United Airlines' Papia Gambelin is one of Silicon Valley's most influential behind-the-scenes visionaries. Just try to keep up.
It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday in San Francisco’s Financial District, and Papia Gambelin is on stage with a spotlight dancing across her forehead. She leans into the microphone to accept an award on behalf of United Airlines, her employer, for its outstanding work in the community. Gambelin, the daughter of Indian immigrants, silences the crowd with her words—a mix of grace, smarts, humility and boldness. The large gathering listens intently, sipping signature cocktails and nibbling bites from the city’s best restaurants. She has them in the palm of her hand.
This isn’t surprising for anyone who has encountered Gambelin—in a business setting or socially. She possesses a strain of charisma that’s palpable, an invisible energy with visible effects. “I get my ya-yas by connecting people,” says Gambelin, United Airlines’ managing director of state and local government affairs for the Western region. “Connecting people is my passion. I want to understand their needs. I’m passionate about who they should know or the books they should read. Creating synergy is my thing.”
Gambelin moved to the region when she was 16, attended San Jose State as an environmental science major and eventually worked in the waste management industry (she even learned to drive garbage trucks because she wanted to understand every nuance of the business). She focused on recycling and the planet’s care. Gambelin eventually gravitated to public affairs for the city of Mountain View and PG&E, where she led the power company’s public affairs efforts for 11 years.
Landing at United Airlines two years ago felt like a natural progression, says Gambelin, the mother of two teenage boys. She’s impacting the region beyond getting passengers from point A to point B. I sat down with Gambelin on a Friday afternoon during a rare lull in her often frenetic days. “I never have a typical day. I plan my days, but they never go according to plan,” she laughs. “Policies pop up that upend everything. It’s whack-a-mole, but I live for the chaos, and I’m grateful that we’re addressing issues that impact the communities we serve—and the world.”
What’s the elevator speech for what you do?
I advance the policy objectives for United with our elected officials and community stakeholders. Examples of policies are the development of sustainable aviation fuel in California. How do we create that dialogue to focus on initiatives that will ultimately help reduce our carbon footprint as an airline? After all, we can’t plug our planes into a wall socket. We need to find solutions now to make more environmentally friendly fuel. I coordinate with colleagues and create coalitions to advance those discussions at the state level, primarily where those conversations occur.
So the stakes are incredibly high.
They are. And I’m at a place in my career where I don’t want to Mickey Mouse what I do— everything we’re working on is vitally important. You’re talking about shifting economies with the introduction of sustainable aviation fuel or, as with another issue, looking at minimum wage and working with state and local officials on its implementation.
How does this region play into your work?
Since we’re in the Bay Area, we’ve invested in several technologies that support the aviation community and our sustainability goals. The region helps us modernize and see aviation differently, including the emergence of electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, planes. I’m constantly hearing from my colleagues about a desire to expand in this area, but we’ll need a workforce to handle this level of expansion.
How do you find a workforce solution since you’re already short on pilots and technicians?
It’s about creating more partnerships statewide and locally. We need more opportunities to incentivize people who may not have ever thought about careers in aviation, particularly in communities of color. We also want women to enter this field; we need them to consider nontraditional roles since only 6% of the world’s pilots are women. I manifest this idea with community partners in every recruitment effort.
How does the Bay Area impact United?
What matters is that we can get you where you need to be safely and on time. But outside of that, we also have a vested interest in the health and welfare of the communities where we’re headquartered. SFO and LAX are two big hubs, and SFO is one of our largest hubs globally. And these cities are facing challenges. We have a role in supporting elected stakeholders in grappling with issues like crime, safety and cleanliness.
Retention is everything at United, yes?
It’s huge. I know it sounds corny, but it’s a family.
You’re considered a ‘junior’ employee if you’ve been here 20 years. We have people who’ve been with us for 46 years. Third- and fourth-generation people work at United because it’s what their folks or grandparents did.
Of course, we’re tackling lifestyle issues like how do you afford to live in the Bay Area. We’re creating local and state partnerships on affordable housing initiatives and more. They’re so crucial because special people work at this company.
What has impacted you the most professionally?
Being a woman in a family.
I’m not sure I follow.
I’m first generation. Culturally, my family focused on me marrying and having children versus having a career. Finding my voice has been my journey. I drive myself to do what’s right for the bigg est group of people. I’ve had moments at other companies where leadership was absent on major issues, and I had to step in.
Again, it helped me gain my voice, which is never shying from amplifying truths and cultivating an environment of doing what’s right by people.
What’s the best advice you ever received about your career?
Someone told me to get the most money for the least responsibility. He was buying a property to transition it so he could act like a slumlord.
But I always remembered what he said and simply reinterpreted it. Instead of taking advantage of other people, I want to help connect them. I look for ways to grow my responsibilities and scope. My goal is always to have the most amount of influence so that I can impact people positively.
Another piece of advice I received involves risk. When working on a project and focused on getting the credit, you’re taking on all the risk. Instead, share the risk among peers—and share the praise and rewards. That’s the essence of teamwork.
Is there a mantra you love?
How do I feel about myself when I’m around you?
It’s about self-reflection and a rule I live by.
Photography by: Looks by Wilkes Basford SF (@wilkesbashford); hair by Christophe Saluzzo, makeup by Johny Saade (@chrisohny_mgmt) PHOTOGRAPHED BY TRACY EASTON STYLED BY THERESA PALMER, A PALMER IN CALIFORNIA