I'm a tech exec who hiked Mt. Everest to help refugees — and it taught me what it really takes to be successful

Elena KvochkoElena Kvochko is a CIO specializing in computer security for a financial services company and is a well-known expert in cyber security.

I immigrated to the US nearly a decade ago to complete my graduate studies after studying and working in Europe and my original country of Russia. I soon fell in love with the US and made it my permanent home.

The opportunities here for my line of work, technology and information security, have been amazing. I also found the US to have the most inspiring people and culture. Anyone, regardless, of who who they are or where they come from has a chance at their dreams.

That’s not true for everyone in the world. Despite all the positive developments in our economy and the many challenges we have solved as a global community, we still bear witness to inequality, lack of hope and tendency to resist change.

Elena Mt Everest 06Still, I have to admit, working in a growing industry makes it easier to forget what might be happening in other parts of the world. I kept feeling like maybe there was some bigger way to contribute.

Then I was introduced to Refugees International, a DC-based non-profit that helps identify the needs of displaced people to bring them protection and assistance. I decided to take on a big challenge to help raise awareness for this organization and their life-saving work.

And that's how I found myself signing on for an expedition to hike in the Mt. Everest region, up to 18,000 feet. It wasn't a summit expedition. I’m not a mountain climber and I live in New York, at sea level. But the lessons I learned from this experience have forever changed how I think about my life, what it means to be successful and how to accomplish any goal. 

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Ascending to over 18,000 feet wasn’t something I had done before. And I'm not a fan of heights or cold weather. I was hoping by picking something that was hard for me, I would inspire at least some of my friends to challenge themselves and contribute to the causes they care about.

I was nowhere near physically ready. As advised by friends, I trained for the lack of oxygen at over 18,000 feet by strapping on an altitude training mask and climbing 60 floors of stairs in an office building, up and down, while wearing a backpack. It was hard work. It was hard to breathe and there were many days when I didn't think I could finish. But I did. I also did step classes, indoor climbing and a practice ice climb.

After 6 months of training, I finally arrived in Lukla, Nepal.

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