Yuli Thompson: Vice President – North America and International

Describe your job?
As VP for NorAm and International, I am responsible for all of Virgin Atlantic’s global sales outside of the UK/Europe, amounting to £1billion or 50% of Virgin Atlantic revenues. My teams downroute are also uniquely close knit; the commercial leaders considered de facto country heads in every country that we operate to, giving overall leadership to the cross-functional teams. Given Virgin Atlantic is a global carrier with a UK heritage, I also see my role as representing the International perspective to ensure that this is considered in decisions that we make in the UK.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Why? What options seemed open or closed to you?
I loved physics and chemistry at school and was always interested in the application side of maths. I enjoyed seeing how theory made a difference in real life and was gearing up to pursue engineering. Growing up in Malaysia, I would say that my parents gave me every encouragement to pursue excellence but were still bounded by tradition. I distinctly remember my mother saying to me that, “girls don’t become engineers” and that was that. I read economics instead at university and pursued a very different career, but largely one that still employed numerical skills in application to real-life problems. I love my job working for an airline and don’t regret any of it, but it is clear that I could have gone down a very different path indeed.

What in your job has given you the greatest satisfaction or fulfilment?
My team! To see individuals challenged to grow, developing and pursuing opportunities. Over the years, I have had the privilege of working with a great many talented people across the business, and I will say without hesitation that I have one of the best teams in the business now. I am proud of the NorAm & International teams, who are engaged, collaborative and work tirelessly to best promote and represent Virgin Atlantic in 18 locations all around the world.

What keeps you motivated?
I have always been competitive and am very much self-driven to improve both my own self and the way outcomes are achieved. I like seeing a job done well and to a high standard.

What women have inspired you?
My grandmother sailed from Southern China to Malaysia to escape war and famine when she was 12, in the late 1930s. My grandfather left her widowed with 7 children to raise on her own. She is illiterate but ran multiple businesses, speaks 3 languages, travelled the world and supported all her children through university education, an opportunity she herself did not have. She is a most formidable woman, and she is one of many examples that I have to persevere through tough times with determination and strength.

How do you think women’s equality has evolved and what needs to happen next?
Today, in the UK and many countries in the world, women have never been more supported than before to pursue opportunities. What needs to happen next is for women to challenge ourselves to grow and put ourselves forward for opportunities that we might only dream of before. That is one of the reasons why I am so supportive of the International Springboard programme, which we have rolled out first in the US and now in other locations around the world. We have seen real results in the individuals who have grown in confidence, stature and in taking up new roles.

As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
My own perception of what I am capable of and can achieve, as this holds me back in terms of what I am willing to attempt. One thing that I no longer do is to ruminate over imperfections in decisions or delivery, but to focus instead on learning from it so that I can do better next time.

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?
That I gravitate to one style due to my own preference and personality. However, the best leaders deploy a whole range of styles depending on what the situation demands. That was a very helpful pivot point in my own journey, so instead of trying to find one most effective style, developing a range of responses in my repertoire.  

Return to our inspirational women page