology-driven legacy by pioneering new ideas from all fronts, including a new venture-capital arm.

As he embarked further in his career, Sundaram took on leadership roles in supply chain and operations. He made the transition into IT leadership in 2006, when he was appointed CIO (in addition to serving as senior vice president of global supply chain) at Pall Corporation, the now-$2.4 billion supplier of filtration and purification products.

As Sundaram recalled, the company had six decades of success, but little investment in technology enablement. Sundaram began remedying that issue by spearheading the implementation of an SAP system across 42 countries, leading him to travel out of the U.S. for the majority of the year.

In the process, he began to more clearly shape his views about the value IT can deliver. Sundaram and his executive colleagues forecasted that the SAP implementation would drive growth, profitability and productivity on the shop floor. But he understood that automation could frighten people to the point where they thought they would lose their jobs.

He focused instead on the positives: specifically, how the technology—thinking about it as a toolkit—could improve the everyday tasks of those shop-floor operators. “If you look at it purely through the lens of technology, it scares people,” Sundaram says. “If you look at it through the lens of quality of life and empowerment and information availability, it doesn’t feel that way.”

During his tenure in operations and supply chain, Sundaram wasn’t a complete optimist about the power of IT, despite his interest in technology. He was no stranger to seeing people roll their eyes when the topic of an IT project came up. But leading IT at Pall, and seeing the positive potential of how technology could make a difference, changed his perspective. “When you’re leading an IT organization, how do you take the negative side of it and turn it into a positive?” Sundaram said. “That was a big moment for me.”

Becoming a venture capitalist

In February 2016, 16 years after its first takeoff, JetBlue took its innovation prowess to a new level, launching JetBlue Technology Ventures. The venture-capital subsidiary has a mission to invest in new technologies and providers in the travel, hospitality and logistics sectors — and to put those technologies to work within JetBlue.

Sundaram was the driving force behind the venture and currently serves as its chairman. At the helm of day-to-day operations is Bonny Simi, a three-time Olympian in the luge who joined JetBlue as a pilot and most recently served as vice president of talent.

Partnering with Israeli airline El Al, JetBlue Technology Ventures launched an incubator program called Navigator, based in both Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The first Navigator program launched in late October, focused on cultivating early-stage startups in travel and technology. The venture arm also partners with startup incubators like Plug and Play and Rocketspace to explore potential investments.

 

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