Three Lessons for Business Ahead of JPM, from the Kilimanjaro Climb to Fight Cancer

Julia Owens, CEO, Millendo Therapeutics

While reflecting on the past year and preparing for the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, my mind has kept coming back to some simple life lessons picked up on a dirt trail half a world away.

The Kilimanjaro Climb to Fight Cancer was a profound life experience last July. Ever since coming home from the highest peak in Africa, I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate some of the experience from that journey into my daily life as CEO of a small clinical-stage biotech company.

I find myself continually sharing with friends and family the photo memory book we received from Fred Hutch documenting the climb. For weeks, I’ve been looking forward to the reunion, the night before JP Morgan, of the 27 women and men who were part of this expedition.

This was no regular trip. This was special. It forced me to stretch me way outside my comfort zone. For one thing, I hadn’t been camping in more than a decade and never been backpacking. For another, I had no idea what it would feel like to hike in the thin air above 19,000 feet of elevation. And while I have plenty of experience raising money for my company from institutional investors, it was an altogether different experience to raise more than $50,000 for a nonprofit cancer center from family, friends, and colleagues.

I am incredibly proud to have been a part of this. Together, our team raised $1.6 million for cancer research at Fred Hutch. We also forged some meaningful and enduring friendships.  

Six months after this special experience, I’d like to share three lessons that helped get me up the highest peak in Africa, and that have influenced both my professional and personal life.

Lesson 1: Make it work for you

Mt. Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb. You need good hiking boots, and to be reasonably fit. No ropes, crampons or other technical climbing gear is required. We were given a long (!) list of specific items to bring (including a pee funnel and bottle), but with those in tow, you are pretty much set.

The evening before each day of the climb, our lead guide Eric Murphy would let us know generally what to expect the next day, including how long we would be hiking, what the terrain would be like, how much the altitude rise would be and what to include in our packs (versus what the porters would carry).

From left to right: Luke Timmerman (Kilimanjaro Climb to Fight Cancer team captain), Lakpa Rita Sherpa (guide), and Eric Murphy (lead guide).

Amongst our Type A group there were always numerous questions, mostly focusing on what gear to bring, and if I’m honest, many of them were from me.

Eric, a guide with 100+ summits of Kilimanjaro, has heard it all before from nervous climbers. Each day, he would patiently address a few of the inquiries, but then, when things got a little too far into the weeds, he very deftly cut off the questioning with what became his catchphrase — “Make it work for you”. What it meant was that we had been given the basic information. Now it was up to each of us to judge how that applied to our personal circumstances. For me, it usually meant bringing an extra layer or gloves to make sure I was warm enough. But that was for me to decide.

In life, and particularly in the business world as a biotech CEO, the same advice applies. I may receive input from my board on their expectations, or from our legal counsel or our PR firm on how any particular situation is often addressed. The guidance is useful in a general sense, but is rarely specific to our exact situation. As the CEO, it is up to me, with input from my team, to assess the situation and decide on a course of action. It usually resembles the original recommendation, yet nearly always has variations specific to our company.  

As Eric likes to say, “Make it work for you.”

Lesson 2. Pace yourself

Mt Kilimanjaro is over 19,000 ft high. No matter how fit you are, you cannot prepare for altitude like that without giving your body time to adjust. Many people struggle on Kilimanjaro, and about half fail to reach the summit each year. Usually that’s because people try to go up too fast, and end up getting sick on the way.

While our Machame route and 7-day climbing strategy allowed time for acclimatization, we still had physical challenges at high altitude. On our summit day we tried to sleep a couple hours before leaving camp at midnight. The plan was to reach the peak at dawn. Many of us were tired and short of breath as we climbed in the cold and darkness of the early morning alpine environment.

In order to persevere in these conditions, you need to take a slow and deliberate pace that doesn’t wear you out. Pushing yourself is going to be counter-productive. The Tanzanian team supporting our climb knew this concept quite well. “Pole, pole” [pronounced PO-lay, PO-lay] means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. We heard this reminder multiple times every day. It took some of us longer than others, but all 27 of us did ultimately summit the mountain that morning.

Julia Owens on Kilimanjaro, July 2019.

As a biotech executive, or even as a busy working parent, there are times where I feel like the mountain in front of me is simply insurmountable. The demands on my time from email inboxes, presentations to review, work travel, board meetings, networking and more can consume every waking hour, and even cut into proper sleep. Simply pushing through is not going to work.

The business world always compels us to move faster and faster. There’s rarely anyone there to caution us with a kind “Pole, pole” reminder to keep us from burning out on our journey to achieve our objective. The best course, often, is slow and deliberate progress forward. I seek to accomplish what I can without over-taxing myself. Which naturally leads to the final lesson.

Lesson 3. Practice self-care

This last lesson is the most obvious and also the most easily ignored. On a week-long climb, we were constantly reminded about the importance of “self-care”.

Self-care on Kilimanjaro.

When hiking for an average of 7-8 hours a day, it’s essential to pay attention to adequate water intake before you get dehydrated and suffer acute mountain sickness. You have to take care of hot spots on your feet before they become blisters. At the end of the day, it’s smart to stretch tired muscles and get a good night’s sleep. Yet, we all had to be reminded numerous times each day of the trip. If we didn’t pay conscious attention to our physical and mental well-being, we weren’t going to be ready for subsequent days, which seemed to get more and more challenging.

During busy day-to-day life, the distractions are greater. The need for self-care can be less obvious and the reminders are less frequent or at least less explicit. It’s easy to over-schedule oneself, and end up neglecting personal time, family, diet, exercise, or sleep. As a biotech CEO at a lean startup, it can feel like nearly everything rests on your shoulders. Pretty soon, you can find yourself in a routine of working 14-hour days, 6-7 days a week, which eventually becomes physically and emotionally depleting.

Trust me… I know this way too well. One of my personal motivations for signing up for the Kilimanjaro team was to give myself a break from the daily pressures after being a CEO of a company that has had significant ups and downs over 7 years with little break. (Listen to The Long Run podcast from last February.)

So now, with the epic summit nearly six months in the past, I’m left with a memory of a lifetime, close new friendships, incredible satisfaction in what we were able to contribute towards advancing cancer research… and, for me at least, some simple but important lessons for life, both on and off the mountain.

Summit of Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet). Julia Owens is pictured on the far right.

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An Unforgettable Experience: The Kilimanjaro Climb to Fight Cancer Yearbook
Staying Resilient, Finding a Way Forward: Julia Owens on The Long Run
Meet the Kilimanjaro Climb to Fight Cancer Team