LEWISTON – What did you do on the Fourth of July? Have a picnic? Watch fireworks?
Ed Hutton, a finance professor at Niagara University, scaled one of the highest active volcanoes in the world – Cotopaxi in Ecuador – hoping to continue drawing attention to a special project he is involved with at the school.
And, boy, does he get attention.
“People are impressed when I tell them I climb mountains, and that’s the hook I use to get them interested in microfinancing,” he said with a laugh during a phone call several days later from the capital, Quito.
Hutton, who began tackling mountains three decades ago, helps students in Niagara’s Finance Club learn about microfinance funds in a most personal fashion. He has spent the better part of a month traveling throughout Ecuador and meeting with prospective business partners along the way. He helps raise money for the NU project by finding sponsors for his mountain climbs who might pledge an amount for every foot he climbs, he explained.
“My students … manage investments (in their studies) for big companies, like Apple and Google, but they also learn about microfinance funds, where we make small loans to entrepreneurs in Third World countries, of $500, $1,000 or $1,500 at the most,” he said.
“These people take these loans and start businesses in rural Africa and South America, where there are no banks and they could never get loans and would not be able to start businesses,” he said. “They might start a small grocery store or water-treatment business, for example. We raise the money for the loan fund and try and raise awareness for this cause.”
Hutton explained that he and the students also hold fundraisers throughout the school year.
“My wife, Gayle, and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (in Tanzania) last summer, which is 19,350 feet, and I had sponsors who would give me a donation for each foot I climbed and they did the same thing with Cotopaxi, which is 19,360 feet tall,” he said.
Hutton said his NU group works with Kiva, based in San Francisco, to match up the school with prospective entrepreneurs and help the students set up the microloans. The NU group currently has $5,000 available for lending, which will all be paid back, with interest. “And then,” he said, “that money will be loaned back out to other people to start other businesses.”
Kiva, according to its website, was founded in 2005 as a nonprofit organization with a mission to “connect people through lending to alleviate poverty.” It also says it “provides loans to people without access to traditional banking systems.” To date, it has lent more than $500 million to more than a million people in 77 countries.
“I want my students to understand that they can make investments in big companies, but they can also use the same skill sets to make a lot of positive differences in the world,” Hutton said. “And this is in keeping with Niagara University’s mission.”
Hutton said that this is the third year NU has been involved in this program, and “it has really resonated with the students. They see that this is charitable, but also a profit-making venture, and all of the money we make when the loans are repaid goes right back out to help someone else.”
He noted that one of the challenges in Africa is lack of communication with the rest of the world. “People can’t afford their own cellphones,” he said, “but one person could buy a cellphone and charge others in his village to make calls.”
Another challenge in many countries is contaminated water. “Water disinfection is a huge problem,” he said. “It only takes a couple of hundred dollars to buy the chemicals to purify the water, but people can’t afford it. One person can take out a loan from us, buy the chemicals to purify the water and sell it at a very low rate but still make a profit.”
He was also investigating an opportunity in the Ecuadorian rainforest on his current trip with someone who wanted to start a business as a trained birding guide.
As someone very interested in birds, Hutton was excited to spot hundreds of varieties during his first visit to South America.
It was also a thrill to scale Cotopaxi and peer into the crater from the rim of the volcano, the East Aurora resident said. Cotopaxi, in Ecuador’s Andes Mountains, is one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world.
“I stayed in Quito for the first five days and climbed several other mountains in Ecuador to practice going up to such a high altitude and coming back down,” Hutton said.
“We started the climb to the summit of Cotopaxi at 2 a.m. (July 4) because we had to cross glaciers and there’s a danger of avalanches, so we travel in the coldest part of the day, by headlamp. We’re attached to each other by ropes. The man I was climbing with had climbed Mount Everest last year without extra oxygen. He’s a very well-known guide throughout the world.”
By sunrise, the group had reached Yanasacha, a distinctive black rock wall located at 18,000 feet, and by 11:30 a.m., the climbers had tackled the volcano’s steep ice face to step onto the summit. “It was very cold at the summit – about 10 degrees below zero, with 50-mile-per-hour winds, and we could look 1,000 feet down into the crater,” he said.
“To give you an idea, the Niagara Gorge is about 300 feet. We could peer into the crater and see the steam. … And it’s a highly active volcano – it erupted 20 years ago, and they have had many earthquakes there because it’s so active, and that can lead to avalanches.”
The foursome arrived safely back to camp by 5 p.m.
“I had planned for this climb for about a year,” Hutton said. “You just try to minimize the risks. You need to have all of the right gear and go up very carefully. It’s thrilling to get to the summit – the views are incredible because you’re well above the clouds and you see all of the other volcanoes sticking up through the clouds.”
Hutton was planning to travel to Washington State from Ecuador in the next couple of weeks to climb Mount Rainier for the second time, as training for his next big climb – next May for Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska, the highest peak in North America.
He said he plans to tackle the Himalayas a couple of years from now, presenting a whole new raft of fresh entrepreneurial opportunities for the poor people of Tibet.
“I’m a little older than most climbers, who are in their 20s,” said Hutton, 58. “It’s a thrill for me to still be able to do these things at my age, and I think it helps inspire my students.”
Hutton has been an assistant professor of finance at Niagara since 2009 and director of NU’s Financial Services Laboratory since 2007.
For information on Niagara University business programs, visit www.niagara.edu/business.