Trailblazing Boeing leader took ‘little steps’ to become first African American to summit Everest

In 2006, Sophia Danenberg became the first black woman and first African-American of any gender to summit Mount Everest. (Photo courtesy of Sophia Danenberg, taken by her Sherpa, Pa Nuru)

Sophia Danenberg is happy to go it alone, to grab a thread of interest and see where it leads her.

Danenberg’s openness and curiosity (plus hard work and determination) led her in 2006 to become the first black woman from any country and the first African-American of any gender to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

Those qualities sent her on a professional path to become the aerospace industry’s top expert in the use of regulated chemicals and materials in airplane production. As the lead of international environmental policy analysis at Boeing, she’s a liaison between the company and intergovernmental organizations, national governments and trade associations worldwide. Her thoughts and analyses are incorporated into United Nations treaties.

Danenberg didn’t set out with these lofty goals in mind. Her route unfolded slowly.

Sophia Danenberg, international policy leader at Boeing. (Boeing Photo)

She was studying applied math and chemistry at Harvard when she took a year off to visit Thailand. She was struck by the juxtaposition of the country’s beautiful natural environment with changes driven by its burgeoning economy. Returning to Harvard for her junior year, she discovered the university had created an environmental sciences and public policy degree. Inspired by her travels, Danenberg switched majors and became one of the first five students to earn the degree. She graduated magna cum laude.

The adventurous traveler moved on to Tokyo as a Fulbright Fellow at Keio University. In Japan, she began to learn rock climbing. She also wrote a Thailand travel guide.

Her first career job was in green technology in engineering. Danenberg delved into the reduction of hazardous materials while at Pratt & Whitney, a Connecticut-based aerospace engine manufacturer. In that role, she discovered the company was unwittingly using products containing a flame retardant banned by the European Union, triggering the need to find a substitute. Danenberg’s revelation initiated a widespread, industry change in how corporations dealt with bans on dangerous chemicals.

“I was in clean engineering in my first job,” she said. “I ended up in policy because the laws got ahead of us.”

In 2009, Danenberg was recruited by Boeing to bring her unique expertise to its manufacturing operations in Everett, Wash.

Over the years, her passion for rock climbing expanded to include ice climbing and mountaineering. She started aiming for higher heights: Washington’s Mount Baker and Mount Rainier, Mount Kilimanjaro, Alaska’s Denali, Nepal’s Ama Dablam and many others. For some, the accomplishments would appear insurmountable; Danenberg saw a natural progression of many “little steps.”  

Danenberg initially planned to climb Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak located on the border between Tibet and Nepal. But when she called a mountain guide company to set up the trip, they suggested Everest as a good fit for her experience. They’d had a cancellation for an upcoming climb and she took the spot.

It wasn’t until she arrived on the iconic Himalayan mountain that the guide company — who’d only met Danenberg by phone — realized she was a black woman and, at age 34, could possibly set a world record.

“The pattern here is people suggest I do stuff, and I try it,” Danenberg said. “Same thing in my career.”

Sophia Danenberg at Annette Lake near Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass.

The Everest climb took six weeks. Danenberg did it without a traditional guide, meaning that she had assistance from her Sherpa, Pa Nuru, but was on her own for choosing a route, her pace, carrying much of the gear, and deciding when and whether to attempt a summit.

At the final base camp, she joked with Pa Nuru and a second Sherpa about dancing around or jumping between the border of China and Nepal if they made the summit, which straddles the two countries.

“But none of that happened,” Danenberg said.

They reached the peak at 7 a.m. on May 19, 2006. “It was beautiful, windy,” she recalled. There were “light flurries and all the surrounding mountains peeking up from the clouds. It’s odd to really be above everything. However, I was mostly focused on getting down. I probably would have forgotten to take a picture if it hadn’t been for Pa Nuru.”

The three had gotten an early start, arriving ahead of the other mountaineers. They were alone at the top of the world.

“I just decided to do one more little thing,” she said. “And it’s amazing that you end up on Mount Everest.”

Outside of work, Danenberg is on the boards of NatureBridge, which promotes environmental education in national parks, and SheJumps, a nonprofit supporting women and girls in outdoor recreation. She serves on the advocacy arm of the National Institute for Reproductive Health and represents King County on the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, where she is co-chair of the rules committee. Last year, she was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

We caught up with Danenberg for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

(Thanks to Leslie Feinzaig for introducing us to Danenberg through the Female Founders Alliance’s recent Entrepreneurship School for the Quarantined webinar.)

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Dell Latitude E5250 (for work issues), Dell Inspiron 11 3000 series (For personal use, bought as a second “backup” laptop; my primary personal computer died though, so now it’s my main personal computer until I find time to get another. Any suggestions?); Microsoft Surface Pro (government issued for my role on the Parks Commission)

Mobile devices: Samsung Galaxy 7 (work issued) and Google Pixel 3 (personal)

Sophia Danenberg speaking at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Singapore. (Photo courtesy of Sophia Danenberg)

Note: Having all these devices seem excessive. Some people choose to use their work devices for everything or their personal device for state commissioner work. My hobbies span all aspects of government, though. My company is a government contractor, and we do lobbying. One of my big hobbies is Democratic politics, so I need to keep that separate from work and the commission. Parks commission work and communications are subject to public disclosure rules, so it’s easier to hand over a laptop than to comb through my personal laptop to find all relevant materials.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Keep in mind that my job is mostly just reading, writing and meetings. I read technical information provided by material and environmental engineers and turn it into something that we can present to government agencies. So it’s just a lot of Outlook, Word and Adobe Acrobat.

