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South African businesswoman becomes first black woman to launch an airline

The airline, Fly Blue Crane, started flying from Johannesburg in September.

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    Siza Mzimela, middle, stands with Fly Blue Crane staff.
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Sizakele Petunia Mzimela, a South African businesswoman who goes by Siza Mzimela, recently became the first black woman to launch her own airline, called Fly Blue Crane.

The airline started flying in September from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to destinations in South Africa, but plans to expand routes to Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ms. Mzimela, who was previously chief executive at South African Airways (SAA) – the first woman to hold that job – told CNBC Africa recently that her objective with Fly Blue was to reintroduce “romanticism” to flying, which is why her airline doesn’t distinguish between economy and business classes.

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“It’s all leather seats and everyone gets treated specially,” 49-year-old Mzimela told CNBC Africa last month.

Her vision, she said, is to use the airline to open up routes that will help grow the economies of more remote towns in Africa.

“Even when I was at SAA, people used to call me ‘mama Africa’ because I was so passionate about opening up the continent,” Mzimela said.

Her leadership trajectory is unusual for women and for blacks in South Africa and beyond. A report this year by accounting consulting firm Grant Thornton International found that 27 percent of top decision-making roles in South African businesses were filled by women, a statistic that hasn’t changed in a decade. Globally, reports Grant Thornton, 22 percent of senior roles are held by women, also a stagnant statistic over the past decade.

For black executives of any gender in the country, the picture is even more bleak. A 2015 report from South African executive recruiting firm Jack Hammer found that there are four CEOs leading the country’s top 40 companies, which is a decline from three years ago, when there were six.

In the US, according to CNN Money, there are two black CEOs leading the top 30 companies, and five heading the top 500 companies.

For Mzimela, it’s been a challenging road to the top of a male-dominated industry.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into meetings and people just assumed I was going to be the one taking notes,” she told CNBC.

Her advice to other women leaders who are breaking down gender boundaries in any industry: “Forget about the fact that you’re going to be the first,” said Mzimela. “ A whole lot of people get caught up in that. It holds people back.”

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