May 2019: Ellen Brown Lapham '61

From leading companies to mountain expeditions, Ellen Brown Lapham ’61 doesn’t shy away from challenges. “Be self-reliant” but also “build your team wisely, as they are your lifeline” are lessons learned on Everest that also apply to Ellen’s work as a CEO and serial entrepreneur at a time when there were few women leading companies. Now a tireless advocate for environmental organizations, Ellen is committed to bringing together stakeholders—such as scientists and climbers through the American Climber Science Program and land managers from around the globe through the Sustainable Summits Initiative—to share the knowledge required for successful conservation work. Read on to learn more about this second-generation Laurel alumna (her mother and three aunts were also graduates!) who has taken the risk-taking skills learned at Lyman Circle and used them to better the world.

Why did you/your family choose Laurel? What makes a Laurel education distinct?
In the era when I was a student (the late ‘50s and early ‘60s), many girls were raised to become helpmates. Boys in my public school classes were mean to studious girls like me. I came to Laurel in Eighth Grade and it was my lifeline—a place where I was free to work hard, be outspoken and take risks. And I made wonderful friends! The launch of Sputnik in 1957 changed my life perspective. I saw technology and engineering as the great forward opportunity, despite the fact that at the time Laurel did not offer a technology or engineering track foundation. Today I applaud Laurel for its work in STEM/STEAM!
 
What were your favorite classes and/or who were your favorite teachers at Laurel?
I loved math and was fortunate to be one of five girls in my class who took an advanced course our Senior year. Game theory was great! Trigonometry was practical as I later worked on designing tooling for high volume manufacturing. However, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Jordan, taught English. Her sincere encouragement meant a lot to me, as I sometimes felt like a fish out of water as a teenager.
 
You earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Syracuse University and a MBA from Stanford University before becoming a serial entrepreneur, leading venture-funded companies in transition and turnaround. Did you face any challenges as a female entrepreneur? Do you have any advice for others interested in starting/leading a company?
I faced challenges daily. I started in computers at a time when, at huge national industry conferences, I had the women’s bathroom all to myself. Being alone—but not lonely—meant that I had to represent all women. I think the biggest ongoing challenge was, and still is, being underestimated and undervalued because of gender. Getting financing and raising millions of dollars was harder for us women. Some may even recall the era when a woman could not get a home purchase loan.

My advice is to pick your team with care. Be willing to be tough, not just on yourself but on those who report to you or are your peers. As you can’t do it all at once (there is that balance problem), make sure you have a “NO” list and stick to it. My one enduring question when leading companies was “How can I clone myself?”
 
With a particular interest in technology, you have advised groundbreaking computer companies, including a very young Apple Computer, on PR and market strategy. Since the 1970/80s, what would you say has been the biggest change in how technology is marketed? Any predictions for major changes in the next decade?
“Tech” has gone from being an arcane industrial tool to becoming an everyday consumer tool. It is ubiquitous. In 1979, I gave my 10-year-old son, Dennis, an early Apple II computer, asking him to figure out the complex operating system, as I was too busy to do it myself. Which he did. Fast forward to 2019: three-year-olds (my grandkids) are adept at their elders’ iPhones and video game controllers, largely self-taught. So one big and important change over time has been the evolution of “tech” into being a creative learning medium, not just a means for typing an essay.

As for major changes, we could see an explosion of Luddite thinking as personal security and surveillance issues expand. If I were marketing computers in the coming decade, I would develop methods to insure privacy. Blockchain, to me, has interesting potential.

I also want to note that I am a strong advocate for getting every kid outdoors. I hope that the next generation doesn’t have too much screen time and that kids are still being active and exploring the natural world.
 
You’ve found an impressive balance between your professional and personal passions and are extremely involved in the climbing community. What led you to start climbing? What draws you to those types of challenges?
Balance? I have never felt that I was in balance. As an entrepreneur/CEO I had to be 100% committed to my team and our objectives. This left me scarce time or headspace for climbing at a high level. But then, when climbing, I am 100% focused on that practice.

I started climbing tall trees in our backyard when I was 6- or 7-years-old and never stopped looking up. It felt natural and I loved the feeling of accomplishment that was measurable (going higher, or faster, or with more grace.) I am a compulsive timer—my watch is a stopwatch and my GPS on my bike gives me data on how I am doing. I had no role models or mentoring for any of the vertical until I went to Colorado in 1975. Our Ohio family was horizontal: baseball, sailing, swimming.
 
