MBAs Trek to the End of the Earth

  1. An Expedition for Sight
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    An Expedition for Sight

    Iqaluit, Canada, is an unlikely spring break destination for a group of MBAs. It's cold, it's windy, the landscape is monotonous, and there isn't a corporate recruiter within a thousand-mile radius. Nonetheless, it's where Alan Lock and Andrew Jensen, both Berkeley MBAs, and Richard Smith, a Dartmouth MBA, found themselves for a week and a half at the end of March.

    While on the trip, the men spent five days on their own, traversing the Arctic Circle on skis, each pulling 130-pound sleds full of supplies behind them. They traveled about 10 miles a day, sleeping in frozen tents and cooking on portable stoves. It was primitive and exhausting, but it was necessary training for the challenge they will be undertaking later this year.

    Lock, Jensen, and Smith make up the core team of Polar Vision, a 501(c)3 nonprofit they founded to raise awareness for visual impairment, as well as funds for two sight charities, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Sightsavers International. In late November, they will fly to Chile and embark on a two-month expedition to the South Pole.

    It's an odd adventure for the newly minted MBAs, but it's very important to the group, especially Lock, who suffers from an eye condition called macular degeneration. "When I was diagnosed, the most beneficial experience I had was hearing from people who had overcome hurdles," Lock says. "The trek was a way to show that, despite the issues with my eyesight, I can take on significant challenges and raise awareness at the same time."

    Because of family and job commitments, the team figured the months immediately following B-school would probably be the only time they would have the flexibility to take on such an adventure. "It was now or never," Lock says.

    In preparation for the journey, they have been required to call on many of the principles they learned while in business school: marketing, entrepreneurship, logistics, and teamwork, to name a few. They've incorporated the business, raised money, and marketed their company to potential investors. "I like to call it an entrepreneurial nonprofit media startup," Jensen says.

    And, like any startup, success is far from given. "You pour in an horrendous amount of time and effort," Lock says, "and there's no guarantee of a certain result."

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    The Polar Vision team, from right to left: Andrew Jensen, Alan Lock, and Richard Smith, with Garrick Hileman

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision

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  2. A Change of Plans
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    A Change of Plans

    For Lock, plans for the future never included an MBA. The Somerset, U.K., native had been training for a career as an engineer and officer in the British Royal Navy. That changed in December 2003 on the bridge of the HMS York when he started having trouble reading the navigational charts. A few weeks later he was forced to resign his military post after being diagnosed with a form of macular degeneration, an incurable condition that is the leading cause of blindness in elderly adults, but is extremely rare for someone in his 20s. "I was told I was going to lose my eyesight to the point where I was going to be visually impaired," Lock says. "There are no treatments to correct it or stop it from getting worse. I was devastated."

    The decline in Lock's vision occurred quickly. In the span of six weeks he went from thinking something might be wrong and being able to drive, to not being able to read. Lock compares it to looking through a frosted glass or someone else's glasses. "I could tell there were things on the page, I just couldn't see what," he says.

    Today, Lock's peripheral vision is mostly intact, but he has lost his central vision. "Anything at a distance or that requires detail work is virtually impossible to see," he says. Because of this he was forced to give up many of the things he loved most: driving, mountain biking, playing football with his mates, and the military career he had dreamed of.

    After he left the Royal Navy, the biggest question was how was he going to support himself. He always assumed that if anything happened to him in the military, he would be able to get his pilot's license or become an engineer. But because of his vision impairment, those options were off the table. "I asked myself what I could do with the skills I had as an officer, specifically leading teams and problem solving," he says. He eventually landed a job as an investment banking analyst with HSBC in London.

    During his three years at HSBC, Lock got his first taste of fundraising when he spearheaded an initiative to raise money by rowing nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. For his efforts, Lock raised $80,000 in donations and also set a Guinness world record as the first visually impaired person to row the 3,000-mile route.

    In Lock's mind the 94-day Atlantic crossing served two purposes: "It was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could take on significant challenges, and to raise awareness of the sight issues and to support the charities who support people in similar situations."

    For most, the crossing would be the ultimate physical challenge, but for Lock it was only an appetizer for what was to come.

