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Going For The Gold: Barbara Cassani '82 Leads London's Bid for the 2012 Olympics

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Barbara Cassani '82 Leads London's Bid
for the 2012 Olympics

Mount Holyoke trustee Barbara Cassani '82 has made history again. The American-born businesswoman was recently chosen to lead London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, causing a stir in the international media. Cassani, however, is no stranger to media attention. While still in her 30s, she was appointed CEO of the no-frills airline Go--making her the first woman in the world to hold the top spot in that industry. In 2002, Cassani received the Veuve Clicquot UK Businesswoman of the Year award. Cassani, who graduated magna cum laude from MHC with a degree in international relations, earned a master's degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Vista caught up with Cassani this fall to discuss her career, the media, and her undergraduate days at the College.

Q:  You're leading London's bid to host the 2012 Olympics. What's been your greatest challenge thus far in heading up this effort?
Cassani: For some months, the British government had decided to bid for the Games, but no one had been appointed as the leader. From the moment my name was announced, expectations were very high. In June, I was the only employee, and I was under pressure in the media and from the public to appoint a team all in one week! The impatience was a sign of how much everyone in Britain really wants to see the Olympic Games in London for the first time in over 50 years. Today we have nearly 50 on the team and we are really on our way now.

Q:  The international media played up the fact that an "American woman" was charged with bringing the Olympic Games to London. What was your reaction to this kind of attention?
Cassani: When I started up the low-cost airline Go, there was surprise expressed both in Britain and the U.S. that an American woman in her late 30s could start up an airline. I'm accustomed to the interest. It is also unique for an Olympic bid to be led by a citizen from another country, but I have lived for more than a decade in London, which is why I was motivated to work on the bid.

Q:  You were the first woman in the world to run an airline. How did it feel to be the "first" to break into the top echelon of this industry?
Cassani: I never spent a lot of time thinking about making history. There was so much to get on with when we set up the airline. Then we worked even harder to make the business successful. I'm uncomfortable with being singled out as a woman entrepreneur. I prefer to be known for what I accomplish, not who I am, what I look like, or where I come from.

Q:  You've described yourself as a "maverick," not an "entrepreneur." What's the difference?
Cassani: I think that statement refers to the fact that in the early days of the airline I didn't risk my own money. The airline was fully funded by British Airways, and I took the risk of a moderate salary in exchange for equity in the business. I really admire people who put their houses on the line when they start up a business. I'm a bit of a maverick because I'm not an M.B.A., but I know how to build businesses. I don't like the hierarchy culture of the business world. Words and ideas are often used to obscure simple concepts. All we did was try to create and deliver an airline service for customers that was safe and offered great value. It seemed logical to treat my employees the way any one of us would want to be treated. Fairness is a simple concept, but I find it works equally well in life as in business.

Q:  You were an international relations major at MHC. How did your undergraduate education inform your career?
Cassani: My major was pretty irrelevant to my career. At Mount Holyoke, I simply followed my nose on issues that were interesting and engaging. My senior thesis was on Romanian foreign policy during the Soviet era. There was no obvious connection between my major and my career, but that is precisely the point of studying for a liberal arts degree. I learned to think critically and express my ideas clearly at Mount Holyoke.

Q:  What's your favorite MHC memory?
Cassani: My favorite memory is of being tucked up in my carrel in the stacks of the library working on something interesting. I would then go into the stacks for another book and find something completely irrelevant to my current study. My carrel was packed with books on current projects as well as those that were simply interesting.

Q:  Is a liberal arts education still relevant in today's world?
Cassani: Definitely. I am not convinced that a narrowly defined degree will serve you well throughout your entire life. I think a liberal arts degree is a luxury but one that everyone deserves to have! The degree is most attractive to inquiring minds that benefit from a broader set of courses with critical thinking.

Q:  What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue careers in international relations or international business?
Cassani: If you want an international career, try working in an internship abroad, and develop your language skills and an open-minded approach to other cultures and ways of doing things. Business is completely different from finance, and the public sector is different again. Try them all if you can, then focus on what you enjoy. Living and working outside the U.S. challenges the way you were brought up, even the way you think about friends and taxes! It can be unsettling to have everything you have taken for granted questioned, but ultimately it can help you decide who you really want to be.

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