21 Jan 2014

Climbing to New Heights

After scaling the Seven Summits, Jan Petzel (MBA 2003) is helping to improve conditions for climbers' guides in Nepal.
Re: Lisa Lee (MBA 2000)
by Robert S. Benchley


Photo courtesy of Jan Petzel

When Jan Petzel (MBA 2003) began his descent from the peak of Mt. Everest on May 13, 2013, each triumphant step marked the completion of three goals that had their origin during a presentation at HBS by Goldman Sachs in 2002.

"The recruiting talk was given by a woman who had climbed Everest," he recalls. "She drew a lot of parallels to business, including team effort and setting goals."

Analytical and methodical by nature, and a mechanical engineer by training, Petzel began thinking about making his own assault on Everest, which at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) is the world's tallest mountain. That idea grew into the challenge, well known among serious mountaineers (including a number of HBS alumni), of also climbing the rest of the famed "Seven Summits"—the tallest mountain on each of the earth's seven continents. (On his first summits climb, Mt. Kilimanjaro, in 2004, Petzel's climbing party included Lisa Lee, MBA 2000.) The third goal was to use the Everest climb to raise money that would help fund the construction of a permanent shelter and medical facility for the porters who assist the climbing expeditions in the Gokyu Lakes region of Nepal.

In reaching Everest's summit, Petzel had achieved all three goals, two months to the day before his 40th birthday.

"It helps if you're a Type-A personality, because of the level of perseverance required," he says. "What I enjoy most is gaining a new perspective on 'normal' life. You come back more appreciative of warmth, shelter, a shower—all those things you generally take for granted."

But, Petzel adds, he also feels an obligation to give back. Based in London, where he works for Goldman Sachs, he became acquainted with Community Action Nepal (CAN), a charity dedicated to helping the people of Nepal, who are some of the poorest in the world. CAN was founded by Doug Scott, who in 1975 made the first British ascent of Everest. Petzel met Scott at a Royal Geographic Society event and was inspired to assist the cause. For several years, he made personal donations, but when planning the Everest ascent, he committed to raising £10,000, 20 percent of the cost of the planned shelter. To date, Petzel has raised £6,000; he hopes matching funds from Goldman Sachs will allow him to go over the top.

"The work the porters do is incredibly hard," says Petzel. "The average load is 60 pounds per person. Many places have no roads and no shelters, and the porters often sleep outside or in communal rooms on benches. The Gokyu Lakes shelter will be CAN's third, providing the porters with both a protective resting place and medical services."

The perseverance that Petzel found necessary to achieve his Seven Summits goal is also what ultimately drove him to both HBS and Goldman Sachs. Born in Frankfurt and raised outside of New York City, he earned degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Stuttgart and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Four years of consulting at McKinsey let him put his engineering education to work on large projects, but the experience also demonstrated the need for a formal business education to advance his career.

"The HBS story really began when I spent a year at MIT as a visiting scholar, writing the thesis for my master's degree," says Petzel. "I was already toying with the idea of an MBA, and I was allowed to sit in on classes at MIT's Sloan School and at HBS. I found the atmosphere at Harvard totally different; I much preferred the interactive style."

Petzel wasn't admitted to HBS on his first try, so he spent another year at McKinsey and applied again. "I think what sealed the deal was that I was invited for an interview. I was working in Singapore at the time, so I flew to Cambridge. The initial question in any interview is always, 'How are you today?' I said, 'I'm tired. I just flew for 16 hours to be here.' I think it showed the right level of conviction."

A summer internship at Goldman Sachs resulted in a job offer. But when Petzel learned of an opening in another division that appealed to him more, he turned down the first offer and had to reapply. It took 15 interviews for him to successfully make the internal move, but his perseverance paid off once again.

Today, Petzel works in London at a comfortable altitude—24 meters (79 feet)—as a managing director in the firm's Merchant Banking Division, one of four divisions that put capital to work. "I invest Goldman's money and investors' money," he says. "I focus on European investments—sourcing, evaluating, and managing opportunities to create value for our investors."

Petzel also claims that his climbing days are over. "After I finished the Everest climb, I gave away most of my gear to the porters," he says. "My wife and parents were very happy to see me do that. I have no further ambition to climb the other 13 8,000-meter peaks." Then, with a laugh: "Perhaps some smaller hills."

Editor's note: To donate to Jan Petzel's porter-shelter fund-raising effort, visit www.justgiving.com/janeverest.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2003, Section G

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