Leading with gratitude: the CEO who took on Everest

Plenty of chief executives like a challenge; it tends to be baked into the job. Few go as far as a journey to the highest mountain on Earth 

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When Conrad Smith packed his bags for Everest base camp in the autumn of 2023, he hadn’t expected to return with a fresh outlook on life and leadership. Nevertheless, the founder and CEO of procurement network Graphite Connect found his worldview challenged at every turn. 

For more than a century, amateur Western adventurers have been led up the Himalayan peaks by highly skilled and experienced Sherpas, who cover miles of terrain carrying equipment for their clients. While tourists view the climb as a bucket-list item, unmatched by almost any other challenge, Sherpas make these dangerous trips regularly. The work is often the only avenue for local people to escape poverty. 

Before the expedition, Smith had never found it hard to adjust to new cultures and experiences; much of his childhood was spent toggling between the US, Europe, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, South Africa–the list goes on. “Utah is its own little bubble, so my parents took me and my siblings out of it,” he says. “I think I’ve been to roughly 50 countries around the world now.” 

Utah is its own little bubble, so my parents took me and my siblings out of it

Yet Nepal’s adventure tourism industry took him by surprise. “There are children and families working along the whole trail in different jobs, roles and capacities,” he continues. “As much as you see kids running around playing, you see kids working in the tea houses.” From the outside looking in, it would be easy to label this dynamic as exploitative. Here is where Smith’s first big revelation hit. 

Solutions require context

Problem-solving is an essential part of leadership. For the head of a successful international business headquartered in the US, the right solutions may be easy to land on at home. However, what solves a problem in one environment isn’t necessarily fit for purpose when a new cultural and social context is introduced. 

Sometime before making the decision to go to Base Camp, Smith met a former trekker purchasing conference in London who connected him with Bishnu Kumar Basnet. An orphan, Basnet had once been a child working on the route. Like many of his peers, he became a mountain porter. Having learned French and English while interacting with tourists, he grew his role managing a guiding company, later breaking off to start his own business in Nepal. 

“My Western mindset would have grabbed little Bishnu and put him in university,” Smith admits, believing this instinct to be misguided. Placing him on the same course that had set Smith and others up for success in the US would no doubt have led the young boy, now a resilient and entrepreneurial adult, down a different path - not necessarily for the better. “Our lives have all of these cool threads that make up who we are and what the world looks like to us. Bishnu’s journey is incredibly beautiful and important and the world would be worse off if he wasn’t who he is.”

It’s been decades since Basnet was a child working on the mountain, but the family dynamics on the trail remain largely the same. “When you see these families with young children working, you think: ‘Let me give them the car; let me give them a house and a new coat and new boots’. Some of those things might be very helpful. But some are just me projecting what I think happiness is and what I think happiness requires.” A better way, he adds, is to ask people what they really need before volunteering solutions that fit a narrow worldview. The same is true across cultural, industry-specific, and global contexts. 

Bringing a small business full circle

Smith makes his case clear: “Most people do good with the resources you give them.” Outsiders must trust that those in the thick of it know what’s best for them. 

On the Base Camp expedition, Basnet’s brother-in-law (a Sherpa) supported the group in what turned out to be one of the deadliest years on record for mountaineers on Everest. As the Sherpa trekked back to his family at the base of the trail near the starting village he became ill. Upon reaching home, he was rushed to a local hospital, where he died the next day. 

Most people do good with the resources you give them

Following this loss, Smith partnered with Basnet and other donors to provide resources to his widowed sister and family. The donkey project was born. 

The pair fundraised $8,000 to acquire 10 donkeys for Basnet’s loved ones. These donkeys will play a vital role in transporting essential goods between villages, ensuring a cash flow back to the family. “Half the revenue will go towards feeding them, caring for them and making sure their kids get an education,” Smith explains. “The other half will go into a fund that after five years can buy donkeys for another member of the community, bringing that family above the poverty line.” Crucially, the project aims to create circular and sustainable small businesses that will put funds back into community over years. 

Given the quick success of this effort, Smith and Basnet have reopened the fundraiser in hopes of purchasing a second team of donkeys to quickly accelerate the positive impact of the donkey business. 

Get outside the bubble

Smith acknowledges that most people won’t have the time or resources to head to the Himalayas. However, a big trip isn’t the only way to open the mind. “Our bubble isn’t our country or our city; it’s our life,” he says. “We surround ourselves with certain people, we don’t associate with others, we go to our church and our work and our town halls. We can get outside of that bubble where we are.” 

Often, this is harder to do at home because the bubble is reinforced by familiarity and routine; volunteering in a local food bank is arguably far less appealing than the expedition of a lifetime.  “When you get on an aeroplane and go to the other side of the world, you’re already out of it.” 

The link between gratitude and generosity is important. When individuals come face-to-face with problems that challenge their preconceived notions about how the world ought to function (or how problems ought to be solved), gratitude follows, and people are more inclined to give back. 

“At the core of all of this is a desire to be selfless, to be generous, to be kind,” Smith adds. “That does not require getting on an aeroplane.”

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