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After Beating Cancer, Stephanie Chung Just Became The First Black President of A Private Jet Company

By Kimberly Wilson | October 23, 2020 | Essence Magazine

Stephanie Chung is major, y’all. An aviation veteran with more than 30 years of experience in commercial and business aviation, in her new appointment as president, Stephanie Chung now oversees all aspects of JetSuite, Inc., a private jet company catering to some of your favorite celebrities and moguls. Her duties include overseeing sales, marketing, revenue management, performance, and guest services for the brand, which is no easy feat for one person — even of her caliber. This appointment makes Chung the first African American and Black female to lead a major private business aviation company. And yes, Black folks are renting out private jets, if you didn’t know — and you don’t have to be uber wealthy to do so (though most are). JetSuite, Inc’s sister company, JetSuiteX offers its customers the ability to fly semi-private too. Get to know the woman who is breaking barriers in the private jet industry. Aviation is an industry where Black people have little to no representation at the executive level. What are the challenges that you’ve faced as a Black woman in this industry? Where do you seek stability and support? Being a military brat and growing up around planes, I knew what I was good at, and I knew what I wanted to do. There were a whole slew of glass ceilings and barriers that I had to break — some more obvious than others. I was very dogmatic about what I wanted to do — I didn’t want to be a flight attendant, or a pilot, though there’s nothing wrong with that — I just didn’t have any desire. I’d go to conferences, and still do quite frankly, where I don’t see anyone else who looks like me. I’m hoping that my appointment actually helps with that. The private aviation space is a very male dominated space, so it’s not uncommon for me to be the only woman and certainly the only minority in the room. How I got through that was staying focused on what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t let all that distract me. I also grew up tough. My thought has always been, “I’ll just win you over.” You’re going to meet me and you’re going to love me. I won’t say that there were no issues, but there was nothing that was going to stop me. How important is it for you as a new president in this role to have a pipeline for recruiting diverse candidates? Even before this particular role, when I was a VP of sales in other roles within private aviation, I was always focused on making sure I had a good, diverse group. It was always important to me. And diversity not just in race, but in gender and in communication and thought. Making sure that we didn’t all look alike, sound alike, because it’s just not an effective team. I’m hoping that when people see me, they don’t just think, they know that there are a lot of exciting roles in aviation. You can do and be whatever you want to be. There are so many different careers within the space. I really hope minorities start to get into it. Even from a tech perspective you can be an engineer, you can do crew scheduling, there’s literally so many positives. I’m hoping that people will look at it, other than just the typical way that people might think, such as a flight attendant. I also mentor a lot of young ladies, in the industry and outside the industry and I really teach them executive presence, and how to stand on your own, because it’s tough. This is obviously a new role for you in general. So outside of bringing diversity to the company, and within the space, what are some things you’re looking to do in your new role? We’re coming up on our 10th year anniversary at JetSuite, so it’s an important time for a refresh, a rebranding and a refocus. For me, I’m really looking to re-elevate the customer experience for our clients. How do we also reinvent from an employee base. How do we just really reinvest in them? And then our infrastructure. How do we get this next 10 years to be even more powerful than the first 10? They’ve done amazing things to get to this place, and obviously I’m new to the equation, but now this is our season. There’s a lot of competitors out there, but only five of us have hit that 10 year mark. The private aviation industry operates on very low margins, so you’ve really got to know what you’re doing to survive. When I look at where the company is at, my focus is really taking it to the next level. I want this to be a product that our clients can brag to all of their friends about. So how do we create that experience for them to say, “This was mind-blowing.” We want that to be for every single trip, every single time. When you think of Black women in general — you think of resilience and perseverance — both of which you exemplify. You’ve had your own personal challenges during your journey, such as being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. How did you overcome that? Cancer changes you. Statistically, I should have never had cancer. My oncologist used to call it a drive by. There was no history of cancer in my family, and it was completely unexpected. It literally came from out of the blue. But, I believe that a part of it was because I was so stressed during that particular season of my life. The economy had dropped, and I was selling private jets — no one was buying private jets at that time. There were also a lot of outside private stresses. Internally my body just couldn’t take it anymore, and then yes, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through that whole process. Cancer doesn’t just change you, it changes your whole family. But I’m the kind of person who tries to look at the positive in anything. There’s two things that were positive for me in that situation: one was your family unit starts to get even closer, so that was pretty incredible. The second thing is my daughter would have to feed me, or take me for a walk and comb my hair — and she was in high school at the time. I remember saying, “Lord if I die to day, I know she’ll be alright.” You get to watch your kid become an adult very quickly, because they have to grow up. It wasn’t about them anymore, and she really just stepped up to the challenge. It’s one of the things I’m probably the most proud of. Because I got to watch how she would be as a mom, or if she went through some kind of crisis. So that was a blessing for me. What I’ve learned, is that at the end of the day, it’s just a job. And I won’t let anything else eat me up again inside, like it used to before. I’m better for it — I’m a better boss, a better wife, and certainly a better mother for it. I make sure that I keep my priorities aligned. You touch on something that is very important, and that’s self-care for Black women. It comes in so many different forms, more specifically in thought, and prioritizing yourself, and taking time to disconnect. Do you have a particular self-care routine? Every other Sunday, I go and get a two hour massage — one, because I travel all the time, so my kinks are there and also, it’s just really important to me. When I’m home on the weekends, I don’t work. I completely disengage and just spend time with my husband. We’re empty nesters now so we go and hang out and have date night every Friday night. I also do what I want to do. I’m very in tuned with when I’m at that point. I know when I need a break, or when I’m pushing myself too hard. So I’ll do something mindless. It can be as simple as eating ice cream, or a cupcake and not feeling guilty about it. I am who I am, I know what I’m doing, and I’m good at what I’m doing. My results are there, and I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. So it’s very freeing, where you just know what you know. I work really hard, I lead my teams very hard, and I have high expectations for myself and for others, but when work is over, it’s over. Give the present of being present. Growing up on a military base, you constantly traveled the world. Is that what sparked your love for travel and wanting to get into the aviation field? Being a military brat, I was on active Air Force bases most of my life. I moved every two years. From day one, I’ve always been around planes taking off and landing, and fighter jets. I knew early on that I wanted to be in aviation. I was that kid that knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got out of school. The very first job that I had was working at a Boston ticket counter, working for an airline that is now US Air. I would do check-ins and do customer service. Because I was broke, I would do overtime and work in the ramp, loading luggage, doing weight balance of the planes and parking them. I did that for many years and loved it. Then I got promoted to sales and worked in that arena for many years, selling to big corporate accounts. From there, I got recruited into private aviation. When I got recruited, I was selling anything from charters, to jet cards to fractional sales. I was overseeing sales teams that generated over a billion dollars a year. That all came together and gave me what I consider to be my dream job as president of JetSuite, Inc.