Other than that: Excel. I do EVERYTHING in Excel. Ten to 15 years ago, I started using Visual Basic for Applications (the programming language for Excel) to create tools for risk assessment and environmental life-cycle analysis and became an Excel addict.

I have been using OneNote a lot more recently to reduce note clutter. I like WhatsApp and any tool that allows me to maintain seamless communication internationally since I travel a lot. (Umm…used to travel a lot.) My company blocks most cloud services for security reasons, so I have never used them much.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My current workspace is a bar table and chair in my dining room area. It’s a little small because I usually have all of my devices on it. However, it works nicely as a faux sit/stand desk. It’s too high, though, so I stand on yoga blocks. I also have my laptop perched up on top of a stack of books. The space is pretty cramped right now because I dragged an old used spinning bike into the dining room also.

Sophia Danenberg’s home office reflects her love of global travel. (Photo courtesy of Sophia Danenberg)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Scheduling and planning. This is the same advice I give for mountaineering. Make a rough daily schedule at a reasonable level of detail. I include time to check my email and work on projects. I even put social breaks into mine. (Two or three times a day when I will check Facebook, WhatsApp or my personal email.) It helps me to stay focused and not get distracted by every “ding.”

The point is not to follow the schedule to a T. Especially in the mountains, it never works out that way. Having a plan helps you prioritize and be realistic. Once I block out all my time, I often realize I won’t get everything I want to get done in the day, so I need to shuffle things around. It also tells me where I am so I can readjust if I am falling behind or maybe relax a little if everything is going faster than planned.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I hate to say Facebook, but I use it more than anything else. I probably prefer Instagram, though. I’m too verbose for Twitter. I don’t have to use it for work, thank goodness. I am terrible at social media.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Which one? No idea. For unread: one personal account is 5,370; another is 999+. Those are my two main personal inboxes. Work only has 815! Woo-hoo!

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 39

How do you run meetings? I try to minimize them. Otherwise, I run them as efficiently as possible. My goal is to get to the point and get done quickly. Unless it’s intended to be a one-way presentation of information, I keep meetings as small as possible.

Sophia Danenberg views her progression from rock climbing to ice climbing to mountaineering a natural one. (Photo courtesy of Sophia Danenberg)

Everyday work uniform? Now? Pajamas. If I am feeling fancy, I’ll bust out some athleisure. Normally, slacks and a nice top. I keep suits for business travel since they’re standard in a lot of government offices. I rarely wear makeup other than occasional eyeliner, except when I travel.

How do you make time for family? I live alone, so almost everything needs to be intentional. I hate to be repetitive, but scheduling and planning really help, so I don’t allow work, nonprofit boards or other meetings to eat up all my time.

If someone asks if I’m free for a meeting or a political activity (phone banking or something), I can’t just lie and say “no.” Haha! I usually go into a long speech about how that is the only two hours I have free in six days (if you don’t count time for showering and sleep) and so I need to try to keep it free to see my partner, blah, blah, blah. It’s easier if I have something on my calendar, and I can honestly just say “no.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? It used to be rock climbing. You are forced to unplug and the style of climbing I prefer (multi-pitch, alpine climbing) means that you are mostly alone, quiet and focused, most of the time. Since I can’t climb right now due to a back injury, I have found that doing ordinary domestic things that I usually don’t do are oddly relaxing. That includes more physical tasks like cooking (even though I am a terrible cook!) and cleaning out closets and such. It’s almost meditative.

What are you listening to? ’80s alternative music (new wave, punk rock). It’s my version of classic rock. That or Broadway musicals: “Hamilton,” “Wicked.” I actually pulled out “Phantom of the Opera” the other day.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Washington Post, Atlas Obscura, Morning Brew and sometimes Mental Floss. They have to be short because I spend huge chunks of my day reading monitoring and information services for work, so my brain will check out after a while.

I mostly listen to a series of news and podcasts every morning as I prepare for the day (and as I drove to work — back in my other life six weeks ago when I used to do that!).

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Leapfrog” by (my friend) Nathalie Molina Niño (side table) and “To Live” by Yu Hua (Kindle)

Night owl or early riser? Night owl who aspires to be an early bird. Without external factors, I think I would go to sleep at midnight/1 a.m. and wake at 7/7:30 a.m. It never works out that way, though. My sleep schedule is usually disrupted by travel and meetings at odd hours. I have 6 a.m. meetings this Friday and three days next week.

Where do you get your best ideas? Running or hiking

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Philanthropist and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. Who wouldn’t want to be that successful and (seemingly) that chill.