Collective wisdom: lessons for life and business from the mountains

 In Leadership


As an enthusiast for mountain environments and the physical and mental preparation required to reach the most sublime places in the world, I eagerly attended an event titled,“Women on Top: Lessons for Life and Business from the Mountains,” last Thursday evening in downtown San Francisco. The inspirational talk and slide presentation featured mountaineer and businesswoman Emilie Cortes.

The San Francisco Chapter of Young Women Social Entrepreneurs (YWSE) hosted the occasion with co-sponsors Net Impact (Silicon Valley and San Francisco chapters), Future Women Leaders, and Charles Schwab & The Women’s Interactive Network. Emilie’s presentation was the first in YWSE’s new series called, “Life Lessons I Learned While Having Fun.

Whether it be mountain climbing or any other rewarding activity, Emilie made a good case for pushing your limits to unleash your potential and do what you love to do. She also answered the important question of: What can you do to be ready for the unexpected tests of your will and composure, whether in a business environment or stranded for the night at 13,000 feet?

Although conference rooms in urban skyscrapers do not have a lot in common with glacier-covered mountains, Emilie, a sales executive for Axioma Inc., recognizes parallel themes while navigating both worlds, especially for women: communication, goal-setting, preparation and tackling fear.

It turns out that Emilie’s business skills helped her build a plan to become a successful high altitude mountain climber: talk to experts, follow instructions and get training. She said that she was never known to be athletic and was not in shape when she started five years ago. But since then she has reached the summits of several technical peaks, from California’s Sierra Nevada to volcanoes in Ecuador, and she participated in a fundraiser called “Climb to Fight Breast Cancer.

Following Emilie’s inspirational presentation, a collective wisdom emerged:

  • Break the habit of limiting yourself. Limitations are oftentimes internal, not external.
  • Prepare and persevere. Take one step at a time. Be methodical in a way that works for you. Respect your choices.
  • Set ambitious but achievable goals. Some goals seem very far away, but if you break them down into milestones, the goal begins to feel much more attainable.
  • Balance fear and risk and know when to be cautious. Learn how to breathe. Calm your inner voice. Learn that you can handle more than you previously thought.
  • Recognize the importance of communication and leadership skills. Know yourself and communicate your real or perceived limitations. Don’t blame. Push through. You can have the same positive impact on others. Help them get to the next step.
  • Find new ways to respond when being judged in a “man’s world.” Use humor. Be honest about the weight you are carrying, and recognize the significance of your contributions to a team.

YWSE-SF posted a version of this article with personal commentary here: YWSE’s Take on… Adventure

Photos of July 23, 2009 YWSE-SF Event by Jaqueline del Castillo

More Inspiration:

  • Notable Women in Yosemite’s History – Yosemite National Park Web site. Includes a description of Enid Michael, an early Yosemite climber and naturalist.
  • Historic 1929 photograph of climbing pioneer Miriam O’Brien Underhill
  • Junko Tabei, a Japanese mountain-climber, who became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 16, 1975
  • Web site for Arlene Blum, who led 13 women to make the first American ascent of Annapurna I (26,500 feet) in Nepal, the 10th highest peak in the world.
  • Lynn Hill, known for making the first free ascent of the Nose Route on Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Two books, now out of print, are also great resources: “Leading Out: Women Climbers Reaching for the Top,” edited by Rachel da Silva and “Women Climbing: 200 Years of Achievement,” by Bill Birkett and Bill Peascod. I am grateful to my friends Karen and Karla, who gifted these to me ten years ago.

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