Alaska Airlines Day 2022: Foster welcomes an old friend back to campus

When you visit the Alaska Airlines website, you’re greeted with a simple salutation: “Welcome. Let’s go somewhere.”

On May 18, Alaska Airlines went across town to the UW Foster School of Business, where they received a warm welcome in celebration of a partnership that has stood the test of time.

On Alaska Airlines Day, Foster pulled out all the stops. PACCAR Hall flipped from Husky purple to Alaska blue. Celebratory donuts and selfies with Dubs were in high demand by the Jiambalvo Hearth.

The Husky Band whipped up the crowd and rattled the rafters with booming, brassy fanfares.

And a massive mosh pit of students battled for the flurry of prize-laden paper airplanes that were launched by a who’s who of Alaska senior leadership perched above the Garvey Family Atrium.

“The Foster purpose statement, our North Star, begins with bringing people together and ends with bettering humanity through business,” said Frank Hodge, dean of the Foster School, in the day’s takeoff. “That first part, bringing people together, bringing communities together, doesn’t happen without our partners Alaska Airlines. Whether we’re bringing people here or flying to do the things that we do elsewhere, it happens on Alaska Airlines. And we’re very, very appreciative of that relationship.”

Dean Frank Hodge and Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci kick off Alaska Airlines Day.

The feeling, apparently, is mutual.

“We’re so honored to have this phenomenal relationship with the University of Washington and Foster School,” said Alaska CEO Ben Minicucci, addressing the crowd of students and noting that 400 Alaska employees have UW degrees, many from Foster. “Two of our core values are doing the right thing and being kind-hearted… We care a lot. About the people who work for our company, about our customers and about the community—which is why we’re part of this fantastic institution. When we see our name on the school, it brings us so much pride.”

Inside the boardroom

Fun, games and give-aways gave way to a series of “Inside the Boardroom” sessions matching combinations of Alaska senior executives with Foster students from the Undergraduate, Full-time MBA, Executive MBA, MS in Business Analytics, MS in Information Systems and Master of Supply Chain Management programs.

At the undergrad session, questions poured in from student leaders representing an alphabet soup of organizations (UBC, ABBS, ALPFA…). The conversation ran from career-building to work-life balance to making a positive impact through work. Alaska-centric topics touched on mergers, growth strategy, crisis response, leadership qualities and creating a genuine culture of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Foster MBAs meet with Alaska Airlines leadership.

“The first rule of working for an airline is it’s super unpredictable. No day will ever be the same and you will never get bored,” said Foster alumna Brooke Vatheuer (BA 2003, MPAcc 2004), Alaska’s chief audit executive. “But because of that, Alaska has historically taken a very conservative approach with our financial management so we can take advantage of opportunities when they come along. We have a very strong balance sheet; we hold onto cash. When the economy tanks or a pandemic hits or 9/11 happens, we have historically used those crises as occasions to take advantage of new opportunities.”

Co-panelist Megan Ouellette, the managing director of government and community affairs at Alaska, offered a bit more context to Alaska’s accomplishments in an incredibly challenging industry, in addition to sharing that Alaska Airlines will be 90 years old this year.

Foster undergraduate students meet with Alaska Airlines leaders.

Beyond the winning vision and strategy of its leadership and measured growth, that something right has always been its uncommonly strong focus on people, which translates into transcendent customer service, honesty and humility—even when tested by tough times.

“You see on the outside what Alaska does,” added Tiffany Dehaan, Alaska’s managing director of culture, learning and inclusion. “The inside is very similar. Care, kind-heartedness, working together is truly what our culture is built on.”

Reunion lunch with EMBAs

Care and crisis—especially the pandemic and its ongoing aftershocks—were also on the agenda at a meeting with students in the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program, which has long served as a development pipeline for Alaska Airlines leaders.

Panelists included EMBA grads Jen Keller (MBA 2019), managing director of talent acquisition, Celley Buchanan (MBA 2019), managing director of station operations support, and Charu Jain, senior vice president of merchandizing and innovation, who has become so invested in Foster that she might be considered an honorary alumna.

Celley Buchanan, Jen Keller and Charu Jain give Executive MBA students a look inside the Alaska boardroom.

Jain acknowledged that the last few months have been among the most challenging in Alaska’s history. But, as ever, the carrier is responding with honesty and humility—and an urgent, viable plan to recover and restore trust.

It doesn’t hurt that a stockpile of goodwill has been earned over many generations of exemplary service. That ethic permeates the organization, from the top down, and the bottom up.

“The idea that people have a lot of confidence in our brand is the result of a lot of hard work,” says Buchanan. “The dedication from our front-line teams is how we are able to keep that confidence. We’ve been really clear about what our brand DNA is and the importance of leaders supporting teams to deliver that on a consistent basis.”

The Alaska DNA gets ingrained from day one, when employees engaged in its “First Class” orientation. The practice of “Leader Immersion” assigns executives to work on the frontlines in an airport when they start on the job and at regular intervals thereafter. “Talk about knowing that we’re people-focused right off the bat,” Keller said.

“That’s a big part of what we do to make sure that leaders understand that our business is about the people we serve,” Buchanan added. “And that’s the bottom line.”

“(Leader Immersion) gives you an appreciation for the work that everybody does and how decisions impact people and processes,” added Jain. “It’s a favorite part of my job.”

These conversations provided a favored portal to Foster students into an organization with a culture worth studying closely.

Winners all around

At the end of this special day at the Foster School, two lucky students walked away with a golden roundtrip ticket to any destination on Alaska’s ever-expanding route map.

One of the grand prizes was caught in the paper air show.

The other went to Tina Thi Dang, a senior studying marketing at Foster, who won this year’s #FosterFliesAlaska photo contest for her transporting Instagram posts from a recent trip to California via Alaska Airlines.

Photos (except for the one above) by Paul Gibson.

Corporate Days celebrate Foster’s Chair Level Corporate Partners, who invest more than $100K in Foster in a fiscal year.

Alaska Airlines provides a wide array of program and travel support to the Foster School’s students, faculty and programs, including sponsorship of the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge, hosted each year by the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship.