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Call of the Wild Gives a Pep Talk 

Emilie Cortes delivers OSU-Cascades' commencement speech about risk and fear

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Emilie Cortes delivers OSU-Cascades' commencement speech about risk and fear

Emilie Cortes is a bundle of energy. She wasn't meant for a desk job, yet she spent 17 years as a financial analyst before ditching her job in San Francisco to move to Bend and take the helm at Call of the Wild, a company that leads women's expeditions into the, well, wild.

Cortes had never visited Bend before settling here, but to select her new home and lifestyle she crafted an "optimization model," just as she would have for her financial clients, and she crunched data about cost of living, number of nearby mountain peaks, and proximity to an airport.

In December 2012, she moved to Bend, and rates the accuracy of her optimization model for selecting the right place for her at "150 percent," but quickly adds, "I know that's bad math."

On Sunday, June 14, Cortes will deliver the commencement speech for Oregon State University-Cascades, a choice that seems sensible, but came about somewhat haphazardly.

A member of the selection committee for the Chamber of Commerce's first annual Woman of the Year (not to be confused with the Source's 19th annual woman of the year issue), Cortes helped choose Becky Johnson, OSU's vice-president who serves as the leader for the Cascades campus.

Cortes was scheduled to speak at the event, but wasn't able to; she was scouting out trails and huts in Uganda for an upcoming trek. Instead, she delivered a taped speech that apparently so impressed Johnson that a few days later, an invitation to deliver the commencement speech arrived for Cortes.

"It is hard to put a lifetime of advice into 10 minutes," Cortes quips. She doesn't want to spoil too many of her speech's surprises, but sitting at Palate coffeeshop, she reveals the main theme to the Source: "How to think about risk and fear differently, and not holding back."

The theme is not terribly surprising for a woman who largely has blazed her own path through life and done so with a lifetime of game-changing bold choices. Now 40 years old, Cortes grew up in Beeville, Texas, a town of 14,000—"The kind of place," she says, "if I hadn't left by 15, I would have been married or pregnant."

Her mom died when Cortes was 12 years old, and she left Beeville with her younger sister to live with her paternal grandparents. A hard-worker and academically focused, Cortes landed at University of Houston where she worked three jobs and consistently made the Dean's List, eventually transferring to American University in Washington, D.C.

"I had to figure out everything on my own," she explains. Ironically, though, that self-reliance also translated to a certain degree of stability. Cortes explains that she stayed with her job as a financial analyst for 17 years because it provided healthcare, benefits, and security. But she also had an itch to scratch—to travel and to mountaineer.

While a graduate student at University of California-Berkeley, Cortes' younger sister gave her a membership to Sierra Club, which lead her to hiking and mountaineering. She recalls her first hike when she "was just completely dropped by this woman, the trip leader, who was like 80 years old, and I decided that I wanted to be like her."

That philosophy of mentorship, and meeting clients where they are, is a touchstone for Call of the Wild.

"I think that fearlessness is bullshit," Cortes says, "but working through it is inspiring."

Call of the Wild leads 15 to 20 trips each year, ranging from what Cortes calls "dipping-a-toe-in-the-water" to hardcore international expeditions, like next March's trek through Uganda.

"We always educating, turning the lesson of the day into a life lesson." She recounts a few responses and nuggets of found wisdom that clients have shared with her, like "I see horizons differently," or "I learned the importance of step-by-step."

Sounds like good themes for a commencement speech.

OSU-Cascades Commencement Speech

Noon, Sunday, June 16

Les Schwab Ampitheater

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