As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Bo Parfet. He started his finance career after earning a Bachelor of Science degree in economics from Colorado State University. He also holds a Master of Arts degree in applied economics from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
During his tenure at J.P. Morgan in 2002, Parfet embarked on a journey to climb the Seven Summits: Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Denali, Vinson Massif, Elbrus, Carstensz Pyramid, Kosciusko, and Everest. He completed this goal in 2007 with Mount Everest and is one of about 85 people in the United States to climb all Seven Summits.
Today, Parfet’s career demonstrates a sincere devotion to social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. He founded the Seven Summits Award Program, which offers grants to students in healthcare research. Parfet also devotes a significant amount of time to Denali Venture Philanthropy, which he founded in 2010 with his wife, Meredith. The organization fosters partnerships with socially conscious entrepreneurs who share his values of positive social change and philanthropy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Thank you, glad to be here! I was fortunate to grow up with two loving, hardworking parents. My father is a successful businessman and philanthropist and has shared with me and my siblings the importance of tying our personal development to helping others since we were young. My mother was a realtor, and if you’ve ever known someone in the real estate business, they work around the clock to make their clients happy.
My parents separated when I was still young, and though they tried their best, growing up in different homes is always hard on kids. We experienced stress from a young age. As a kid, I also struggled with a speech impediment and was diagnosed with dyslexia.
I was a disruptive student because I wasn’t being challenged in the ways that I needed, and at the same time, I had a hard time keeping up with certain things because of my dyslexia. I remember my parents meeting with my second-grade teacher and overhearing the teacher say that he would be surprised if I graduated high school. For a young child just starting on their educational journey, hearing someone you’re supposed to look up to say something like that is a devastating blow.
As I grew up, I’m sure I gave my parents and teachers plenty of grey hairs; I definitely wasn’t the “model” child. But in my teens, I started working at a vintage car museum and got a job in the restaurant industry. Putting my skills to work and earning money for it lit a fire in me. I began to understand why my parents worked so hard, and I became driven by my success. I enjoyed being good at something and was motivated by those who encouraged me.
In my life, I have been afforded many luxuries, but learning the importance of hard work has been invaluable. My internal drive to succeed is something that I wasn’t just born with; it is something I have actively had to work on each and every day of my life.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Well, I mentioned my early jobs. I worked at a vintage car museum and learned many of life’s biggest lessons during that time. First, I learned the value of a dollar. Working hard and then earning money for that work is one of the best motivations for a young child. I was also motivated by reading about one of my favorite heroes, Teddy Roosevelt. He was a giant of a person. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Jordan. His work ethic and drive to be the best also played a huge role in inspiring me.
Constantly having to prove myself — whether to my teachers, parents, or self — was a big motivator and still is to this day. I am never comfortable with maintaining the status quo. I constantly push myself to work better, help others, and develop both personally and professionally.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
When I was in eighth grade, during class, the teacher had each student read a couple of paragraphs out loud. I wasn’t a stable reader yet, and there was a word that I didn’t recognize and therefore couldn’t pronounce. I was about the 11th person in line to read, and each passing second was terrifying. The pressure began to mount. To this day, I can’t remember the word, but I remember mumbling over the word incredibly fast in the hopes that nobody would notice. Well, my teacher did. Her name was Mrs. Hillis, and nothing got past her. She was tough and feisty and challenged everyone to be better. Mrs. Hillis said, “Bo, what was that word? You said it so quickly.” I swallowed my pride and said out loud to the class, “Mrs. Hillis, the reason I said the word so quickly was that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce it.” Many of my classmates started to laugh and tease me. Mrs. Hillis, most likely seeing my red face and nervous demeanor, said, “Well, Bo, that took a lot of courage to say.” She pronounced the word and said, “Now, you know.”
She ended by saying two things:
- I should practice and study all of the hard words that I could find, and that that practice would be worthwhile, serving me well in the future.
- She said that in about six weeks, all of the students would have to deliver a speech to the entire class on a historical figure.
She said, “Now, Bo, you need to work hard and showcase the courage you just displayed, and if you do, you just might earn a good grade.” I am proud to report that I received an A and a standing ovation from my classmates. I gave a rousing speech about Babe Ruth. He had a total of 1,330 strikeouts in his career. But it was the same courage he displayed in shooting for the fences so consistently that led him to end his 22-year big league career with 714 home runs, including his remarkable 60 in 1927 alone, and that led me to an early lesson about taking risks.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many people I would consider mentors who have helped me along my journey. My mountain climbing team members taught me so many important lessons in building not just physical strength but mental strength as well. When faced with literal life-or-death situations, you want to be mentally strong and surrounded by others who are as well.
