Peak Interest: A Young Egyptian Entrepreneur's Ambition to Conquer MountainsPublished January 22, 2013 in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton
The world's highest snowy peaks are not found in the Middle East, but that didn't stop young Egyptian Omar Samra from pursuing mountaineering as a passion. At 28, he became the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest. He's gone on to climb the highest summit on every continent except for North America, which he plans completing this year.
He embarked on his Mount Everest expedition as soon as he earned his MBA from the London Business School. When the revolution began in Egypt, he was more than halfway up the highest summit in Argentina and grappled with the decision to continue his climb or hurry down to get on a plane back to Egypt.
At the height of the financial crisis, Samra founded the first carbon-neutral travel company in the Middle East and North Africa. Dubai-based Wild Guanabana tailors expeditions for its clientele while also offsetting their carbon footprint. "I do believe that the best time to start a business is always now," he tells Arabic Knowledge@Wharton.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What did reaching the top of Mount Everest mean to you?
Omar Samra: That was five years ago now. I would say that, at the time, it meant different things than it does now. When I climbed Everest in 2007, it was the end of a long process. I dreamed of going to the summit when I was a teenager and I got to the summit when I was 28 years old. For me, it was a long journey.
During the entire journey, there were two things that were really driving me. One was I thought I was somehow representing my country because I was the first person to attempt something like that from home. But also, the other thing was I was asthmatic when I was younger at age 11. For me, it was a personal goal to prove to myself that I could get stand at the highest point on earth where there was very little oxygen. For me, it was all about those two things.
In terms of now, things have changed a little bit. When I came back, I realized that actually the purpose of climbing Mount Everest was not just those two things but it was more important to come back and tell the story. Since then, in the last five years until now, my life has revolved around, to a large extent, talking to people about the experience, going to universities and schools, trying to inspire the youth, as well as everybody in our part of the world, to follow their dreams; to look into themselves to establish their own goals, to get out of their comfort zone. For me, from that perspective, climbing Everest changed my life in terms of what I felt was my purpose and what I need to do, though I didn't know it at the time.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Did that occur to you while you were summiting or did it dawn upon after you came down from the expedition?
Samra: When I was climbing Mount Everest, I was thinking about those two initial drivers. When I came back, I was oblivious to the fact that it would have any impact on other people. It was only after I came back and after a few weeks, I was invited to do a talk back home. It wasn't polished in any way. I just went there and I had a few slides and I just told the story. I remember that day, I couldn't leave the room for three hours because people kept coming and asking me questions and talking.
From then on, I kept on getting invited to give more talks. People I didn't know were sending me messages. Hearing the story about snowy mountains was something so far removed from the realities we have back home. But people could relate to the notion behind this, which is that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.
It was a process. The more I kept talking, the more I started thinking to myself I want to do more of this. How can I actually make my career or what I do for a living somehow tied to this -- inspiring people and so on. That was part of the impetus for starting the travel company I run now called Wild Guanabana.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: A large reason for the recent revolutions was the frustration of the youth. So what are the biggest challenges? Is there a lot of pessimism or people don't think they have any opportunities or hope to follow their own dreams? So you try to talk to people about that?
Samra: When I climbed Mount Everest, it was 2007. The old regime was still in place. I don't think the way the country was being run was allowing many opportunities for people. People didn't feel they could aspire and think that things they wanted to do could actually happen. No matter how much they dreamed and no matter how hard they worked to be something, at the end of the day, the situation with the country and the corruption, they were stopped from achieving things and were de-motivated. They felt frustrated. There are other stories as well.
But maybe my story was kind of bizarre because of the mountains and climbing and snow. People were able to relate somehow. When I was 11 years old, I was asthmatic and I couldn't complete one lap around the track. That person worked hard. It wasn't something that I achieved over one or two years. I worked hard over a long period of time. There were challenges along the way but he made it. People then started thinking I can do that too. I had a lot of challenges along the way and people started thinking, "What about that dream I had many years ago that I forgot about? Maybe I should work on it and bring it the forefront of my mind. Maybe I should work on it." In the pre-revolution era, that was very much the case. People were very down. I think they had lost hope in some sense.
After the revolution, things changed. It was almost like a precedent, almost on a mass level. My story is just one example but on a mass level, people worked toward to make really big things happen. And that was very empowering. Now when I talk to people in Egypt and the youths -- people are obviously uncomfortable about what's happening now, there's a lot of uncertainty in Egypt -- but people have broken that barrier. They now understand that they can be the masters of their own destiny. They can effect change if they work hard enough at it.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: When the Egyptian revolution broke out in early 2011, you were ascending the highest mountain outside the Himalayas: the Aconcagua in Argentina. About three-quarters of the way up, you couldn't get in touch with your family and via satellite phone, you realized what was happening while you were halfway across the world. What were your thoughts at that time?
Samra: I was the first Arab to climb that mountain solo. Other Arabs have climbed it with support. There have been a handful of Arabs who have climbed it. Climbing solo means without support. I'm the only person who climbed the mountain carrying all my stuff. People climb with a support team and guide and so on. That's just the distinction.
