A PdM Case: How a Paraplegic Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro

Image courtesy of the C.H.E.K. Institute


Early in my career, I interacted with some challenged athletes who were severely injured and needed specialized, corrective training. There were many things about these athletes that inspired me - their energy, athletic ability, positivity, resolve and grit to name a few. I would think about them often, and one day, something clicked. I thought back to when a buddy asked me to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with him, the highest mountain in Africa and one of the world’s most iconic peaks. In that moment and during the weeks to come, I came up with an idea that would channel the energy of those athletes, test my own capabilities and later became a record-breaking event: I wanted to create a documentary on the journey of how one athlete - Erica - became the first female paraplegic to reach the 19,334-foot-high summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Looking back on this experience, there are six key lessons that continue to drive my passion projects into moments that matter in my personal life and for my work at Capital One.  

1. Give Your Ideas Time to Grow

Great ideas can come at any time - drinking your morning coffee, driving your car, or like me, out walking your dog. It’s important to give your ideas the space and energy to grow with thought and research. Build on your ideas and connect the dots, so when it’s time to pitch, you’ll be ready. Because I took the time to process what it would look like to bring this documentary to life, I gained believers who signed onto the project. From there it was game on.

2.  Trust the Experts

Did I mention that I knew nothing about Mount Kilimanjaro, film making, fundraising, the wheelchair requirements to climb a mountain or the legalities involved in building this type of project? I surrounded myself with a team of experts in every area.

As you build out your own ideas, the best approach is humility. Be humble enough to ask subject matter experts for help in solving your puzzle because you will get to a better place than you would have on your own.

3. Know Your Customer

My main customer on this project was Erica. I gathered as much information about her as possible by observing not only what she said but also what she did. I spent a ton of time with her going to events, training, grocery shopping and even attending Bingo! I did this knowing that on the mountain, I would need to be able to anticipate her needs and create solutions in order to get her to the summit.

At Capital One, our customers are at the heart of our product design. We first gain empathy and insight into their needs. Then we design solutions that harness technology to support how people interact with their money so they can live their best lives.  

Image courtesy of the C.H.E.K. Institute

4.  Test, Practice, Simulate and Repeat with Variation

We conducted over 20 different “practice climbs” to simulate and test different scenarios that could take place on Mount Kilimanjaro like difficult terrain and snowy weather. We continually learned from these climbs and modified Erica’s chair and climbing strategies. We customized safety features that prevented her from rolling backward and continue her forward momentum, and built an apparatus to help navigate larger obstacles.

Similarly, product development must be grounded in testing, customer input and prototyping to know if the product truly solves problems and can be adopted in an easy way. In 2015, Capital One introduced the first version of Auto Navigator to simplify the car shopping experience by allowing customers to see if they pre-qualify for financing even before they go to a dealership. We iteratively launched new features over the next few years as we continued to improve the experience, learning from our customers and responding to their needs. Today, customers can also browse millions of cars from thousands of participating dealers across the country and search by simply taking a photo of a car through the product website.

5.  Be Ready to Fail and Adapt

Failure is inevitable. Even the greatest visionaries and most successful business leaders in the world have experienced failure in their journeys and will continue to experience failure in the future. What’s important is how you react. I had planned for every outcome, terrain and setback, but we still faced unexpected challenges along the way. We adapted, and kept moving forward. Similarly, at work I’m encouraged to “fail fast.” Having a mindset that’s free from the fear of failure provides room for greater innovation.

6.  Just Take the First Step

This all started as an idea while walking my dog. Put your passion or idea out into the world, whether it be professionally or personally, and see where it goes. Product management has taught me that if you miss your mark, that just gives you the experience to learn and adjust your approach for the next try.

In the end, we made it to the summit of Kilimanjaro as a team with a lot of heart, dedication and stamina. I had no aspirations to be the next award-winning documentarian. In fact, I’m not part of the movie industry today. What I wanted to do was give my idea the life it deserved.

Whether you’re starting a business, climbing a mountain or just facing a small setback, I encourage you to pursue your passion and let it propel you forward. If you exude passion, others will believe in you and success will come.  


Derek Gates is an energetic leader on a cross-functional product team at Capital One that is reimagining the car-buying experience for customers. As an avid adventurist, he has always had a passion for self-improvement through experience and has translated that mindset into a personal and professional mantra.

Gates is a featured speaker at this year’s Capital One House at SXSW -- to learn more, visit Capital.One/SXSW.


Derek Gates, Manager, Product Management

Currently living in Dallas, Texas, Derek Gates leads a cross-functional consumer product team for Capital One. Starting his career within digital marketing, Derek realized that delivering the right experience for the consumer ultimately drove conversion, so the transition into product management was inevitable. An avid surfer and adventurist, Derek has always had a passion for improving through experience and he has translated that mindset into a career mantra based on constant learning and adaptation. Ten years ago, Derek came up with his boldest adventure - to assist and capture the journey of the first female paraplegic to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. It was through this project that Derek realized what can be accomplished with the right motivation.

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