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    Alan Lock with the boat he rowed nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision

  3. Building the Team
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    Building the Team

    About six months after he completed the Atlantic row, Lock began to consider pursuing an MBA in the U.S. While he owed a great deal to HSBC for hiring him after his abrupt departure from the navy, and he enjoyed the work he was doing there, taking the position was a reactive move. It was time to make a fresh start. "This was a chance for me to make my own decision, going out there and getting the experience necessary to carve out a career that I actually wanted to do," Lock says.

    The sectors that Lock was targeting were technology and energy. "Dealing with non-tangible items, financial products, that was hard to rationalize with what I had done in the past," Lock says. "I wanted to work in a field where there was at least a link to something tangible."

    As he attended various information sessions by U.S. B-schools held in London, he met Richard Smith, a banker and extreme sports enthusiast, who was also interested in pursuing an MBA in the U.S. The two waded through the MBA admissions process together, spending evenings at the local pub and eventually critiquing each other's admissions essays. In his essay, Smith talked about running marathons. Lock talked about recovering from losing his sight and rowing across the Atlantic. "It made me very worried about my business school chances," Smith jokes. "I was like, 'Wow, who is this guy?' We became close friends through the process."

    Prior to leaving for business school, Lock told Smith about the next challenge he wanted to pursue: an expedition to the South Pole. Lock asked whether Smith would be interested in joining him. "I said, 'Of course.' I was so inspired by what Alan had done, and continues to do, so to be a part of that in any way is wonderful," Smith says. "It's wonderful to be able to support Alan."

    In the fall of 2009, Lock started at Berkeley's Haas School of Business and Smith at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. In his first few months at B-school, Lock was introduced to Andrew Jensen, a fellow first-year MBA with a similar background. Before enrolling at Haas, Jensen had spent nearly a decade in the military, first attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and then joining the famous 101st Airborne Division. ("I served in the same batallion as Band of Brothers," Jensen notes.) He spent two years as a rifle platoon leader in Iraq and another year as an operations officer in Afghanistan.

    In his time overseas, Jensen encountered fellow soldiers dealing with eyesight-related combat injuries, so he felt some connection to what Lock was dealing with. On top of this, Jensen was an endurance athlete, with experience running both 50-mile ultra marathons and a 100-mile race. "Alan told me about the expedition and it floored me," Jensen says. "I felt like I was in a unique position to help."

    The Polar Vision team was set.

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    Richard Smith, left, and Andrew Jensen both jumped at the chance to join the Polar Vision team

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision

  4. What We Learned in B-School
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    What We Learned in B-School

    Lock, Jensen, and Smith quickly discovered the benefits of being at B-school while trying to get Polar Vision off the ground.

    Initially, Lock had approached potential sponsor companies with an offer of a spot on his parka—think a Nascar driver's fire suit—in exchange for monetary support. "I assumed that any company would love to have their logo on a jacket," Lock says. This didn't turn out to be the case. "In retrospect, it was a naïve approach," he says.

    So he called on Lynn Upshaw, a marketing guru who also happened to be teaching Lock's strategic brand management course, for advice. Upshaw explained to Lock that the team was approaching sponsorship all wrong. "I told him that, especially in an economy like this, you've got to be an extension of the company's marketing program," Upshaw says. "You don't want to make a commercial for the company, per se, but if you want their involvement you're going to have to explain to them how it's valuable."

    They took Upshaw's advice and approached Cisco Systems (CSCO), maker of the Flip video camera. "We explained to them that this would be an opportunity to distinguish the Flip from a cell phone camera," Lock says. "Our pitch was 'If you want something small and robust that you can use outdoors to capture some pretty spectacular memories, this is what you're going to want to use.' " The tactic worked. "We were in discussion about them backing us in a big way and actually adapting one of their cameras to send info over a satellite," Lock says. Unfortunately, in mid-April, Cisco discontinued the Flip brand.

    Around the same time, the team learned that before they could raise funds they needed to be a registered 501(c)3 organization. Jensen took on the challenge.

    Through a program called the Berkeley Law New Business Counseling Practicum, he was paired with two Berkeley law students who helped walk him through much of the legalese required to start a company. Jensen filed the required paperwork and the certification was granted a few months later. "Having that made it a lot easier to approach companies," Jensen says. "They wanted to make sure we weren't a bunch of nut jobs. I'm not saying having the certification proved that or not, but it certainly helped."