For me, I left on January 20th and the revolution broke out on the 25th. I was oblivious to the protests because I was high up on the mountain. I tried to call back home on the 28th but I realized all the phone lines have been cut. Later on when I got on a satellite connection, I found out when I saw the news headlines on the Internet about what was happening back at home. And then I had this dilemma: Do I go back or do I continue what I started?
And because of the dynamics of a solo expedition, you have to carry so much gear. You can't carry it all in one go. You have to go up and stash things in a camp. And then go back down and carry more stuff. I had most of my stuff stashed higher up on the mountain so it wasn't ideal. I would have to have to lose, not only the time I put into the expedition, but also my gear. Also, the airports were shut down.
So I decided to the best thing for me was to finish what I started. It almost gave [the climb] a new meaning. It was really a big push for me. Because of what was happening at home, this was my way of raising my voice. I climbed the mountain and came back down. I came back to Egypt. I was fortunate enough to still join the revolution. It was still going on. I was actually in Tahir Square when Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So you came down from the mountain and immediately got on a plane back to Egypt. And did you plant an Egyptian flag at the top of that mountain?
Samra: When I heard the news in base camp that the revolution was going on, I was obviously caught up with emotions. I wrote on the Egyptian flag, "Egypt is for its people," in Arabic. And then I took the flag to the top. That for me was my way of showing solidarity with what was happening.
Actually, a year later, on the anniversary after the revolution, I happened to be in Antarctica at that time. There were certain political things happening at the time. The Army was taking control and being quite autocratic about it. I took a message about what was going on at the time to the top of the Antarctic mountain. Those two times were actually not the first time I've used the summits of mountains as a way of showing the world that there was something going on.
I'm a firm believer that people should show support and get involved in the best way that they can. For me, I climb mountains and for me, I think, "How can I use what I'm doing to show solidarity or show support." And that's where that came from.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You also planted an Egyptian flag at the top of Mount Everest and you were the first person to have done that. Do you take an Egyptian flag to every summit you go to?
Samra: Yes, I take the flag with me. You can plant the flag but you can't leave it there. You're not actually allowed to leave things on the summits of mountains. I take the flags with me and take a photograph or video and then I come back down.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You've climbed the highest mountain on every continent except North America. Is that right?
Samra: Yeah, that's true. There's something called the Seven Summits, which is [the accomplishment of climbing] the highest mountain on every continent. Usually, people start with Kilimanjaro [in Africa] and then they finish with Everest. I've been climbing mountains for a long time before I climbed Mount Everest. I actually started the other way around. I started with Mount Everest but then I decided I wanted to finish all seven. Climbing mountains on seven different mountains on seven different continents means there are seven different cultures. That's fascinating from that point of view.
The last one I attempted earlier this year was Mount McKinley in Alaska. But I couldn't make it because of very bad weather. Hopefully I'll be going back in May or June to climb that last mountain.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You summited Mount Everest after you got your MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship at the London Business School. Why did you decide to embark on such a journey after you finished your graduate degree?
Samra: Actually, it was sort of a serendipitous event. I joined the MBA program with the intention of not doing any climbing or traveling during the MBA because I wanted to focus on it. I wanted to switch from investment banking to something else. I was thinking that would take a lot of effort in terms of studying and [job-hunting]. That was the plan that I had but life had a different plan. A few weeks into my MBA, I got an email from a colleague that he had always been dreaming of climbing Mount Everest and he wanted to put together an expedition once we graduated. And obviously it was a dream I had since I was 16.
I immediately changed my priorities around Everest. Training for Everest became my top priority. Obviously, I was going to finish my MBA but it wasn't something I had planned on going into my MBA. All of a sudden, we were putting together a team and planning for Everest.
When we first put together a team, we organized a trip to Scotland in the winter, just to see who's interested and who had good experience. That was a really good filtering trip. We had thirty to forty people interested, but after that experience, we were down to four. After Fort William, we went to Ben Nevis and took one of the semi-technical routes. In good Scottish mountaineering fashion, the weather was horrible. It was good preparation for what we needed to be prepared for on bigger mountains.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: When you started your MBA and you wanted to switch from investment banking, did you know you wanted to start your own travel company because of your concentration in entrepreneurship? Or did your mountaineering and travel expeditions steer you in that direction?
Samra: I actually had no idea that I wanted to get into travel as a business. I had no idea that I wanted to be or could actually be an entrepreneur. I've traveled so much and did a one-year trip around Asia and Latin America.
You do think it would be great to travel and do that as a living but it was never really a serious thought. It wasn't actually on my agenda. What I was trying to do in my MBA program was try to learn as much as I could about different industries and different fields so I could make up my mind about what I wanted to do. And I did actually get a job offer. I applied to different things, not in banking or finance. I did apply to a number of different jobs in different industries just to explore. After my MBA, I got a job in a brand management consulting firm. That was the job I was going to take after I finished Everest. But because I ended up moving back home, I ended up turning that offer down. And then I got into private equity for two years. That's when I quit that to start up my business.
But I think a reason I studied entrepreneurship was because I thought it was a really interesting field. The courses were very intriguing. But I didn't know I would end up being an entrepreneur two years [after the program].
