A calculated risk

Woman wearing mountain climbing gear holds up an SF State flag at the top of a mountain.

Professor of Marketing Gulnur Tumbat holds up an SF State flag at the Mount Everest summit on May 21, 2018.

College of Business professor’s Mount Everest climb informs her marketing research

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Just over a year ago, San Francisco State University Professor of Marketing Gulnur Tumbat took the term “risky business” to new heights, as she risked life and limb climbing up the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. She’s used that harrowing climb, and her long journey to get there, as an inspiration for her research and teaching.

“When you get up there, it’s like you’re on another planet. But you have to keep moving. Stopping increases your chances of dying,” she recalled. “As a scholar, I believe if you go to extreme contexts you are able to question what you consider is normal. That was my motivation with Everest.”

Carla Pennington

Professor of Marketing Gulnur Tumbat

Tumbat began climbing at the age of 17 when she joined a mountaineer club in her native country of Turkey. She has since scaled seven of the tallest summits on earth, including Aconcagua (22,841 feet) in Argentina and Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) in Tanzania. Everest, though, was the peak of her climbing career.

She first travelled to Everest’s base camp in 2004 as part of her dissertation research as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah. Tumbat spent two months interviewing nearly 20 climbers at the mountain about their perspectives on paying for and participating in such a risky endeavor. That work contributed to her winning the Sidney Levy Award for her thesis on marketplace tensions in extraordinary experiences. Ten years later, Tumbat returned with the intention of scaling all 29,029 feet. But on April 18, 2014, an ice avalanche on the mountain’s western shoulder killed more than 15 climbers and derailed her expedition to the top.

That setback, too, was a source of academic inspiration. In May 2016, she published a study in the Journal of Marketing where she again used interviews with climbers and their guides to analyze relationships between sellers (mountain guide services) and buyers (paying climbers). The research explores contracts where a seller exercises their authority over a buyer, which Tumbat refers to as “authority relinquishment.” She says the financial and emotional loss she experienced because of the avalanche led to the study.

As opposed to most transactions, “This was an interesting contract where there was no refund,” she explained. “Everything went downhill and everything crashed. But I knew I was going to go back again.”

Last spring, she did just that. On May 21, 2018, Tumbat became one of only 4,833 people to ever climb Mount Everest, and the first Turkish woman to summit the mountain from the Nepal side. While nearly 300 people have died attempting to reach Everest’s peak, Tumbat said the risk was worth the reward. In the same vein, she encourages her students to be persistent in achieving their goals.

“Nothing goes according to plan,” she said. “I went to Everest and an avalanche happened. But I didn’t let that stop me … Sometimes you fall, and things happen. Accept it, and take another step.”