Emilie Cortes is a mountaineer, wilderness guide, motivational speaker, and Owner/President of Call of the Wild Adventures, Inc., an adventure travel company by women for women.
Tell us about Call of the Wild.
Call of the Wild is a women’s only adventure travel company headquartered out of Bend, Oregon. We are unique in that all of our clients and guides are female on our scheduled trips. We have super easy trips staying in hotels, eating in restaurants and doing easier but beautiful hikes and activities during the day that are great to introduce someone to the outdoors. Our toughest trips include backpacking to the top of Mt Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48 states), trekking to Everest Base Camp, and trekking to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa. These trips require some experience and dedication to prepare for and are ones that many women will appreciate having the camaraderie of women, and someone else doing all the logistical planning!
What was the catalyst for becoming owner of Call of the Wild?
I think my mid-life crisis came early, in my mid-30s! I had been working my butt off all my life to get good grades, get degrees and certificates, and rise the ranks in my jobs in finance and investments in San Francisco. But I always felt like something was missing – I was always working, saving, planning for the future and not really living in the now. I became more and more involved in mountaineering, especially big glaciated peaks around the world. As a small, relatively un-athletic woman, the reward from achieving mountaineering objectives was palatable and reverberating. I wanted to provide that same impact to other women by getting them out into the mountains. I had the opportunity to take over Call of the Wild two years ago and I went for it. Call of the Wild focuses on more mellow hiking and backpacking trips, but the women who go on the trips have the same kind of positive impact on their self-confidence that I experienced from mountaineering.
This sounds like “living the dream.” Tell me about a day in your life.
When I’m guiding my favorite kind of trip to lead, rugged treks in developing countries, I look around and say “Holy guacamole! I’m really doing it! My office is amazing.” However, the daily reality isn’t terribly different than my old corporate roles. I am a bit of a workaholic and spend many hours behind the computer and on the phone with clients. On the average day, I can be seen reviewing liability insurance policies, developing new trips, planning the current trips, filling out commercial permit requests for parks and wilderness areas, complying with reporting requirements, working on guide contracts and assignments, preparing trip menus, redesigning brochures, speaking at various events, negotiating with our vendors, and even giving interviews like this one!
What is your greatest challenge? Greatest reward?
It’s tough to choose from the numerous challenges in running a small business, but the biggest one that attention needs to be drawn to is the lack of capital as it is a universal issue. There is so much talk about the value that small business, and especially ones run by women entrepreneurs, brings to the economy yet there is so little support. Sure, there are some SBA loans for minority-run businesses, but that’s about it. What people don’t realize is that debt is unwise for small and early stage businesses with unpredictable cash flow (makes it risky that you can’t repay the loan). Equity is tough to raise if you are not in a hot industry like clean tech, and most early-state equity investors expect a really high return on investment. That’s why most entrepreneurs are so strapped for cash – they finance with their own savings, potentially that of friends and family, retirement funds, and take second mortgages on their homes.
By far, my clients are my greatest reward. Just this past week, I had lunch with a client locally to get feedback on her trip experience. She actually cried when she told me the trip was “life changing” for her. I receive letters and emails all the time from women talking about how they “see the horizon differently now” or will never forget the lesson of “one step at a time” that they are applying to the rest of their world. If my clients didn’t love their experience so much, I wouldn’t feel rewarded and it would be a sign that I didn’t have a solid product!
What is the greatest universal fear among the women who consider coming on your trips?
Time and time again, women are worried about not fitting in. They are always concerned that they will be the only one traveling alone, that they will be the oldest or slowest. It’s frustrating to get this insight on how much we all worry about things that really don’t matter and that we can’t control. It’s a simple fact that someone has to be the oldest or the slowest in a group and we are one of the most supportive crews around. When every single woman on a trip is worried about fitting in, we are great about including each other. However, I am always sad when a woman decides not to come on a trip out of fear. We are often our own worst enemies! If only we can find the strength to feel the fear and do it anyway!
If your message to others is to feel the fear and do it anyway, what fears are you working through?
I’m often told that I seem fearless because of the mountains I’ve climbed or the risk that I took to leave the corporate world and run Call of the Wild. It drives me bonkers! When people call me fearless, they are using it as an excuse to limit themselves…”She can do it because she’s fearless, but I can’t do it because I’m afraid.” The truth is I’m like anyone else. I doubt myself all the time! I worry about every aspect of the company and the trips. I want to be liked as much as anyone else. I try to placate my “inner accountant” who is unhappy about how much of my retirement savings I’ve used. But every day, I get up and I find strength in my mission to get women outdoors and introduce them to feeling the fear and doing it anyway.