• David Grammig

Sonia Prabhakar - A Female Entrepreneur In A Male Dominated Society And Industry

Updated: May 11, 2020

1. Sonia, thanks a lot for speaking to me. First, may I ask you to please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what’s your story?

Reflecting on the last 16 years, I would say that I am an entrepreneur at heart. Raised in the UAE and of Indian descent, I have worked across the Middle East and Europe as a Blue Ocean Strategist and business management consultant, building brands and leading companies to financial and operational success. Using my intrapreneurial skills I was formed joint-ventures, manage tenders and bids whilst setting the business, communications and creative strategy of start-ups, SMEs and multinational organisations. Design, advertising, FMCG, yachting, shipping, marine, logistics, oil & gas are some of the many sectors I have worked in.

Throughout my career, and as the Managing Partner of an events production firm, I have organised several VIP / celebrity events in the corporate and sports industry (sailing and golf in particular). As the Managing Director of Volkar Aerospace in Dubai, I am one of few women in the region to be designated as an Accountable Manager by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the UAE.

2. How did you get into aerospace and what’s the fascination for you to work in aircraft maintenance and repair?

My foray into the aviation world happened quite by accident – call it destiny, if you will. In 2016, we reviewed a feasibility study that identified a massive gap in the aircraft (cabin interior) maintenance and repair industry in the UAE, but the timing wasn’t right back then. Volkar Aerospace came into being two years later, as part of an altered market landscape.

My journey in the aviation industry is a tribute to honour two amazing men in my life. My paternal grandfather was a retired, decorated Wing Commander and my maternal grandfather was a Warrant officer. They served on the Royal Indian Air Force during the Second World War, in their younger years. I grew up listening to stories about their many adventures, of how they maintained aircraft systems on the go, shared meals with their counterparts across border fences, and how they soared across the skies above the trenches. The fascination never left me – I know that they would have been very proud.

3. What’s the bigger challenge - being a woman in a male dominated industry or being a female entrepreneur in a patriarchic society? And what are the exact challenges you face?

Most women in business, no matter how successful, qualified or able, will at some point have experienced a certain amount of strife when attempting to walk shoulder to shoulder with people that hail from deeply patriarchal societies - those who, despite claims to the contrary, bring their deep-rooted, conventional mindsets to work with them. The challenge lies in being able to recognise it for what it is, in choosing to address the situation or in choosing to stay silent, and in being able to carry on unperturbed.

5. In a Forbes article that was recently published the author came to the conclusion that the top 7 countries who handle the Corona pandemic the best are all governed by women. What is it women can add to, both, businesses in the Middle East and technical professions like yours?

Jacinda Ardern has certainly set the bar high with her exemplary crisis-leadership skills and I hope that the rest of the world sits up and takes notice. However, the line of reasoning in the article is flawed, in my opinion. Correlation does not imply causation. It essentially boils down to leadership styles that are relevant to the nation in question - styles that are centered around open lines of communication (no matter how tough), altruism, emotional intelligence and strength - irrespective of gender.

If anything, leadership is built on trust and respect – because at the end of the day, empathy has no script and what people really want to know is that they matter, that they are not alone, and that they have leaders that are willing to take ownership of their mistakes, leaders that have their backs - even if they don’t have all the answers.

Having worked in the shipping, oil and gas, logistics, FMCG and events industries, I have found that the inclusion of women helps create a more effective organisation: one that often values attention to detail – that is not limited to technology, aesthetics and communication. This also helps foster a conducive work culture that better integrates both the employee and the customer experience.

6. The airline industry is one of the worst hit as a result of the ongoing Corona pandemic. What’s your strategy to keep your business afloat?

A volatile economy can sometimes create as many opportunities as it annihilates. The cessation of global travel, the resulting free fall in revenue, and shortage of air cargo space at this time has led several airlines to repurpose their passenger aircraft to haul cargo - in order to meet the extraordinary demand for the transport of emergency medical supplies across the world.

