Member Spotlight: Kevin Kleist, Southwest Airlines
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Kevin Kleist (@kpkleist) is Head of Emerging Trends at Southwest Airlines. He researches and explores new and emerging tech, products and services to uncover practical and unconventional ideas. His focus is on identifying new opportunities for solving challenges within the company. By leveraging partnerships across multiple industries and unique internal perspectives, he is able to quickly proof out new solutions and share key insights that help improve both the customer and employee experiences.
You’ve been at Southwest Airlines for over 13 years now — can you tell us a bit about the progression of your career?
During my time at Southwest, I have had the pleasure of working in several leadership roles in both our Marketing department, where I spent just over 10 years, and within my current department, Corporate Strategy and Innovation. I started as an Analyst evaluating online data, which led me into an online development role focusing on the future of Southwest.com. During that time, I was part of several key projects that led to the release of the first Southwest Airlines iOS app, the online integration and codeshare of AirTran Airways and the launch of international service for Southwest. After those projects, I moved into the Wi-Fi and IFE space, where I worked with a phenomenal team to bring several enhancements to our passengers’ experiences. I have since moved into the Emerging Trends role, where I focus my time on researching and exploring new and emerging technologies for practical “real-world” applications that will help to improve the overall Southwest experience.
Over the years at Southwest, what are some examples of innovation initiatives you’ve worked on that you are particularly proud of?
I would say the Digital Wayfinding initiative that we launched at Dallas Love Field (DAL) in 2017. In this project, we worked with a few key partners to develop a fully digital wayfinding system to make traveling easier. The team redesigned nearly every sign throughout the airport, making each sign fully digitalized and location-aware, in turn tailoring the customer experience with the appropriate flight information. I’m proud of this work because it was beneficial not only for customers, but also for employees. To top it off, our initiative was awarded the Gold IDEA award in the Service Design category!
Southwest has over 60K employees. As an innovation leader, how do you ensure transformations are injected across every business unit of the company?
I am fortunate to sit within a department at Southwest that enables us to work across the entire organization to better understand the different perspectives, challenges and needs that are unique to each group. Those perspectives provide me with the direction I need to identify new and emerging technologies and startups that could help address those needs. It allows me to focus on real challenges for Southwest that can provide value, which makes it easier to integrate back into the business or operation.
When thinking about innovation by industry, certain sectors have historically been more aggressive and efficient in their approach, while others have often been labeled as traditional laggards. Where do you see the airline industry sitting within the spectrum?
Today, I see the airline industry being more aggressive than it has been in the past, and I believe that was driven by the events that occurred throughout the early 2000s. The industry dealt with the tragic events of 9/11, followed by a drop in demand for air travel, high fuel prices, and a recession; all of which required airlines to think more innovatively. Today, technology is changing at a rapid pace, and we are starting to see airlines more willing to change at the same pace to meet customer expectations.
If we were startup founders sitting here, what advice would you give us about partnering with Southwest?
It’s important for entrepreneurs to understand the purpose and values of Southwest Airlines: we want to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel. Founders should be prepared to demonstrate the value of their product or service with that in mind, as it will make the case for a partnership with Southwest that much easier of a process. In general, startups must be agile and able to adapt to the governance that Fortune 100 companies have in place throughout their organizations.