A Story About Startup Cofounder Teamwork: Climbing To The Summit of Denali

A Story About Startup Cofounder Teamwork: Climbing To The Summit of Denali

Denali  Image Credit: NPS Photo/Tim Rains

Image Credit: NPS Photo/Tim Rains

On June 30th, 2015, Naira Musallam and her climbing partner, Tim Lawton successfully summited Denali (Mount McKinley). They made history as The First Arab-American Team to ever do so. Naira also became the first Arab woman to stand on the summit of Denali.

Standing at 20,320 feet, Denali is one of the “Seven Summits” because it is the highest point on the continent of North America. From that point Naira and Tim raised a flag with the message “Peace and Security for All” written in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

I checked my email around 8:00 AM EST in NYC after arriving at work on Tuesday, July 7th 2015, and found a note from Naira telling me the good news. She had sent it at 6:51 AM. I wrote back to congratulate her, and asked if I could write about their story. She and Tim graciously said yes.

This is their story. It highlights everything I discussed in Innovation Footprints: 6 Things I Have Learned About Building High-Performing Teams.

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton at the summit of  Denali on June 30th, 2015. (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton at the summit of Denali on June 30th, 2015. (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

I met Naira on Thursday, October 9th 2014 when I was at NYU’s Leslie eLab to lead a lunch and learn. I had arrived early, to give myself some time to work through my nerves – I get super nervous about speaking in front of groups of people.

Naira was the first person to arrive. She came, said hello, and introduced herself. I introduced myself, and asked if she was an undergraduate student, what year she was in, what major she was studying . . . She smiled at me and explained she’s a professor at NYU, and she teaches statistics. Oh, lest I forget. She also mentioned that she “climbs mountains as a hobby” and “runs long distance, as a hobby.”

I thought to myself; “Great! It really would have been helpful if someone had warned me that I’d have professors in the audience! Never mind mathematicians who climb mountains and run long distance races . . . as a hobby.”

So much for calming my nerves. It seemed to me that her arrival was timed to optimize the intimidation factor. Any way, the talk went well – or, so she says. To my great “horror” there are excerpts on video which you can check out here, here, here and here. After the event, I chatted briefly with Naira again and we agreed to meet for coffee. She wanted to pick my brains about something she was working on. Since I have never met a mathematician or physicist I do not like, I said yes. What could be better than chatting with a mathematician?

We met again on November 26th, 2014 at Cafe Reggio near NYU. After spending some time getting to know one another from a biographical standpoint, we spent most of the time discussing many of the types of questions I have come to expect from the first-time founders I meet; What does a VC want to see in order to decide to make an investment? How does the decision-making process typically work? How about fund-raising, how does that work, in general? How does one get a meeting with a VC to whom one does not have a direct or indirect connection? Does sending a cold-email work? And many more.

During subsequent meetings over coffee, and sometimes lunch . . . I learned about a startup she and Tim have been building, Frontier7 is an online data analytics platform. I also learned a lot about Tim, whom I had not yet met.

Eventually, I met Tim . . . I pointed out to Tim that Naira intimidated me when I first met her, and now she’d brought him along to escalate that intimidation factor even more. I remember we were all laughing so hard, the other folks in the bar must have thought we’d been drinking too much.

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: Starting The Climb on Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: Starting The Climb on Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

About Naira Musallam

Naira is currently a full-time professor at New York University, where she teaches Applied Statistics, Analytical Skills, and National Security and Middle East Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs. She also serves as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and in its collaborative program at the United States Military Academy at West Point where she teaches graduate level research courses. Naira received her doctorate from Columbia University.

She has over thirteen years of applied research experience consulting with multiple industries in the private sector, ranging from financial services, to pharmaceuticals, retail, oil and gas, and the fashion industry, helping them solve business problems through data driven processes. She used applied statistics to develop insights on business issues such as M&A deals, C-Suite executive assessments, employee retention, and sales strategies. She also consulted to governmental agencies and non-profit organizations on projects related to project assessment, and monitoring and evaluation. Naira is the recipient of multiple research awards from the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and the U.S. Department of State.

Naira grew up in a small Palestinian town in Galilee, and has been climbing for the last seven years. When not working in New York City on statistical issues, she enjoys high altitude mountain climbing, scuba diving, and cultural exploration and adventures around the world.

About Tim Lawton

Tim is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served 5 1/2 years as an officer in various infantry and special operations units. During his time in the Army he was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan for a total of four combat tours. After leaving the military he attended MIT Sloan School of Management where he received an MBA with a concentration in corporate finance. He spent the next 5 years in investment banking with experience in debt restructuring, equity financing, and mergers & acquisitions in one role and helped to lead a sales effort in another.

As an active member of the veteran community in NYC, Tim is involved with various veteran non-profit organizations and is working to further veteran’s business initiatives in the city. He is originally from the Boston area. His hobbies include mountain climbing, travel, sky diving, scuba diving, and working out.

How They Met

“We first met at a 5k road race that was to support a veteran’s organization that we were both connected to. We had struck up a conversation because we were both wearing the same brand of sunglasses, which are unique mainly to mountain climbers. From then on we continued our friendship and over time began to discuss not only future mountain climbing endeavors, but also a potential business idea that leveraged both of our experiences from the corporate world.”

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: Camp on Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: Camp on Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Why They Thought They’d Make A Good Team

We both suck at different things.

“In all seriousness, since we initially began our friendship due to mountain climbing and had subsequently climbed together in Ecuador before starting in business together we both had to learn how to trust each other on a different level than is typically required in business and cursory friendships. On that trip we realized that we could trust and rely on each other when things don’t go smoothly.

