Leadership in Action: Vanessa O’Brien

Vanessa was the Managing Director of a financial service consultancy focused on developing market entry strategies, building strategic alliances and purchasing credit portfolios until the global recession hit in 2009. The unfavorable business environment led her to re-evaluate her short-term goals while a chance encounter and twist of fate led her towards the goal of summiting Mt Everest – despite her never having walked in a pair of crampons, worn a harness or put on a helmet.

In learning the complex sport of alpine climbing, Vanessa discovered a number of common themes that linked climbing with her former business career. Leadership, building team morale, commitment, courage, drive, determination, goal-orientation, utilizing (scarce) resources and leveraging team assets were as critical to the success of a mountaineering expedition as they were to fulfilling a strategic plan.  Vanessa succeeded in reaching the 29,035-foot summit of Mt Everest on May 19th, 2012.

She revised her goal in keeping in line with successful business practices to that of climbing the Seven Summits – reaching the top of the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents – and achieved a Guinness World Record for doing so in 295 days – the fastest time a woman had completed such an attempt in 2015.  Vanessa went on to ski the last degree of both the North and South Poles and climb four peaks over 8,000 meters (including Everest).

Vanessa then took on her biggest climbing task to date – to become the first American or British woman (she is a dual national) to successfully climb K2, located in Northern Pakistan.  K2 is the second tallest mountain in the world at 8,611 meters (28,251 feet), dubbed the Killer Mountain by Reinhold Messner, for its high frequency of death to summits.  She spent the last two seasons in the Karakoram where she advanced from camp 2 (2015) to camp 3 (2016) before avalanches effectively curtailed progress on the mountain.

Prior to running her own consulting practice, Vanessa held London-based positions as Director of Finance or Business Development for Bank of America’s credit card division, Barclays Bank and Morgan Stanley. Before leaving the United States she held senior roles in finance, strategic planning, and business development at Capital One and GE Capital.  Vanessa has an Executive MBA in Finance from the Stern School of Business at New York University.

What was your first encounter with Pakistan?

I first fell in love with Pakistan on a reconnaissance journey to K2, located about 65 miles from Skardu, in the Karakoram.  Northern Pakistan has some of the world’s most breathtaking ‘must-see’ landscapes, including the largest collection of ice anywhere outside of the North and South Pole regions as well as over 160 peaks greater than 7,000 meters (23,000 feet), with the majority of these peaks located in the Karakoram mountain range near Concordia.  This area represents the densest collection of the tallest and most precipitous peaks in the world – even more so than in the Himalayas.  Most are clearly visible from space.

But beyond the beautiful landscapes, I really fell in love with the people of Pakistan – all of which have long standing traditions, a fascinating culture, a brilliant sense of humor, and I made newfound friends who offered me a kind of hospitality I hadn’t quite experienced before.

Could you elaborate more on what you found interesting about the Pakistani culture?

Well, the Pakistani culture put family first, something refreshing to my ‘western eyes’.  I didn’t see too many tables for two; for example, tables were filled with families and large groups of friends. The Pakistan hospitality I experienced was sincere– not superficial; an invitation was a genuine invitation, not an obligation.  And the men I met in Islamabad and Skardu were all gracious and courteous to me.  In the larger cities I didn’t wear a head scarf and wasn’t looked at oddly – it was simply as if both men and women held the same strong beliefs that Muhammad Ali Jinnah used to believe – that there should be equal rights for all men, women and children irrespective of their religious faith or political views.  This surprised me, as this was not what the coverage of Pakistan in Western media had led me to expect.  At the same time, I love the shawar kameez dress for men and women, which works really well in warmer climates.  For women it is a longer shirt with a pant and a scarf and it has a whole lot of bling!

What impressions have you taken away from your time in Pakistan?

On the way back from K2, I gave a talk at a Youth Technology Conference organized by the Pakistani-US Alumni Network (PUAN).  I could see a young Pakistani girl struggling to get her question in so I finally over ruled the moderator and called her.  She said her teacher had told her that there were three types of people: Above Average, Average and Below Average and that clearly I was above average.  She wanted to know what I thought about that.  So I told her.

I told her that I liked one of those choices, but not the other two – which made everyone laugh.  But I wasn’t intending to be funny and I could tell she was still a bit confused.   So I told her I thought the fact that she was in that room, at that conference put her above average.  My Twitter account went crazy that day with so many quotes, so I knew I was at a technology conference.  But what I liked the most is that not one of them was planning to leave Pakistan!  This is not a country that will experience a ‘brain drain’.

I also participated in an outdoor rock-climbing day organized by the US Embassy in Islamabad where we invited local youth and took some girls (and boys) up a climbing wall in Islamabad. I have to tell you; having no climbing experience they were wonderful.  The teamwork they engaged in and the confidence they acquired  -just getting outside of their comfort zone was incredible to watch.  As well as how they attempted problem solving when they were stuck.