While some airlines have chosen to temporarily rid the cabin decks of seats to make more room for freight, several others have chosen to transport cargo on passenger seats. The structural integrity of cabin equipment is often compromised in the latter scenario. As a company that specialises in the maintenance and repair of aircraft cabin interiors, Volkar Aerospace chose to address the need of the hour and developed cargo bags and seat protection solutions that not only enables airlines to carry additional payload, but also helps increase their profitability, whilst securing cargo and protecting their cabin interiors.

7. What role do private investors (single family offices in particular) play in your business segment? What are current trends or investment opportunities in the aviation sector?

The business aviation sector is expected to gain unprecedented traction, as the world has (at the time of this interview) already witnessed a significant increase in the demand for travel on private jets – citing lower risks of infection.

Aircraft and engine owners, such as airlines, lessors and investment funders - some of them sovereign, will be much less inclined to increase their fleet capacity over the next few years, but will need to maintain their existing assets. With nearly two-thirds of the world’s passenger aircraft grounded, the preventative- maintenance required to ensure that aircraft are airworthy again, once travel restrictions are lifted, is expected be a colossal effort. In the meantime, the dearth of storage space facilities for parking these aircraft may present investors with a lucrative business opportunity.

The Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) sector in the private jet and commercial aviation industry is one that will continue to thrive in the post Covid-19 era. Testament to this statement is the fact that the likes of Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce continue to invest in this sector, in a bid to make their services available at several locations around the world.

Though India and China may have had their plans to become the world’s biggest aviation hub temporarily thwarted by the implications of the pandemic, there is still considerable room for growth in the MRO sector in these countries – particularly in relation to advancements in aircraft infrastructure, preventative maintenance technology and the incorporation of artificial intelligence. These sectors remain attractive to investors because of the considerably lower labour costs, qualified engineers and technicians, and easy access to resources, material and equipment in these countries.

As with any sector, distressed assets can become attractive investments. Airframes and engines could bring enormous value, for a fraction of the original cost. These high-tech assets are reputed to have long, regulated, reliable and profitable operational lifespans. Disruptive concepts and / or technology that is able to reduce operation costs significantly or make travel more sustainable, are the most profitable ventures to invest in at this time. These solutions will be most sought after by aircraft operators and manufacturers in the immediate future.

Global Investment in Aviation Summit (GIAS) is a leading aviation investment platform that may be of interest to private investors and single family offices. An initiative by the General Civil Aviation Authority of the UAE, GIAS seeks to ignite investment in aviation and profile the aviation industry’s most profitable and disruptive projects to discerning investors.

8. It is no secret that many industries will have to reinvent themselves to survive this crisis. Where is the aerospace industry headed in your opinion?

Wake-up calls seldom come without good reason and the smart money is on people who realise this fact. Business travel, vacations, customs, immigration, border control, global trade and life as we once knew it - is forever changed. When an archaic global system has to go, it just has to go. We can expect sweeping global reform that impacts how people travel around the world, when, why and where. Biometric health passports could soon become one of many pre-requisites to international travel.

While some airlines will probably go into administration and several others seek bankruptcy protection, government aid or investments to stay afloat, trust is key to rebuilding the demand for global travel. I expect that this will in turn, result in a surge in the demand for improved aircraft infrastructure which will create several opportunities for the companies operating in that space, and with that, an increased focus on product innovation within the cabin interior – not limited to health and safety, layout of passenger accommodation (LOPA), ambience, lighting, customer comfort and advanced entertainment systems.

The supply chains of several industries including aviation will now begin to parallel the technology industry’s reliance on disaster and recovery plans as the pandemic serves as a lesson to not put all one’s eggs in one basket.

9. Who are the strategic partners you’d like to explore collaborations with in order to diversify your business and service offering?

Apart from commercial airlines, we focus heavily on the repair and maintenance of the luxury interiors of private and business jets. We aim to expand our capabilities to the marine and luxury yacht interiors sector in due course.

If you are interested to speak to Sonia Prabhakar you can reach out to her by email - sonia@volkaraero.com

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