Two weeks after Ray Grainger turned 18, he went to Antarctica.
Today, Grainger is the 54-year-old CEO and cofounder of project management software company Mavenlink, but in 1979, he was a high school grad who spent months appealing to the US National Science Foundation to join one of its six-month Antarctic expeditions.
After relentless campaigning for a spot, “suddenly I got a telegram at my house from HR to schedule an interview,” Grainger told Business Insider. “I have to believe that what appealed to them was that I was young, I was single, I had no obligations of any sort, and I was willing to work in 100 below zero.”
And so, Grainger’s first adult job was as a field assistant in the Antarctic. “Anything involving lifting something heavy, with some element of danger, anything really cold — I got those jobs,” he said. But it wasn’t all manual labour in the ice; he was also able to help research studies weighing seal pups and counting penguin chicks as they hatched. He helped establish the infrastructure for those who followed by building an emergency camp and a solar lab — “all kinds of things to support scientific experiments.”
In fact, Grainger liked it enough that we went back for a second season the year after with the goal of making it all the way to the South Pole, which he was able to accomplish by volunteering to dig a 50-foot-deep hole to extract some scientific equipment from the ice. “I told them it would take me a week,” he said. “It took me a month.”
While digging holes in the ice and weighing seal pups might not sound all that relevant to careers spent behind a desk, Grainger says he took home two key skills that served him well later on, from his 17 years consulting with Accenture to his current role as the CEO and founder of a startup.
He highlighted two standout lessons to Business Insider:
“In a place where you didn’t choose the people to be around, and there’s no way to leave, you find a way to adapt and get to know them,” Grainger said.
Working seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day, “if there’s anger, you have to find a way to get through it. If there are personal issues, you have to find a way to work through it.”
He found the skill served him well when he entered consulting after college, and was sent to work with clients he didn’t necessarily know or choose. “It’s that same kind of thing,” he said. “You’re put in a situation where the job has to get done. You have to make new friends and figure out how to fold into the team. It served me well at a young age, learning how to do that.”
Plus, he adds, the startup world values also values adaptability. “When you build a company, you’re continuously seeking the right market that’s a fit for your product. You’re having to shift in the early days quite frequently. You come in with a concept you want, and test in marketplace, and get feedback and shift a little.”
Another thing he learned on the ice was the importance of being resourceful. In Antarctica, the deadlines are immovable: The sun will set. The plane will leave. The season will end. “You’re there to accomplish something,” he said. “If you don’t have the materials or a tool you need, you have to innovate.”
This is a lesson that serves him particularly well as the CEO of a startup. “If there’s any endeavour that’s resource-constrained, it’s building a company,” he said. “You have to understand how much work can get done with limited resources. I’m used to working in a constrained environment. You might have to ratchet back the pace a little to get to the next stage. Maybe you can’t hire all the people you might want at the pace you want.”
He says he can trace much of his success back to his teenage expeditions. “Right when I came off the ice, it wasn’t apparent what I’d learned being around some very interesting personalities from all over the world, but looking back, a lot of the things I learned there were foundational to my entire career.”