I also have to say my wife Meredith. She is my partner in life and business. We started our impact investment organization, Denali Venture Philanthropy, together to fuse our business experience with our love of travel and community involvement. She keeps me grounded, while allowing me to dream. She keeps things organized and leads the business with all of the passion she has.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We started a real estate company focused on buying off-campus apartments within five blocks of sizable public universities. We found our first buy at Boise State University. The apartment community was about one block from campus and had more than 180 beds. We put the property under contract and then tried to raise capital for our first deal. We asked everyone we knew to invest. My family wasn’t interested, which was tough to accept, but many of our friends and even old coaches ended up investing. I naively thought that we would raise the capital seamlessly, but that wasn’t the case. We were told by many people, “I never invest in someone’s first deal. Only a fool does that.” The seller was kind enough to grant an extension; otherwise, we would have lost the hard-earned money. In the end, we barely made it and closed on the apartment community. Thankfully, our “value-added” strategy worked, and we doubled our net operating income. The second investment property was easier (but still hard) to raise capital for, but having a small but humble track record helped a bit.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My internal drive to succeed started when I was young. I have constantly pushed the limits and had to prove myself despite my learning disabilities and adversity. Often, people will see their adversities as closed doors, but I knew that couldn’t be the case for me. I was too determined to prove myself to others who said I couldn’t do it, and that has made me push my way forward every day of my life.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I am proud of where I am today. Of course, I would not be here without making a few mistakes. My first attempt at Mount Kilimanjaro proved harder than I imagined, and I was extremely underprepared for the journey. My first attempt at Mount Everest in 2005 was unsuccessful due to extreme conditions. I lost a teammate along the way, which was incredibly difficult. I have also had investments and businesses go south, which is always also very challenging.
These were some of the toughest and most dangerous journeys of my life, but they all led to valuable life lessons that have helped me persevere in business and my personal life.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Denali, we lead with both our hearts and minds. You need to have both working together to make good decisions. We built this business because we have seen so many small businesses and startups around the world doing positive things for their communities. We have helped businesses that created hundreds of jobs for the small communities in which they operate. We have helped businesses that develop struggling community members into successful entrepreneurs. We are working with other companies focused on sustainable and green business practices to improve environmental impact.
People want to support businesses that do good, and we provide those businesses with an opportunity to stand out and thrive, especially in today’s turbulent times.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them thrive and not “burn out?”
My number one tip is to make time for improving yourself. If you aren’t building your knowledge, strength, and relationships, you will, without a doubt, experience burnout. Early in my career, I worked as a financial analyst on Wall Street. I focused solely on work and did not take care of myself, my body, or my personal relationships, and I was extremely unhealthy. Gaining over 60 pounds was no fun at all.
Building your personal and professional relationships will help when things get tough. Having your team is important for growth, and without it, extreme stress is inevitable.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Nearly every time I travel to a new place, I take time to get to know the local community. I have been fortunate in my life, and I want to give back as much as I can to those working hard to improve themselves and the communities around them.
I have volunteered in many different capacities, such as helping fund medical students earning their degrees. With Denali, we are able to continue this trend of philanthropy while creating an opportunity for others to bring goodness to the world with their investments.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Every experience I have had has affected my leadership philosophy. We learn from every experience and moment, as long as we let ourselves see that there is something to learn. Here are the five things that I wish someone had told me:
1. You can’t do it on your own. I learned this from my time spent climbing the world’s highest peaks. There is no single person that can take full credit for their success. There is always a team behind you, always someone pushing you forward and cheering you on from the sidelines.
2. You will experience failure, and that is okay. I have built companies that have succeeded and some that have not. There is always a moment to learn and grow from. You also have to know when you are failing and learn to let that dream go.
3. Lead with a broad perspective. In essence, be open minded. Just because you are the leader does not mean that you always have the best and right answers for every situation. Had I not been open to the fact that someone else knew more than I did while attempting my first climb up Everest, I might have pushed forward in the worst conditions, placing myself and my teammates at great risk. After our team member died and the weather worsened, the sherpas headed down because they had a bad feeling. I agreed and followed them down. Some of my team members continued on for a while, putting themselves at risk, but eventually headed down too.
4. Develop a healthy mindset. I learned this lesson a little later in my career than I would have liked. If you are not leading with a healthy mind and body, you are doing yourself and those around you a disservice. Keep a good, healthy routine so that you can be at your best when things seem to take a turn for the worst.
5. Always lead with integrity. I learned this lesson early on, as my father, grandfather, and great grandfather have been successful businessmen and, more importantly, philanthropists. They taught me that integrity is everything when it comes to building a successful business.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style?
I have learned that if you want to inspire others, find those people who are already invested in doing so, and support their movements and causes. If you have an inspiring idea, share it with everyone you can, and bring it to life.
How have these changes affected your company?
Without having these experiences or knowing these things, I would not be where I am today. I would not have started Denali. Knowing that business can thrive while improving the lives of others brings an incredible understanding of what it means to be successful.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me.” This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that, ultimately, you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Absolutely! I think we all need mentors who have experienced similar situations to help us understand the true scope of what it takes to succeed. However, it is important to learn how to succeed on your own or in your own team. You must fail to grow, and you can only do that by taking risks and leading with passion, integrity, and grit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the highest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I like to think I’m doing that with Denali. We are working hard to find those people, entrepreneurs, and startups that are making a great social and environmental impact. We can only be true leaders if we are continuously building other people up, and I hope that we continue to do that with Denali. We have found that most people want to be a part of something meaningful, and there are so many innovative entrepreneurs out there who are doing such great work.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
People can find me on a variety of social platforms, including Twitter (@boparfet) and Medium (@boparfet), and they can find out more about me and my company on our website, www.denaliventurephilanthropy.com.