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David Neeleman – Soaring Beyond ADD

Just keep thinking about the good side of ADD – the creativity and the originality it can stimulate.
- David Neeleman

David Neeleman isn’t your average entrepreneur. While many successful businessmen (and women) share common characteristics such as keen intelligence, strong focus, a drive to succeed, and the ability to ‘think outside the box’, Neeleman credits one other aspect that has helped him thrive in his professional career – the unique processes of the ADD mind. Diagnosed at the age of 40, Neeleman had already built and sold two successful ventures prior to learning the reason behind his unusual behaviors, and today believes his hyperactivity has helped to propel him to the top of the aviation industry.

A devout Mormon, husband, and father of nine children, Neeleman is also the founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airways. Since it emerged on the scene in February 2000,JetBlue has quickly grown in popularity – expanding service across America as well as adding several international destinations. In an industry already saturated with big business carriers, low-cost high-style JetBlue has been an anomaly from its inception.

Like many who live with ADD/ADHD and other learning-related disorders, Neeleman had a difficult time in school – with focusing on the work and finding support from his teachers. He attended the University of Utah for three years, eventually dropping out to co-found his first business venture, Morris Air, a charter airline. In 1993, Morris Air was bought by Southwest Airlines, but after serving for a few months on their Executive Planning Committee, Neeleman left, feeling the corporate environment of the company too stifling for his idiosyncratic – yet effective – methods.

Having signed a 5-year, no-compete agreement with Southwest, Neeleman instead focused his efforts on a touch screen airline reservation and check-in system, Open Skies (which was later acquired by HP) and building a new Canadian airline, WestJet, which is still in operation.

After the no-compete agreement had lapsed, Neeleman returned his attentions to the American skies, wanting to build a company that combined the standout benefits of Southwest – namely low-cost tickets and premium customer service – with amenities not found on other planes. Or as Neeleman has been quoted, “to bring humanity back to air travel.” JetBlue offered passengers DirecTV satellite programming in every economy-sized leather seat – at a time when other airlines were reducing their in-flight services due to rising operating costs. In addition, all ticketing and reservations were made online – a first for the industry.

Throughout his tenure with JetBlue, which ended in May 2008, Neeleman has been extraordinarily frank about life with ADD. While many still fear the stigma attached to ADD and associated learning disorders, Neeleman has bravely spoken of his difficulties – and of developing routines that can help him to achieve in his professional career, and handle the everyday stresses of raising nine children. Relying on his natural creativity, and the organizational skills of his staff, he is able to focus his energies on the things he does best – building better experiences in the sky.  David Neeleman’s story is another extraordinary example of the “gifts” that ADD and ADHD has to offer those who learn to cope with the difficulties brought on by the condition.


Neeleman on new venture, Azul.

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