Aptitude For Altitude: Babson Freshman Begins Ascent

Courtesy Constance Lightner


Constance grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with her two sisters. She loved school and was always eager to answer questions in class. For that, she says, the other kids would tease her, and she had to learn to fight to stop being picked on. When she turned 18, she headed to Norfolk State University to earn a degree in applied mathematics, and then to North Carolina State University to further her studies, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in operations research. This year she was named one N.C. State’s Outstanding Young Alumni by the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department.

Constance was in the final year of her doctorate when she became pregnant with Kai. She doubled her course load to finish before the baby arrived. Looking back, she calls it a “suicide load” — and for Kai, it’s one of countless things that leads him to name his mom as the best example of perseverance and determination he’s ever known.

“My mother had to balance making time for me while fostering my talents, holding her job, and she has a Ph.D.,” Kai says. “She is also a college professor while helping to manage my workload. So I went into college knowing that nothing is impossible.”


Kai Lightner with his mother Constance at the 2014 Youth Championships. Courtesy photo

Climbing walls and doing business aren’t all that different, Kai says. While working hard at school is important to him, he sees climbing as his way of playing hard despite his demanding schedule. Nor is actual climbing the only part of a climber’s demanding schedule. Kai is frequently involved in photoshoots and phone and filmed interviews, all of which his mother plans, manages, and sometimes joins to watch over him. “I want him to enjoy the sport, not have it feel like work,” she says.

Constance says Kai is taking 16 hours of classes this semester because he wants to focus on his schoolwork to build a good academic foundation. Next semester, he’ll probably take 12 hours of school since he’ll be traveling more, she adds.

Tokyo 2020 will be the first Olympic season where climbing is included as a professional competitive sport, and Kai is a top contender for a spot on the United States’ inaugural team. Being a professional athlete even since elementary school means he’s had ample time to learn discipline and endurance.

“I’ve gained many skills,” he says, “like setting a goal and working at it with persistence and perseverance, which are the same qualities one needs when working in a business. In this outdoor sport, I’m unique, I’m a minority, and it’s something I take a lot of pride in. I want to use my story to inspire others, and that’s what business is about.”


In his business of climbing, Kai has worked hard to build up a following. He now has over 50,000 followers on Instagram, where he often shares videos and photos of training and competitions. He looks at social media as a great tool to convey his message: Never be afraid to be different.

As Poets&Quants For Undergrads spoke with Kai, he had just left a Thursday class and was headed to his dorm in Boston. His mother, almost 800 miles away in North Carolina, was driving to the airport to join him: He had a competition coming up, and she wanted to be there. She’d fly back on Sunday to return to work the next day. It’s a typical schedule. Later they would miss a family Thanksgiving to attend a climbing event in Ecuador.

Dedication. Determination. Perseverance. These are key attributes. But hard work is absolutely essential, and Kai knows it.

“Most sponsorships are performance-based, but his is character-based,” Constance says. “We’re thankful that his sponsors love that he’s in school, even though he could just live on his sponsorships. He understands how important academics are, and he’s got to be in control of the narrative instead of letting people decide who he is.”

Whether it’s his athletic or academic career, Kai says he is filled with hope. “I’m rooted in balance, and I carry this passion to Babson,” he says. “Don’t give up in what you believe in. That’s goes for business, too.”

Courtesy Constance Lightner


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