In one particular recent event while we were climbing together in Alaska, Tim was leading up a steep slope when the ice gave out and he began to tumble down the mountain. As they were connected via a climbing rope, Naira quickly reacted and began to self-arrest. By the time Tim had also recovered enough to self-arrest and stop his fall they had both fallen about 100 feet and 80 feet respectively.  It is this type of event that engrains a level of trust in another’s competence that can be carried over to any other type of situation.

On the actual business front, we both realized that we possessed very different, yet complementary skill sets. Once we began to develop the business plan and put together a strategy, coupled with the trust we had gained with each other from the mountains, we knew we could both move ahead with different responsibilities, yet towards achieving the very same goal.”

Three Things That Have Been Important To Their Success as a Team

  1. Trust,
  2. Complementary skill sets, and
  3. Sharing and believing in the same vision

What successfully Summiting Denali Means for Each One of Them

Tim: “For me it was the culmination of an idea and vision that began years before. In the mountains, it should be about the journey, but getting to the summit is always a sweet addition. This particular mountain and successful summit was by far the most complex and difficult in all aspects as it required more planning and preparation than other mountains I had climbed. Plus, we had spent so long this year attempting to get there. It took two trips, two cross-continental round trip flights, sleeping in airports, hotels, and tents, but we did it. We spent 35 days on the mountain during those two trips. So to have been denied the summit once before, but continuing to try and having the mindset of not quitting until we succeed, and then to succeed, is a great feeling. To have achieved that with Naira, with a mindset that we also share in business makes it satisfying as we look to apply the same tenacity to our new business venture.”

Naira: “While being able to say that I became the First Arab woman to climb Denali has its significance in the mountaineering world, the climbing of Denali with Tim took much deeper meaning for several reasons: Tim and I were the first American- Arab team to step on the highest point in North America. The ability to share a message of hope from there together, especially in today’s turbulent world was extremely unique. In addition, it was elating to reach the top with Tim because we have failed in the past to reach the top. Success becomes way more enjoyable when you achieve it with the same person you failed with before. Finally, reaching the top and being able to make history would absolutely not have been possible without Tim’s partnership and competence on the mountain. In that regards, I feel truly blessed to have Tim as partner.”

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: View From The Top of Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: View From The Top of Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Their Shared-Vision for Frontier7, The Significance of The Name

“The name Frontier7, which certainly didn’t come to us quickly, has a number of meanings for us. First of all, we are both in love with the outdoors and adventure, so ‘frontier’ in the sense of the furthest known boundary, the last frontier, the beginning of the unexplored, etc. appealed to us. In business we wanted to create an analytics platform that helped push our clients to the frontier of their industries. The “7” has many meanings that we both value: in most cultures 7 is a lucky number, 7 wonders of the world, 7 summits, 7 colors in the rainbow, in Eastern thought the 7th Chakra is the center for trust, devotion, inspiration, happiness, and positivity. (There are also 7 dwarfs in Snow White and who doesn’t love Snow White?)”

Our vision for Frontier7 is to be the go-to online platform for seamless analytics. We want to enable companies to be able to unlock all of the value of the data they gather in order to maximize their own business performance.

The Announcement They Sent To Their Friends, and Other Associates

On June 30th, 2015, Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton made history together on the highest point of North America, Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) by summiting as the First Arab-American Team to ever do so, and with Naira becoming the first Arab woman to ever stand on the summit. Denali is one of the “Seven Summits” or highest point on the continent of North America, standing at 20,320 feet. From the highest point in North America they raised a flag with the message “Peace and Security for All” written in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

Their goal to summit Denali began on May 4th, 2015 when they attempted to climb the mountain with a guided group but were unable to due to severe weather conditions, spending a total of 18 days on the mountain. While it would be normal for them to come back another season to attempt the mountain again, they decided to return only a few weeks later in June. The second and successful attempt was a self-guided climb with just the team of the two of them. They raised their flag on the summit after 13 days and took a full 17 days on the mountain. The two months, two cross-continental round trips, red eye flights, sleeping in airports, tents, and hotels, and 35 total days on the mountain was well worth the effort on the evening of June 30th, 2015.

What makes their story even more unique is that they come from significantly different backgrounds. Naira grew up as a Palestinian in Israel where she spent a significant amount of time working in the conflict field, while Tim grew up in Massachusetts, served in the United States Army and served numerous combat tours overseas. They connected because of their love for mountaineering, and drive to send a message about hope, interdependence, and common human values.

Furthermore, today they are also co-founders of a data analytics company, Frontier7 (www.frontier7.com), and are also in the process of starting a non-profit in the form of a social platform that engineers chance for people by connecting those from varied backgrounds and shared passions (like themselves) and aligning people, ideas, and resources for them to address social issues that they care about. They believe that in today’s reality, this message becomes more important than ever.

My Closing  Thoughts

We’ve had numerous discussions about Frontier7, but I have not yet seen a demo. They assure me that day is coming soon. Either way, I am eager to watch their journey, as co-founders and as people who have a vision that they wish to turn into a reality. They each embody the intangible characteristics I look for in founders; courage, grit, vision, determination, resilience, creativity, resourcefulness, conflict management and resolution, discipline, a willingness to assume responsibility, and the ability to learn from others. I could not feel more proud of their accomplishment.

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: At The Top of Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

Naira Musallam and Tim Lawton: At The Top of Denali (Image Credit: Naira and Tim)

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