October 31, 2010 10:17 pm

To the South Pole, with sled and MBA

 

Limbering up: left to right, Andrew Jensen, Alan Lock and Richard Smith in training for their trek

Alan Lock ruminates on his physical training ahead. “The time-honoured tradition is you put a harness on and pull big tractor tyres behind you walking around a park,” explains the second-year MBA student at the Haas School of Business.

A strange approach to training, perhaps, unless, of course, like Mr Lock, you intend to pull a sled across the snow for 650 miles for about two months.

While his peers at the University of California, Berkeley school, may be using their free time to start a business, Mr Lock, 30, and the four other members of his Polar Vision team are pursuing a different kind of entrepreneurial project: going to the ends of the earth for a good cause.

Mr Lock – along with fellow Briton Richard Smith, who is a second year MBA student at Tuck School of Business, American Andrew Jensen, another Haas MBA student, experienced polar explorer Andrew Cooney and mountaineer Garrick Hileman, who has an MBA from IMD – are planning a charity trek to the South Pole in 2011-12.

Their expedition will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the original race to the South Pole between explorers Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen.

Over the coming months, the team will have professional polar training, where they will be taught everything from how to negotiate a crevasse to living in an environment where even briefly removing a glove risks frostbite. Late next year, the British-American team plans to walk from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole, towing sleds with their supplies in a journey estimated to take between 55 and 70 days.

Only about 100 people – 10 times fewer than have reached the summit of Mount Everest – have completed the treacherous trek on foot before.

Although the trek is more than a year away, as Mr Lock puts it, arguably the biggest challenge is “actually getting to the start line”. Unsurprisingly, the MBA students are hard at work tapping every vein of their MBA experience to meet their deadline.

“To be honest, I don’t think we could be doing this were it not for our MBA programmes,” says Mr Smith, stressing how valuable their MBA education is proving in preparation for the expedition (see sidebar).

The team’s formidable bottom line is that they need to raise about $480,000 of company sponsorship in cash and donations to cover the cost of their expedition and polar training, all the while completing their studies, maintaining their fitness and ideally finding employers happy to work around their unconventional post-MBA plans.

Finding the sponsors is the hardest, says Mr Lock. But once they do so, they can get on with the job of public fundraising. “We want to say to the public: ‘If you give us $10, it goes straight to the charity, not half of it will go and pay for a ski’,” he says. They have a well-pitched spiel to give companies, offering to work with them to customise sponsorship to help meet company goals.

The journey is intended to inspire blind and partially sighted people and raise awareness and funds for two sight-related charities. Mr Lock is partially blind, having been diagnosed six years ago with an incurable and progressive form of early-onset macular degeneration.

It will make the trek, already gruelling, harder still. Mr Lock will be un­able either to see the terrain or navigate and his eyes are especially sensitive to bright light. But, if successful, the expedition will earn him a world record for being the first registered visually impaired person to have completed such a feat.

The project is not as ill-conceived as it would first seem, says Mr Lock, who came up with the idea during his first term at Haas.

All the team have a penchant for extreme endurance sports. Three, including Mr Lock, have military backgrounds. Mr Lock served as a submarine engineering officer in the British Royal Navy before his career was cut short by his failing eyesight and he moved into the banking sector.

Since his diagnosis, Mr Lock has rowed across the Atlantic in aid of another sight-related charity. Once he has completed the trek, he plans to use his MBA to move into clean technology.

So far, the students have managed to leverage their business schools’ press offices to help drum up publicity and convinced Berkeley student lawyers to help get Polar Vision designated as an official non-profit organisation (the application is filed and success is expected shortly).

“Our entrepreneurship course emphasises that when creating a new organisation, you need the correct legal structure,” says Mr Jensen.

The student members of the team are confident that putting their coursework into practice with Polar Vision will be looked on favourably by future employers.

As to balancing the project alongside their MBA studies, all three admit that it can be tough. The challenge is not so much keeping physically fit but in the seemingly endless other tasks; from researching potential sponsors and writing to them to compiling presentations.

Mr Lock says that after a hard day on campus, focusing on Polar Vision can be “the last thing” you want to do. However, he is not one to be daunted by the task and is adamant that in little more than a year’s time he will be in Antarctica, striding out for the South Pole.

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