Mandy’s story is of one woman’s ascent from male-dominated beginnings to the pinnacle of seven summits.
At the CFO/CHRO/CIO South Africa Women’s Day event, an audience of esteemed female CFOs, CHROs, and CIOs eagerly gathered to hear Mandy Ramsden, the trailblazing principal of Questco and the first South African woman to conquer the Seven Summits, share her emotive and engaging story of summiting the world’s tallest mountains.
A pioneering journey in the corporate world
Mandy’s ascent began in 1987 when she started her career as one of two junior articled clerks in a male-dominated field, where the ratio of women to men was 9:1. Undeterred by the challenges, she envisioned a future as a chartered accountant (CA) and even spearheaded the creation of a maternity leave policy when it became apparent that she wasn’t going away, but rather aiming for both a successful career and motherhood.
As she climbed the corporate ladder, Mandy experienced the subtle bias of a male-dominated workplace, where she was often the only woman in the room. She never let this hold her back, maintaining a thick skin and refusing to compromise her ambition or femininity. Her unwavering determination led her to become a director in corporate finance at Standard Bank, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Reflecting on her career, Mandy asked the audience a thought-provoking question: “When was the last time you felt truly excited, like the anticipation of Santa’s arrival?” Despite her numerous achievements, Mandy felt unfulfilled, yearning for more meaning in her life.
Discovering the call of the mountains
In 2004, Mandy’s life took an unexpected turn when she suddenly found herself single, leading her to embark on a life-changing journey. She joined a friend on a trek up Kilimanjaro, and in that moment, she felt alive and vibrant once again. The exhilaration of the mountains ignited a passion within her, and she sought more challenges, conquering three mountains in just nine months.
As Mandy climbed higher, she discovered hidden strengths she never knew she possessed. “In the process of climbing mountains, I learned I was stronger than I imagined; physically and mentally. I learned mental coping skills and realised I have more fortitude than I knew,” she said.
These expeditions taught her valuable lessons about resilience, and the art of living with less. She also learned about the power of teamwork, saying, “I have learned that climbing mountains alone is simply impossible. You need a resilient team that can work together effectively, because your life depends on the people you’re with. It is crucial to carefully select your team and pull your weight. At times, your role within the team may not involve leading, but to be cheerful.”
Sharing her experiences with the attentive audience, she remarked, “Joburg winters are nothing compared to the bone-chilling -40°C temperatures in Antarctica. There’s no such thing as a bad hair day on the mountain!”
Embarking on the climb of a lifetime
The seven summits comprise Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Denali in Alaska, Aconcagua in Argentina, Vision Massif in Antarctica, Puncak Jaya in Oceania and the ultimate peak, Mount Everest in Nepal.
As she shared her journey towards Everest, Mandy acknowledged the risks involved, especially as a parent. Yet, she believed that stepping out of one’s comfort zone is essential for personal growth. She emphasised the importance of meticulous preparation, acknowledging that some factors, like the unpredictable weather, are beyond one’s control.
To achieve her dream of reaching the summit of Everest, Mandy went through rigorous training, visualising herself standing on top. Her determination was unwavering, despite doubts and challenges along the way.
Mandy pointed out that in the realm of mountain climbing, women adeptly overcome their physical limitations by demonstrating exceptional organisational skills and meticulous planning. She said, “By effectively compensating for our lack of strength, women skilfully balance out any inherent disadvantages we may face. Many individuals often find themselves unsuccessful in this pursuit due to their inability to adopt a patient approach, adhere to established rules, maintain a well-organised mindset, and be punctual. Remarkably, this mirrors the challenges encountered in life itself.”
Mandy’s Everest expedition required her to spend weeks at base camp, acclimatising to the altitude. In these remote corners of the world, she found a new perspective on life, love, and her own purpose. Standing atop the world’s highest peak, she experienced a profound epiphany – pure joy was the ultimate purpose of life.
Throughout her speech, Mandy expressed that her achievements were not just about conquering mountains. “It is about pushing yourself beyond limits, embracing challenges, and demonstrating that nothing is impossible when you follow your passion.”
As she concluded, Mandy proudly shared her daughter Katie’s email, illustrating how her journey inspired others to pursue their dreams and set goals fearlessly. In the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, she reminded the audience, “It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Embracing Joy: the true purpose of life
In the end, Mandy’s journey to the Seven Summits wasn’t merely about conquering mountains, it was a testament to conquering oneself and pushing beyond perceived limits. Her story reminds us that leadership is about embracing challenges, championing teamwork, and finding joy in the pursuit of our dreams.
Her heartfelt keynote not only celebrated her accomplishments as the first South African woman to join the Seven Summits club, but also left an indelible mark on the audience, empowering them to seek their own summits, both in their personal and professional lives. Her story exemplified the true essence of Women’s Day – a celebration of strength, resilience, and the pursuit of pure joy in life.