So I think Pakistan’s strength comes from its youth – 36% of its population is under 15 years of age, and it’s opportunity comes from educating the 20-30 million or so that are under the radar.

How do you see Pakistan’s future?

I think Pakistan’s future has lots of potential.  The country’s economy is growing at its fastest pace in seven years, the local currency is stable against the USD, and interest rates are at their lowest in 42 years.  That is all economic speak for ON THE RIGHT TRACK.  Pakistan is a country with a consumer base of 200 million people.  That’s an incredibly powerful market, hence why FMCG companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are rumored to have Pakistan as their fifth and sixth largest revenue generating markets.

So what would stop explosive growth?  Infrastructure, corruption and security related issues.  It really is that simple.  Companies need to be guaranteed a return on investment under a safe rule of law.

There are some unexpected bright lights, such as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), although I wish it didn’t involve coal, and I’m hopeful it will prove to be economically in Pakistan’s interest.

I’m optimistic about the adventure tourism and local tourism numbers. Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) Tourism Secretary Jehanzeb Awan recently commented on how tourism has skyrocketed in a recent article in Dawn. “For a few years, between 10,000 and 20,000 tourists would visit GB each year, but in 2015 over 600,000 people visited GB; and this year, it is expected that around one million people will travel to GB.”  Tourism generally peaks after Ramadan until mid August.

I understand you’re also a leader when it comes to women’s issues, what have you done or learned?

Well, it’s been interesting operating in two distinct fields; both highly dominated by men – finance and mountaineering.  I had a chance to opine about this at the Women Achievers Congress in London with the then British Home Secretary (now Prime Minister), Rt Hon Theresa May last November and at the Alaskan Women’s Summit with State Senator Lesil McGuire.  At these events I like to use mountaineering as a metaphor and what usually gets the biggest surprise is when I compare the percentage of women who climb Everest to those who are Fortune 500 (or FTSE 100) CEO’s.

And yes, the percentage of women who have climbed Everest is higher at 6.0% than women in Fortune 500 CEO’s at 4.6% (FTSE 6.0%).  This demonstrates that for women, climbing to the top of the world is as hard as climbing to the top of a company.  Maybe we need to give women crampons!

And if we extrapolate a 22% wage gap in the USA, women will have to wait 42 years to reach pay parity – which would happen oh, by the year 2058.  That’s why I take the UN Women’s flag to the summit of K2 with me – and as hard as it has been to get that flag from camp 2 to camp 3, it is representative of how hard it has been for women to move the needle in basic equality – things like wage parity, basic education and health care, and no more violence and discrimination.  Furthermore, we must be represented in political and economic decision-making processes.

Women make excellent leaders in our fast-paced, digital world because they are able to communicate in an open and transparent way.  Women are able to admit mistakes and use collaborative behaviors to bring different people together to find solutions and show respect for different cultures and a willingness to work with different styles. Women are natural leaders who excel at endurance.

Why are you excited to join the Board of the APF?

I am excited to help support the APF Mission to developing lasting ties between the people of the United States and Pakistan, strengthening the American Pakistani diaspora, and stimulating development in Pakistan.

I am a big fan of education and believe we are always continuously learning as we take on new challenges.  I believe the APF is uniquely positioned at the apex of education, technology and philanthropy to deliver state of the art solutions to the 20 to 30 million children under-educated or not educated in Pakistan.  Furthermore, we want to educate the woman of Pakistan, 55% of females above the age of 15 are illiterate.  But beyond education we want to give them skills appropriate for their villages – whether this be teaching, nursing or tailoring.

Healthcare is another initiative that cannot be ignored.  Only 48% of the population has access to sanitation, and as a mountaineer I have seen the dramatic impact of droughts and floods on the various regions within the country.  We must address communicable diseases – indeed if Pakistan if one of the three remaining countries with endemic polio and the sixth highest burden of tuberculosis – that must be addressed with urgency.  Malnutrition, diarrhea, acute respiratory illness and other diseases with are preventable through vaccines is something we should not be talking about one year from now.

Beyond education and healthcare (and women) is developing ties between nations and spreading the word about what the Pakistan is and what it is not.  So many Westerners I meet do not understand Pakistan.  They assume it is an Arab country and not Indo-Aryan.  There is a brilliant Pakistani comedian who talks about this on Buzz feed, by referring to categories of ‘brown’ like Hispanics or Indians from India vs Native American.  The press is tough and only report on the negative but luckily there hasn’t been a lot of negative to report.

I also look forward to working with the Pakistani Diaspora to integrate into the United States and also to build a bridge between the work the APF is doing and the best practices of those by other organizations such as the World Congress of Overseas Pakistani (WCOP).  There is a lot to do but everyone is really excited about the future.

Thank you.