Elena Kvochko is a CIO specializing in computer security for a financial services company and is a well-known expert in cyber security.
I immigrated to the US nearly a decade ago to complete my graduate studies after studying and working in Europe and my original country of Russia. I soon fell in love with the US and made it my permanent home.
The opportunities here for my line of work, technology and information security, have been amazing. I also found the US to have the most inspiring people and culture. Anyone, regardless, of who who they are or where they come from has a chance at their dreams.
That’s not true for everyone in the world. Despite all the positive developments in our economy and the many challenges we have solved as a global community, we still bear witness to inequality, lack of hope and tendency to resist change.
Still, I have to admit, working in a growing industry makes it easier to forget what might be happening in other parts of the world. I kept feeling like maybe there was some bigger way to contribute.
Then I was introduced to Refugees International, a DC-based non-profit that helps identify the needs of displaced people to bring them protection and assistance. I decided to take on a big challenge to help raise awareness for this organisation and their life-saving work.
And that’s how I found myself signing on for an expedition to hike in the Mt. Everest region, up to 18,000 feet. It wasn’t a summit expedition. I’m not a mountain climber and I live in New York, at sea level. But the lessons I learned from this experience have forever changed how I think about my life, what it means to be successful and how to accomplish any goal.
Ascending to over 18,000 feet wasn't something I had done before. And I'm not a fan of heights or cold weather. I was hoping by picking something that was hard for me, I would inspire at least some of my friends to challenge themselves and contribute to the causes they care about.
I was nowhere near physically ready. As advised by friends, I trained for the lack of oxygen at over 18,000 feet by strapping on an altitude training mask and climbing 60 floors of stairs in an office building, up and down, while wearing a backpack. It was hard work. It was hard to breathe and there were many days when I didn't think I could finish. But I did. I also did step classes, indoor climbing and a practice ice climb.
As I made my way through settlements, Everest seemed like a small destination far away. 'When will I reach it?' I would think.
But as I walked I realised: it's easy to feel lost when focusing only on the end, the goal, the destination. By concentrating on more reachable and immediate goals that I could measure, one section of trail at a time, I started to feel my progress as I made it.
I still had a lot of really scary moments. One night at around 17,000 feet I woke up breathless. I could not get enough air. I ran outside in the freezing cold, trying to inhale the frigid air ...
... convinced I was about to faint. I shook our guide, a former Buddhist monk, from his sleep. He looked me in the eyes and said, 'It's all in your head. You can do it.'
He convinced me I was completely fine and even told me how to breath the thin air (slowly). This reassurance made it possible for me to adjust and continue the journey. The lessons I learned: 1) Mental preparedness is just as important as physical prowess. 2) Life will always send us through unexpected paths. But the right mindset and A strong belief in your capabilities will help you succeed.
At one point, a yak carrying large buckets on each of its sides approached me. In an effort to avoid getting knocked down by the large, huffing animal, I moved to the edge of the cliff. But one of the buckets still managed to hit me, making me lose my balance.
One of my team members saw and reached out his hand towards me. I managed to quickly stick my trekking poles on the side of the cliff. That moment made me realise: having a team I can trust is always important.
People are more likely to take risks, in the wild or in corporate environment, for someone they know and trust.
We normally live lives of comfort, accustomed to a wide availability of products and every sort of convenience. In the Himalayas, goods have to be transported by helicopters, yaks, or mules. After a few days, I grew used to the idea of living on limited means and waking up before sunrise. The cold, the sun, and the wind would bite at my skin, but I no longer even noticed.
I learned I can go on on steep grades for hours, rain or shine. Those were the days when I would think back on the times when I waited to leave my office simply because it was raining.
We've all had to work late hours, or work after an overnight flight, and still be focused and creative. The key to that is to practice operating in uncomfortable environments.
This also helps us appreciate these comforts, instead of growing upset if we must sometimes do without them.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Everest was from the Sherpas: in order to conquer the top of the world, one has to believe in something greater than themselves.
Climbing a mountain is metaphorically similar to the struggle of refugees and immigrants. Many of us have to go through a struggle to get to our next destination. We all have our mountains to climb. Some of those mountains are taller than others. In a way, everyone has their own Everest to climb. But when we remember that we are all part of something greater than ourselves, it makes us support each other.
I would like to thank Refugees International, my colleagues, team, and friends for helping me succeed on this journey that forever changed my life.
Photo credit: Thank you to my friends Aaron, Cristin, Jeanette for sharing some of their photos with me.