Congratulations on receiving the 2018 Angelo Heilprin Citation from the American Alpine Club in recognition of your "exemplary service…to maintain and strengthen the organization." Can you share the mission of the American Alpine Club (AAC) and your involvement with it?
“Established in 1902 by the nation's leading climbers and conservationists, The American Alpine Club promotes and preserves the climbing way of life. The Mission Statement reads: ‘We provide knowledge and inspiration, conservation and advocacy, and logistical support for the climbing community.’" (From the AAC website)

As a volunteer, I chaired our regional section (1,500 members across three states) for two terms, then joined the Board of Directors for two terms as the Club was building its capacity to grow and expand its important safety/educational agenda. As a director, I focused on governance issues, chaired the Conservation Committee and later received the AAC’s Brower Award for Conservation Leadership. Today, I am a member of the Club’s Advisory Council, still advocating for visionary work to save the climbing areas we love.
 
In the 1980s, you climbed on two Mount Everest north-side expeditions. How do you manage fear and the risk of danger in remote locations? Are there any lessons learned in the mountains that have translated to changes in your life back home?
Like the subject of the documentary Free Solo, climber Alex Honnold, I am aware of risk yet I don’t feel fear when climbing. The focus required to climb lets me use all my skills in the present moment. I will add, however, that I am conservative in my solo backcountry skiing as I am all too aware of avalanche dangers.

Observations: These apply to being an entrepreneur and CEO for hire.
1. Be self-reliant and ready for any issue that may arise. When I was part of a team that attempted to put an American woman on the summit, we had to be self-reliant and able to take care of any calamity: avalanches, injuries, health problems, bad weather, heated arguments and more—all unforeseen but not unexpected.
2. Build your team wisely, as they are your lifeline.
 
With the explosion of climbing’s popularity do you worry at all about the degradation of our natural resources and beloved parks? Can you talk a little about the Sustainable Summits Initiative?
We face two underlying challenges in our mountain ranges worldwide: climate change and overcrowding. I co-founded the Sustainable Summits Initiative to share what has worked with land managers around the globe. In 2010, we started with a three-day conference on human waste in Colorado—alas, it is still a major problem today despite progress. We then presented a broader agenda in New Zealand and Chamonix, France. In June 2020, we will be in Kathmandu, Nepal, as the Nepali leaders focus on challenges in the high Himalayas, where (as with the Alps and the Andes) warming has altered the seasons, the timing of water supplies and the mass of glaciers. A key objective of our work is building a community of practice that will continue long after our conferences, again sharing that which works.
 
You also co-founded the American Climber Science Program (ACSP), a nonprofit that brings together climbers and scientists to facilitate field data collection opportunities in remote mountain regions that are difficult to access. What has been the greatest success and biggest challenge in bringing climbers and scientists together?
As I write this, we have a team on Everest and Lhotse in Nepal working with Tribhuvan University students and scientists. I think our greatest successes are two:
1) The collegial relationships we’ve built in Peru and Nepal. I firmly believe that with good data and local leadership countries can adapt to the significant changes we “climber scientists” are documenting around climate change and human impact. The most moving question I have heard in our now nine years in the field came from a Peruvian farmer in the Cordillera Blanca who, with great emotion in his voice, implored us “experts,” “When should I plant? When can I harvest?”
2) The establishment of MERI: the Mountain Environments Research Institute at Western Washington University. MERI’s focus is “training the next generation of field researchers and environmentalists.”

Two major challenges have been:
1) Funding. We founded ACSP as self-funded volunteers doing peer-review caliber fieldwork on very tight budgets. To pay bills in the first year we had to sell a lot of our team climbing gear. That forces us to be continually inventive about ways to gather data and analyze samples. Our work on black carbon deposition on glaciers (that accelerates melt rate) is now being carried out around the globe because we came up with simple solutions.
2) Building Trust. Too often NGOs and volunteers “helicopter” into a country or place. We heard many tales of western researchers not sharing their data/results with local scientists. It took years for people in Peru to believe that we would not only return, but that we would consider them equal partners.
 
What other organizations are you involved with?
I am involved with the International Women’s Forum (national program mentor to exceptional young women athletes transitioning from sport to a new career), the Piper group (a special set of entrepreneurial women friends from the Committee of 200), the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (founding advisory board), Stanford Graduate School of Business (fundraising) and local mountain bike groups (for trail advocacy). I also advise and support NGOs that deal with issues of environmental education and social justice.
 
On a typical weekend, where would we find you?
It depends! In Colorado, I would probably be climbing or mountain biking and then sharing adventure stories with my husband and fellow climber, Jim McCarthy. In San Francisco, I enjoy the theatre and dinner with close friends. On my farm in northern California, you’d likely find me working in the orchard.
 
If you could have one superpower what would it be? 
The ability to see into the future, with the wisdom to know what to do with that vision.
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