    Once they had the official nonprofit status, Smith scored the first big donations for Polar Vision thanks to the support of the Tuck community.

    Each year, one Tuck MBA is invited to speak about his or her experiences at Tuck at the school's board of trustees meeting. Smith was chosen from his class and he took the opportunity to talk about Polar Vision. Immediately after his presentation, Smith had alumni approaching him wanting to help. Within two months of his presentation, Smith had raised $100,000. "The generosity was very humbling," Smith says. "You go into Tuck being told about the strength of the alumni network, but when you see it in action, it's breathtaking."

    The group was also able to relate pieces of the trek to what they were learning in class.

    In operations, for instance, after looking at how a production line operates in a business, the team created a similar framework for the expedition. For each element of the journey, they looked at what the assets were and what the restraining factors may be. "From that we mitigated a lot of issues," Lock says. "We're not going in with an overly ambitious target of mileage per day and we've hopefully got some contingency built in for what could potentially go wrong."

    Leadership and team building training also proved useful. "We all need to be leaders on the ice," Smith says. "There are so many opportunities for us to get short and snippy, we all need to be on high alert to make sure what we're saying is being perceived in the right way. It's about personal leadership and how we interact with each other, the same things I learned at Tuck."

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    Lynn Upshaw, who teaches strategic brand management at Haas, advised the Polar Vision team on how to approach potential sponsors.

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision

  5. Face to Face
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    Face to Face

    In their various MBA courses, Lock, Smith, and Jensen read countless business cases that featured people who'd started a business thinking they could do a lot on their own without researching existing businesses in the industry or how specific processes worked. More times than not, the business failed. This wasn't a mistake the Polar Vision team wanted to make. So for spring break 2011 they headed to the Arctic Circle to replicate the experience they would encounter in Antarctica.

    After months of conducting virtual meetings via Skype and e-mail, the team was together in the same place for the first time. Landing in northern Canada erased any doubt about the polar expedition. "Being there, being in the cold, using the equipment, training with people who had been down there before, you started to realize this is really going to happen," Lock says.

    For Smith, there were a number of questions going into the training trip. How are we going to get along as a team? How am I going to cope on the ice? Am I going to absolutely hate this? "It was quite nerve wracking," he says. But his concerns turned out to be unfounded. "I was so impressed with how the team jelled so quickly," Smith says. "We all recognized the importance of getting it right, not only as a team, but also on the ice and doing the right thing by each other, because we really are each other's life support."

    While in Canada, each member's role within the team took shape. "Alan is very much the driving force when we're off the ice," Smith says, "but when we're on the ice, we found that Andrew fits very well into the leadership role. It speaks to his military background." And Smith, Lock says, is the voice of reason. "Rich is the guy who will slow us down, have us step back, and look at what our priorities are."

    A typical day on the Canada trek—and what they expect to encounter in Antarctica—was fairly routine. They traversed the ice on modified cross-country skis, traveling about 10 nautical miles a day in two-mile increments. Behind them they each pulled a 130-pound sled, called a pulk, which held their food, tents, stoves, and other gear. It was more than the pulks in Antarctica will weigh, but as their trainer in Canada told them, "Train hard, fight easy," as she piled bags of dry dog food into their sleds.

    They each wore layer upon layer of clothing, as any skin exposed to the -50 degrees Celsius temperatures will freeze in 30 seconds. "The extreme cold taught us things we wouldn't have been able to learn anywhere else," Jensen says. "For instance, you've never seen a Clif bar frozen. It's like a brick … a Clif popsicle."

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    The route the Polar Vision team took while training in the Arctic Circle, starting and ending in Iqaluit, Canada

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision

  6. Into the Great White North
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    Into the Great White North

    As the Polar Vision team moved across the frozen terrain, they each had an iPod to listen to music or audiobooks, anything to keep their mind off the time. "One of your biggest enemies out there is boredom," Lock says. "Nothing really changes, so you try to amuse yourself with whatever you can."