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You've founded Wild Guanabana, the first carbon-neutral travel adventure company in the Middle East and North Africa. I'm guessing sub-Saharan African might have some carbon-neutral companies. What made you decide it was important to open up such a green-friendly company?
Samra: I haven't been able to find a carbon-neutral company in sub-Saharan Africa but I wasn't able to confirm it a hundred percent so that's why we kept it as North Africa. Basically, the reason why is through my own personal travels and personal experiences, I came to have first-hand knowledge about what's happening to the environment. I've traveled to very remote places and I've seen the effects of glaciers receding, what was happening to certain national parks.
When you start up your own business, you always want to inject your own values and your own beliefs and your own business ethics, in the business you want to start.
On the social [investment] side, there are a lot of important elements. You want to make sure the people you work with, whether they're guides or porters, that they get paid fair wages, that they get investment in their training so they can get career progression. The green element was also something equally important. When we design trips, we make sure from the start, we design them so there is no carbon impact. Any carbon emissions we emit, we take it upon ourselves to offset. As a company, we don't book flights. When I say carbon neutral, we're strictly on the ground. We offset the emissions for all of our clients plus any emissions we create through our offices. If I travel anywhere for business, then I offset the emissions.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Is that difficult to do in the Middle East? Are people thinking about the environment in that way?
Samra: I would say that some people are thinking about the environment in that way and those people are the minority at the moment. I think there is a growing consciousness and eventually we will catch up with the rest of the world from that perspective. There are governments and institutions that are starting to pave the way.
We are just a small company. We can be a thought leader and maybe even shame some of the larger organizations to adopt more ethical practices. In terms of clients, I wouldn't say people are going on our trips because they're eco-friendly in this part of the world. The main selling point is the adventure and it's kind of a bonus that it's ethical. Whereas in the U.K. and U.S., they are more sophisticated, in that they are making decisions based on these factors. The reason we why we did this is because we believe the long-term sustainability of our business is related to the long-term sustainability of the host communities in which we operate. Even though the clientele in our region are not necessarily asking for this, we chose to provide it because we believe that's the right way of doing things.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: On your web site, you wrote, "At the height of the financial crisis, you decided to start a company that relies completely on discretionary spending." That's quite amusing but it goes to show you realized the risk involved. Why did you think that was the right time to start your own company?
Samra: Yes, I get a bit of heat from that because I come from an investment background -- I should have known better or something. I do believe that the right time to start a business is always now. When you have an idea coming from your own value system and passion, and if you do it in that right way and you stay honest and true to these values, there will always be a market.
There was someone who said that people buy from people who believe what they believe. People are driven or gravitate toward a certain business because they believe in [what they advocate].
I think that's what makes an Apple or Nike brand so important because they're just not about selling products, they're selling a way of thinking, a way of life, a belief system. For us, there are certain beliefs that we have about how you should travel and how you should treat people and how you treat the environment.
Travel can be life-changing. Regardless of the downturn, there will always be a market for people who want to travel in this genuine way and do things in an ethical way. Obviously, we can do better in a boom economy. But I think we've done a good job in weathering some of the storms that have come through like the financial crisis. One of our main markets was hit massively by the revolution.
We've adapted to the times and we've expanded into the Gulf region so we've diversified from a geographic perspective. I think because we were born into this kind of environment, it's made us thick-skinned. It's been training and preparation for whatever happens in the future.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You traveled around the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America, and visited 14 countries for a year in the middle of your banking career. What made you decide to do that? Is that what you think other people should do, travel around and learn something about themselves?
Samra: I wouldn't say that's advice for everyone in terms of a blanket statement. I think it comes down to the person. For me, I went on a two-week cycling trip in the south of Spain on my own. That was my trigger -- traveling and going on a different path and exploring and going under the surface. Even though I couldn't make a rational argument about how going on a one-year trip was good for my career or good for my own personal growth or whatever, it was such a compelling idea and passion that I couldn't shake.
It just became something I had to do, even though I couldn't rationalize it and there were lots of people around me saying it was not a good idea. A lot of business leaders will say the best decision-making tool you have at your disposal at the end of the day is your gut feel.
I think that's true for business decisions as well as big life decisions. In 2002, I was very scared that I didn't know if I was doing the right thing, but as I was going on my trip and when I came back from my trip, it was reaffirmed for me that it was the right thing to do. I learned so much from it. From that, I got more confidence [to deal with situations] whenever I'm at a crossroads and I have to make a big decision. Inevitably, when you have to make big decisions and you go against the grain, there will be a majority of people telling you that you shouldn't do it. But having the benefit of those previous experiences, it gave me the confidence that I was on the right track. Even if I was going to be proven wrong, I was going to make those decisions by myself, to be able to learn.
That was the same approach I took when I was starting my business as well. I knew it was something I had to do even though I was in a good place in my career. And I realized there was a thing I wanted to do and I wanted to see if I could make it happen. I just had to go and try it. If it didn't work out, it wasn't the end of the world. I could go back and do what I was doing or figure something else out but I had to just give it a try.