With each step higher, the air became colder and thinner for Rajani Bhakta, an IT product manager with Koch company Flint Hills Resources, as she worked her way up the side of Mount Rainier in 2015.
“It was really, really difficult,” Rajani admits.
The mountain rises 14,411 feet above sea level. It’s challenging enough of a climb that many use it to train for the world’s tallest mountain: Mount Everest.
Rajani says it’s not just the physical toll of climbing that’s challenging, but as you near the summit, the mountain almost actively fights against you as each breath contains less and less oxygen.
“We trained, but we didn’t really know that we weren’t training enough,” she says. “I felt unsafe on the edge of the mountain, so I said, ‘You know what, this is not my time.’”
That day, the mountain won. But the lesson learned would ultimately take her to even greater heights.
Overcoming challenges has been a constant in Rajani’s life since the day she and her family moved from India to settle in a rural Texas town. As a young child, she had little knowledge of her new country or how to speak the language. But she was eager to learn.
“I had to learn my ABCs and one, two, threes at the age of 9,” she says. “That wasn’t taught in school in India, so it was a struggle to even just catch up with everybody.”
By the time she reached high school, Rajani had developed a fascination for something else that was completely foreign to her: computers. Even though her small school didn’t have a single computer, Rajani knew that’s what she ultimately wanted to study. She began to chase that dream after enrolling at Wichita State University.
There was just one problem.
“I never touched a computer until college,” Rajani says.
So, as she began working toward her computer science degree, the experience was like trying to learn multiple languages all at once – a mountain of information for someone admittedly still learning English. But she overcame these challenges and earned her bachelor’s degree.
After graduating, she eventually found her way to Flint Hills Resources working as a business systems analyst. It was another step toward achieving her long-term ambitions.
That first year with the company, Rajani was a road warrior. Hired to transform dated systems into an enterprise resource planning system for all the company’s refineries and chemical plants, she was rarely at her physical desk at Flint Hills' Wichita headquarters. In fact, most employees in IT assumed she was a consultant.
“I was gone all the time traveling to our sites and helping with the implementation of one of the largest projects for Flint Hills at the time,” she recalls.
Rajani found herself in good company among her Flint Hills peers who shared her love for the outdoors. Retired Chief Technical Officer Gary Tanner is an experienced hiker and climber, and soon became part of Rajani’s close climbing friends. He helped push her to tackle some of the world’s greatest peaks, including her biggest challenge to date: Mount Kilimanjaro.
Mount Kilamanjaro is one of the world’s "Seven Summits," a group of the highest peaks on each continent. Towering 19,341 feet over the plains of Tanzania, about 30,000 hopeful climbers attempt to summit the mountain every year. A little more than half make it to the top. While Rajani did struggle to acclimatize over the course of her seven-day ascent, she and her group, which included Gary, Flint Hills Leak Detection and Repair Leader Mike Clauswitz, her friend Bettina and her sister Arti, all made it to the summit.
Rajani says mountain climbing has taught her a lot about leadership and how to navigate new territory when so much is on the line. She’s learned about managing team dynamics, the importance of a shared vision and how to learn from failure. These experiences have helped shape her leadership style at work and how she approaches relationships with her teammates. At Flint Hills and all Koch companies, one of the supervisor's primary responsibilities is to help their teammates identify their passions, how those can create value and help employees self-actualize and live a life of meaning.
“You learn about different people’s styles and how they act and behave in different situations,” she says. “With teamwork, we have a vision and team goal, and that vision definitely ties into the overall Vision for Flint Hills and Koch. It’s the same thing with climbing. We’re all a team. Everybody’s working together, everybody knows our goal and how we get the team to achieve that goal.”
Almost as soon as Mount Kilimanjaro had been crossed off her list, Rajani began planning for a longer and arguably more ambitious trip: making the trek to Mount Everest Base Camp.
From her lessons on Mount Rainier came a better understanding of what she needed to do to prepare for the nearly two-week roundtrip journey from Lukla, Nepal, to Mount Everest Base Camp. While the longer trip would allow more time to get used to the altitude, she knew the 17,598-foot elevation would require serious commitment to conditioning and training. Fortunately, she had the perfect training facility in the stairwell of Koch Industries’ main office tower.
On Sunday mornings, Rajani and a small group of friends started coming into the office to make the climb from the basement to the top of the eighth floor and all the way down again. On a good day, they would do that as many as 18 times.
“As long as we were active and we were doing cardio, doing the stairs, we felt good,” she says.
By the time her trip to Nepal arrived, she was more than prepared to make the climb to Mount Everest Base Camp and was able to soak in the full experience.
"Meeting new people, hearing stories from those that are hiking to the top, not being able to breathe at times, being cold, smelling yak dung burn for warmth,” she says, “all fills me with a wave of emotions – from respect to appreciation – for the guides and Sherpas that made our dreams come true.”
While Mount Kilimanjaro was her biggest challenge, she considers Mount Everest Base Camp her greatest experience. Spending time in Kathmandu engaging with the other climbers making the push up the world’s highest mountain at 29,032 feet was profound.
"I felt and still feel so lucky to have experienced the trek!" she says. "The trip was priceless. There is so much peace and magic in those mountains.”
Back in Flint Hills’ main Wichita office, at her normal elevation of 1,302 feet, Rajani talks about the differences and similarities between working with a team mountainside and supervising a team of six as the company continues to modernize software and move to a cloud platform.
“I’m managing talent, I’m doing a lot of tactical things, but also strategic things with road mapping and vision in our business area,” she says. “We don’t want to be lagging in technology, especially when technology is changing so fast. We want to look for new, innovative ideas, and we want to partner with our business to transform their work processes.”
That mountain mentality has also influenced the way Rajani approaches new challenges and projects, as well as goal setting for her team in the office.
“You have to start with smaller, achievable goals,” Rajani says. “Each team is coming up with smaller achievable goals that contributes to the larger Flint Hills goals and vision that rolls up to Koch’s Vision.”
For the woman who’s accomplished so much already, one question she’s often asked is “What’s next?”
Rajani is back to training with friends, including Brian Donnelly, chief information officer for INVISTA, for a variety of climbs on the Koch stairs, and has set her sights on the Grand Canyon in April 2022.
"I’m always in training,” she says.