March 4, 2021
‘Surviving & Thriving’ – championing the women across Virgin Atlantic; sharing individual stories of how they’ve survived and thrived over the last 12 months.
In 2018, Siobhan Fitzpatrick received a phone call asking if she would be interested in joining Virgin Atlantic. She jumped at the chance. It was a move that would take her career in a different direction. And to a much higher altitude.
Siobhan is responsible for our brand, marketing, customer journey, communications, digital development and eCommerce teams. That’s a huge job even in the best of times, let alone the most tumultuous period in our airline’s history.
We caught up with Siobhan ahead of International Women’s Day to talk about her career, how she’s coped in the pandemic, what International Women’s Day means to her and why she’s fascinated by Mary Wollstonecraft.
Siobhan began her career in publishing and media. “My journey started with a degree in graphic design, so I guess I have a creative background, coupled with a natural curiosity. I ended up falling into media, advertising and publishing”, says Siobhan. Whilst working for the music press, including the NME and Melody Maker, in the mid 90’s it coincided with the thinking about how how to turn a paper product into something digital and accessible. There followed a long stint in retail where, once again, her time coincided with a momentous shift in the industry. “The retail industry was starting to think about how they would take creative and digital platforms and turn them into something meaningful for customers, and that definitely gave me the commercial lens because retail is all about the bottom line, alongside the value of bringing together a strong brand proposition with the customer experience”.
"It's always about what the technology can do for me, rather than being a technology person".
After 15 years in retail working for the likes of Argos and Homebase and having won numerous awards (including the respected Retail Week award – the retail equivalent of the Oscars), Siobhan wanted a new challenge, something different. That’s when the phone call came from Virgin Atlantic. Siobhan joined as Vice President of Digital and Distribution in June 2018. After nearly 18 months in the role she was promoted to Senior Vice President of Digital. Then six months later, in one of her proudest moments, Siobhan was promoted to Chief Digital and Marketing Officer. As Covid-19 took hold and our company faced tremendous challenges to cope with the effects of the pandemic, Siobhan joined a leadership team with one mission: to steer our cherished airline through the crisis and not only survive but emerge stronger.
Like so many of us during lockdown, Siobhan has had to learn to work from home. “I used to have a very long commute, which meant I had a distinct barrier between work and home. It’d be very rare that I walked through the door carrying my day with me,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. I am here so my work is always here. One of the things that’s become really important, apart from working together as a team virtually, is making sure your time isn’t always formally structured. Sometimes you have to make the time for fun, shut the laptop and go out for a walk. And I do. That stuff is really, really important and at first I probably didn’t put as much value on the separations as I should have”.
Siobhan recognises the importance of creating an environment where her team can thrive, be successful and exceed their own goals. Especially in this new world of remote working. Mirroring the often-quoted Richard Branson sentiment, Siobhan says that her team are the most important consideration in her job “Because if you are happy and motivated, engaged and successful, not only do your team go on to be happy and motivated, engaged and successful individuals, so does the organisation that you work for”. When asked to name the most essential quality of a leader, she is quick to name authenticity. “I think if you’re not authentic, then the rest of it is irrelevant. That, to me, is the most important quality a leader has”.
So are these new ways of working here to stay? “Do I think the world is going to go back to how it was before? No, but I think that’s the case across the board. I think people will learn to adapt to this new reality, and I think that the human touch has become even more important than it ever was before”. As she says this, Siobhan points out that the call we are currently on, although great, would be better if we were all in the same room. “There will be circumstances in any form of working where there is a need for human engagement and human contact, and the ability to read or sense an environment, a person, a something. That’s not going to go away”.
“International Women’s Day is a day when we come together to recognise how far we’ve come,” said Siobhan. “It’s not that long ago, even in some countries you’d think of as being progressive, where women were given the right to vote. In Switzerland, that only happened in 1971, Portugal in 1976.” There are still many places where we’re not recognised in the same way as men and I think allowing women to have a very powerful collective global voice that amplifies the message and sets the agenda for women going forward is a really important thing”.
When it comes to female role models, Siobhan names Mary Wollstonecraft, known as ‘Britain’s first feminist’. Born in 1759 she is known for her views on women’s rights and for the times, her unconventional lifestyle. “Her activism and demands for equality and education at a time when they would have made her deeply unpopular and derided as a bluestocking radical, showed deep courage, passion and self-belief,” says Siobhan.
Asked about Virgin Atlantic and where we sit with gender equality, Siobhan recognises the challenges and our clear intentions. “I think our ambition, our philosophy, our approach, is spot on. We recognise we still have more work to do and I think some of that is just history and legacy, but the intent is 100% positive. And I think that comes from Richard, the leadership team, the things Virgin Atlantic stands for and the Virgin group stands for. Our ‘Be Yourself’ strategy champions diversity, equity and inclusion regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, background or age. We believe everyone should have a completely level playing field”.
Championing the pioneers and innovators who have helped to drive positive change in the past and present day remains true to our brand DNA. Siobhan was able to share plans for part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, “We are dedicating one of our next A350s, due February 2022, to Emmeline Pankhurst, whose fundamental role in the UK suffragette movement helped liberate the landscape for women in our nation forever. Not only will this new aircraft bear the registration and name ‘G-VLIB Lady Emmeline’, but we’re also committing onboard fundraising for women’s charities in commemoration to Emmeline and the transformative work she devoted her life to. A second A350 will be named ‘Fearless Lady’ and registered as G-VEVE, in celebration of the Mother of the airline’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, after she sadly passed away in January. You can read all about Eve’s life and more about this very special aircraft in our Mother’s Day blog on Sunday.
There’s no doubt that the last year has been tough on everyone, but the sense of confidence at the airline is palpable. “We’ve got a really clear strategy. We know what our brand promise is, we know what we want to stand for, we’ve got a really powerful team of people who are going to be able to deliver it. And from a sentiment perspective, we’re stepping off into a really good space now. We feel like there’s a lot of energy and momentum”, says Siobhan, who also believes that “The other important part of this story is our belief that any young girls watching us should be able to grow up knowing that the world really is their oyster and they can achieve anything they want to with the right support network, education and self-belief . By mentoring, raising awareness of STEM, building a culture of belonging and remaining committed to our gender targets, we’re doing everything we can to make that happen too”.
Find out more about the inspirational women of Virgin Atlantic on our International Women’s Day page