Peak interest: How Megan McDonald’s career decisions led her to Mount Everest
As manager of expedition fundraising with the True Patriot Love Foundation (TPL), Megan McDonald’s job takes her to some unusual places – like 17,598 feet up the world’s highest mountain. Back in Toronto following her most recent expedition, she shares details from the exhilarating experience, and the path that led her there.
By Hailey Eisen
Climbing is often used as a metaphor to describe the path to career success. But when Megan McDonald says she climbs mountains as part of her job, she literally means it. As manager of expedition fundraising with the True Patriot Love Foundation (TPL), Megan’s work involves strategy, fundraising, recruitment — and adventure travel.
Having just returned from an expedition to Mount Everest that brought together a group of influential Canadian business leaders with ill or injured members of the Canadian Armed Forces, Megan is still buzzing from the thrill of the experience.
Megan says the climb was especially tough mentally. The whole team climbed to Everest Base Camp but only a few went on to ascend the 20,000 ft. peak, Lobuche East. “Out of 21 in the group, only nine attempted the summit, and I was the only female in the group to make it to the top,” she says.
For Megan, it was a well-earned boost of confidence. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says, “but honestly you just had to take it one day at a time, one foot in front of the other.”
So how did Megan end up organizing expeditions around the world to raise funds to support veterans in their transition to civilian life?
After obtaining her undergraduate degree in sociology, and after a few years working for the Canadian Cancer Society, Megan decided to go back to school to get her MBA. “I really enjoyed that job, but I wanted more of an opportunity for growth,” she recalls. Having an interest in business strategy, she decided an MBA would help take her career to the next level.
“I thought I would get out of the not-for-profit world and was looking for more corporate experience through the MBA,” Megan explains. After giving it much thought, she left her job and moved to Kingston to complete the 12-month, full-time program at Smith School of Business. “It was a lot of work — a similar mental game to climbing that mountain. You had to double-down, and work like crazy to get through it.”
All that focus and hard-work paid off. Megan completed the program and came away with an extensive professional network and friends she says she’ll have for the rest of her life. “I really learned how to think differently, how to strategize, and how to attain balance when things got really hectic.”
Though she originally intended to move her career into the corporate world, Megan was offered a strategy role with the MS Society after graduating, and leapt at the opportunity to put her newly acquired skills to work in a field where she already felt comfortable.
“What’s really incredible is to watch the group dynamic unfold. Everyone is so vulnerable, going through the climb together, and there’s a lot of invaluable discussion that happens along the way.”
From there, she was headhunted by TPL — an organization she hadn’t heard of at the time, but was intrigued by. “As I came to learn more about the foundation, I felt aligned with their mission, goals, and values,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to move up and expand my experience and knowledge through fundraising, recruiting, and strategy.”
Founded in 2009, TPL provides funding for innovative research and community-based programs in support of military members, veterans and their families. The expeditions, which Megan calls “bucket list trips” are one example. These events bring together active military members, veterans and community leaders for a unique physical, mental and emotional challenge, while also raising much needed awareness and funds.
Part of Megan’s role is to manage relationships for all major expeditions. This includes recruiting participants on both the corporate and military side, and supporting corporate participants in their efforts to raise a minimum of $50,000 each, as part of their commitment prior to departing on the trip.
TPL has been organizing these trips since 2012 and has raised an impressive $7 million. Past expeditions have included Island Peak in the Himalayas, the Magnetic North Pole, Vinson Massif in Antarctica and a best of Canada series that took participants to British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland. Having the opportunity to experience the most recent expedition first-hand, solidified for Megan the value these trips provide.
“What’s really incredible is to watch the group dynamic unfold,” she says. “Everyone is so vulnerable, going through the climb together, and there’s a lot of invaluable discussion that happens along the way. For soldiers, it’s a way to heal, to prove to themselves they can still physically do something like this, to work through mental health challenges, and to leave something at the top of the mountain.”
While Megan admits she was nervous heading into the climb, she’s now much more confident and ready for her next expedition with TPL in 2019 – the third highest mountains in North America, Orizaba in Mexico.
“I love my job. I plan to stay and grow here for as long as possible.”
Thinking about getting your MBA? Tune in to Smith’s Women and the MBA webinar June 7 to hear the stories and challenges of women who have successfully completed their degree. Panel members will candidly share thoughts on managing balance, financing and reaping the career benefits of an MBA, and what they learned about themselves along the way.