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International Women’s Day (IWD) Spotlight; Inspire Inclusion with Orla Benson

International Women’s Day (IWD) Spotlight; Inspire Inclusion with Orla Benson

International Women’s Day (IWD) Spotlight; Inspire Inclusion with Orla Benson


Christine Jones, Senior Consultant at Coopman Search and Selection, joins Orla Benson SVP ESG at SMBC Aviation Capital for an inspiring discussion on women in the aviation industry. Their paths first crossed through the Aircraft Leasing Ireland’s Global Aviation Sustainability Day, where Orla’s expertise caught Christine’s attention. Intrigued by Orla’s experiences as a woman in this sector, Christine reached out, making this conversation a perfect way to celebrate International Women’s Day.

  1. Tell us about what initially attracted you to the aviation industry?

OB: I worked as a communications consultant for many years with a leading consultancy in Dublin. In my role as Director, I had the opportunity to work closely with Aer Lingus and was really attracted to aviation.  It’s a hugely dynamic sector, is extremely competitive and is a real barometer, for the global economy.

It was an interesting time in the airline’s development and this sparked my deeper interest in aircraft leasing as I knew that Ireland is a global centre of excellence for aircraft leasing.   During my eight years with SMBC Aviation Capital, I have had lots of opportunity to broaden my skills and three years ago I joined The Nest, our innovation hub. To be honest, this was a time when ESG and sustainability in aviation was really coming into focus and I have relished the opportunity to work on this challenge since then.

  1. Who are some of the women that have inspired or influenced you in your career, and why?

Increasingly, I find myself inspired by those coming into the industry and the valuable contributions of the younger people joining us directly from graduate programmes. Young women have so much to offer. For example, my colleague , (Analyst, ‘The Nest’ – which is our innovation department), within just a few years at the company, independently drove projects and championed sustainability initiatives. I also observed her exceptional work in the analytics space, where she made reports more dynamic and accurately gave us a sense of what needed to be achieved.  She also led the team who won the inaugural IATA datathon award. We’ve also delivered our first sustainability linked lease that another young female colleague Melanie McAleese was responsible for. That was our first in SMBC Aviation Capital and we hope to do more. Separately, I am mentoring an individual now who is so enthusiastic about ESG and gender diversity.  She consistently reminds me why ESG is so important to the younger generation and why she wants to be part of an organisation that focuses on it.  It is these types of young women in our organisation who are really inspiring me and give me confidence about our ability to deliver in this area for the future.

  1. What advice would you give women, and those seeking to enter the aviation industry?

I would say that knowing what you want and having determination is the number one way to get there. There are lots of ways of navigating your way into the industry, however it can be tricky. One piece of advice now is that you don’t necessarily need to have gone down the traditional route to enter the field, as there are now apprenticeship, internship schemes and return to work schemes for women. These are incorporated to create a better balance within our organisation and opens doors for greater diversity. At one point, there was a 100% male presence within our graduate scheme and over the past ten years we have worked hard to move the dial improving on these statistics drastically. For women in leading roles, it is vital to continuously raise awareness that the industry is open for all, it just takes time, networking and knowing what you want. Those who have an interest in entering the industry can gain knowledge and insights by attending events such as PropelHer, meeting other women, networking, and trying to understand the dynamics of the sector and who the different companies are as there are so many based in Ireland.

  1. With this year’s theme being #InspireInclusion, how do you think businesses can actively nurture DE&I within their workspaces?

We always talk about being authentic and this can only be achieved through action. From our perspective, we are very fortunate that our CEO is extremely supportive of this area, and that’s why we have been involved in several initiatives to promote diversity. We were recently the inaugural recipient of the ISTAT DEI Award. So, it’s been a significant indicator of voter confidence in our actions.

Another example is our recent commitment to the IATA 25by2025 initiative. This was a pivotal moment where we challenged ourselves to move beyond mere discussion and take tangible steps towards achieving our goals through setting targets. It’s only through measurement that we can see where the gaps are and setting targets brings about conscious decision making. Considering things that seem so obvious – like balanced recruitment panels. This is where search and selection firms like Coopman can make a difference by also bringing conscious decision making to ensuring there are a balanced pool of candidates for every role.

Our company also takes a stance where our colleagues won’t participate in panel discussions unless there is gender diversity.   All of the CEOs in leasing companies are currently men, so that can be challenging! However, our CEO is committed to this and has actively turned down opportunities where there hasn’t been panel diversity.

  1. Being the face of ESG within a leading aircraft lessor, what steps are you taking to drive SMBC Aviation Capital towards a more sustainable future?

The first thing we actively do is to get it a full sense of the scale of the challenge. If we were just looking at our own operational emissions, the task would be a lot easier, but we also must account for all of our leased assets, which is all our aircraft that are flying around the world. Really getting a sense of the scale of that, for us is very important. We recently reported our emissions data in our first Taskforce for Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) report and as part of this, we have now put robust governance structures in place to assist us with our decarbonisation objectives.  This ensures that ESG is factored into all of our decision making and that it is being discussed at the top table.

We’re fortunate also that we have shareholders, SMBC and Sumitomo Corporation, that are supportive and active in this space, especially in the area of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). We have also invested in carbon credits to assist our customers with their decarbonisation goals and have also recently announced a SAF research facility in our new office in Dublin which will drive new innovations in this area.

Why do we need more women in leadership positions, within aviation and all industries?

Its challenging to walk into an event or room when you are one of the only women and sometimes you find yourself gravitating towards the other women naturally. We need to be able to bring our whole selves to work, and we can only do that if there is diversity within an organisation.

In aviation, only 6% of CEOs are women, so it is very challenging as a woman in this industry. We are starting to make a a move in the right direction, but there’s still many areas to work on. Our Head of HR, Gillian Cooney, always says that it’s not only within the remit of the DEI committee to change this, it’s the responsibility of every individual in the organisation. Its only when see DEI embedded in the culture that we will start to see change.


  1. I believe International Women’s Day is about celebrating the achievements and excellence of women worldwide. What does excellence in your life look like?

I guess excellence is trying to balance being a mum with achieving goals in other areas of my life. Having work life balance is a goal of mine, that means being able to do a great job or to sit down with your kids when they need you, or to run a marathon if you want to.

I feel very fortunate that giving back to the environment and to social causes is part of my job. That’s the critical element of what I want to do in my life, and I’ve been given the opportunity as part of my job, what more could I ask for.

  1. Anything else you would like to add?

I think International Women’s Day is a is a great day because it celebrates the achievements of many women around the world. It’s important to recognise that we’ve come a long way, but that we’ve still got a got a long way to go.

A woman’s strength lies in being able to help other women and listening to so many women’s inspiring stories on International Women’s Day is what motivates me to continue on the DEI journey.

William McCoppin


William has experience across multiple markets, specialising in compliance and financial crime at the interim, mid-to-senior and executive level.