    When it was time to stop for the day, they set up their tents and stoves, gathered surface ice for water, and began to recover from the day's journey. "Once you get in the tent, all you want is food and rest, but you've got to be extremely disciplined, taking care of blisters, ripped seams," Lock says. "You don't want to set up the dominoes."

    During the night the tents would freeze. "You wake up with a circle of frost under your face like a bib," Jensen says. "The top of the tent is frozen to the point where it's actually snowing inside."

    Apart from the challenges presented by the cold, the team also had Lock's vision impairment to consider. "No one wants me doing the stove," Lock jokes. "I've got to be ultra disciplined so I don't make any mistakes. There can be times when I physically can't do things. I had to find things I could do, even if they were less glamorous." Most times, that meant Lock was outside the tent shoveling snow.

    The terrain also posed a challenge. The ground was not completely flat and there were frozen waves and crevasses to navigate. Because Lock couldn't see most of the obstacles, he had to rely on Jensen and Smith to alert him to what was coming. "It's not difficult if you know where the next wave is going to be, but Alan doesn't," Jensen says. "So we put someone in front of him and someone behind him. That's how we got through."

    At times it was frustrating for Lock. "Not being able to see what the next stroke of the ski is going to bring is a challenge," he says. "I had to rely on someone else to help me over an obstacle, but you can't beat yourself up for being a drag down for the team."

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    Andrew Jensen packs up his sled with camping gear after spending the night on the ice in the Arctic Circle

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision

  7. Preparing for the Expedition
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    Preparing for the Expedition

    When they graduated in May, Lock and Jensen were selected by their classmates to give the student address at commencement. In the speech they weaved together their two years at Haas and the development of Polar Vision. "Despite the challenges, uncertainties, and hard work (the Polar Vision team) faced on this particular journey, we finished it with a lifelong connection, a deep friendship, and a knowledge that this experience brought us together. And for me, and I am sure for all of you too, this is an exact reflection of our experience at Haas," Lock told the group.

    Since then, all three have started full-time jobs: Lock at British Telecom (BT) in London as a strategy specialist; Jensen as a general management apprentice at Fidelity Investments in Rhode Island; and Smith as a consultant at Bain & Co. in Boston. Each has been granted unpaid leave to take on the expedition. "I'm (Bain's) poster boy for work-life balance," Smith says.

    In the two months the team has before leaving for the South Pole, they will be training to build body mass as well as endurance. To replicate pulling the sled behind them, each has bought a large harness with which they drag tires. "It's fairly ridiculous," Jensen says. "People always want to know where your car is."

    Lock, Jensen, and Smith also continue to raise funds as their departure date approaches. With contributions from companies like ArcLight Capital Partners, Marmot, and Northern States Metals, Polar Vision raised the $150,000 necessary to make the trek. They have now moved on to the charitable fundraising portion, where all money raised will go directly to the two charities they are supporting. That makes the "ask for sponsorship" easier, Lock says. "Once that was covered we could go out to the wider world and say, 'Hey, we're going to the Pole, we're pre-funded. If you donate to us, 100 percent of what you give will be going to sight-related projects.' " The team will depart for Chile on Nov. 22 and fly to Antarctica as soon as the weather allows. They estimate the 600-mile journey will take about two months, but it could take longer depending on the weather conditions. Joining them on the expedition will be Hannah McKeand, a polar field guide who holds the record for the fastest solo trek to the South Pole.

    When the team reaches the Pole, Lock will earn another Guinness record as the first visually impaired person to make the trek. While they can't prepare for everything they might encounter on their journey, they are confident in the strength of their team.

    "We're trying to be cautious," Jensen says. "We can do the best planning in the world, but there will be things you can't plan for. Stoves are going to blow up. Clothes are going to rip. Skis are going to break. We have good tents, we have good equipment. Those will help you survive, but what makes it bearable are the people with you. If you aren't drawing strength from the people around you, you aren't going to make it. This is a strong team, and because of that, I think we're going to be just fine."

    While on the expedition, the team will be writing periodic dispatches for Businessweek.com to update readers on the progress of their journey and the challenges they are facing.

    Lock, forefront, and Jensen were selected by their classmates to deliver the student address at the Haas commencement ceremony in May

    Photo courtesy of Polar Vision