Why Quitting My Job on Wall Street to Start an NGO Was a Financially Horrendous Decision
I’m probably the only person you’ve heard of who made more money his first year out of college than in any of the twenty years since. And yet, by some measurements, my life has generally improved over that span of time.
Fresh after graduation from college, I went to work for an investment bank called Salomon Smith Barney, which was in the process of being absorbed by Citibank. I was on pace to earn around $100,000 in just my first year. This was twenty years ago.
Compared to what most of my banking peers would go on to earn later in their careers, this is a paltry sum. For a good number of the people I used to work with, an annual income of less than a million dollars would be considered a disappointment at this stage of their career.
But for a kid who just graduated from college, my first-year salary was pretty good. A few weeks before the job even started, I was informed that my salary had been automatically increased by $10,000. I hadn’t done anything yet and I was getting a raise.
It was the year 2000 — the peak of the first internet bubble. The news around town was that Wall Street recruits were being stolen by “dot.com” companies. The big investment banks responded, across the board, by offering an extra ten grand for new hires like me. That was how good the job market was that year.
I was twenty-two years old, and generally following the path that ambitious young men and women from my university were instructed to follow. To sew my wild oats before putting on a tie and submitting to The Man for the rest of my life, I took a trip to Brazil right before my job started — paid for it with my signing bonus.
That’s where I was when I heard the news about the salary increase. I was on Ipanema Beach drinking a plastic cup of fresh juice, utterly unproven in the real world. I remember thinking something along the lines of, “gee, it sure is easy to make money in this world.” Little did I know that I would never again make that much money in a single year…for the next twenty years.
From Riches to Rags
A graph of my annual earnings, over the course of my career, would totally befuddle any high school guidance counselor analyzing my professional life. “It looks like you got off to a good start, Jerry. And then…did you hit your head?”
No, it’s worse than that. I quit my banking job and co-founded an NGO. Among other things.
I quit the banking job after one year, for the simple reason that I wanted a different kind of life. This was followed by an extended phase of vagabonding through South America with a backpack and a surfboard. Every year I would come back to New York for a few months to work as a server at funky restaurants, make a small amount of money, and then leave again.
After several years of this, rootlessness and irresponsibility became its own kind of problem. The allure of having a Purpose started to take shape. Forests were my happy place, so I wanted this purpose to be about them. And I had come to settle in Ecuador. So I co-founded a nonprofit rainforest conservation organization, based in Ecuador, called Third Millennium Alliance. Our self-appointed task was — and still is — to preserve the most endangered tropical forest in the world: the Chocó rainforest in coastal Ecuador. And to do our best to reforest what’s already been lost.
Building Something Real
The project started in 2007. Almost all the money we raised was spent on building a rainforest preserve. We would have liked to receive some kind of salary for our work. But most donors and grantmaking organizations don’t enjoy paying “overhead costs,” which means the salaries of the people who actually implement the projects. To make matters worse, we were usually too sheepish to ask, and too inexperienced to realize how damaging this was.
As a result, we lived like starving artists trying to save a rainforest. We slept in tents near the top of the mountain. We ate oatmeal soaked in river water for breakfast and heatedly argued with bus drivers — during trips back into civilization, for supplies — when they tried to overcharge us $0.25.
Meanwhile, we created a 1,600-acre rainforest preserve. It is one of the last remnants of a vast tropical forest that once covered the entirety of coastal Ecuador, and that now has been reduced to less than 5% of its original forest. It’s called the Chocó rainforest, which is the lesser-known counterpart to the Amazon rainforest — they’re divided by the Andes mountains. Much of the wilderness we protect would not be standing today if it weren’t for this project.
We also financially drove ourselves into the ground — as individuals, not as an organization. With some exceptions, working in the nonprofit world is just as lucrative as working as an uncompromising artist. As in, it’s not lucrative at all.
It’s an interesting contradiction. My feeling is that a world without forests, just like a world without art, would not be worth living. Or, to give that statement a positive spin: both forests and art serve a vitally important role in the human experience.
In the case of forests, this is an objective fact. The existence of forests, on a large scale, is a necessary condition for the proper functioning of life on earth as we know it. They create the oxygen we breathe and the rainfall that cycles throughout the farming regions of the planet. They absorb the CO2 that our cars and industry emit. They are vast warehouses of Life.
A Funny Way of Measuring Value
I think a lot of people care deeply about the forests of our planet, and they recognize its value. But the system of monetary valuation that has taken root in our culture does not reflect this fact. People in the nonprofit sector — especially those who are tasked with being the stewards of these forests — are among the most overworked and underpaid people in our society.
One reason for this is that the nonprofit model is flawed. The other reason is that the overall system, from which the nonprofit model was born, is also flawed. The value of things — as measured by units of money — is determined by a marketplace that favors production and consumption of goods. Unpossessable resources like clean air and water, and difficult-to-quantify values like well-being and joy, are left out of the macro equation.
Nearly every single country measures national success according to Gross Domestic Product. There is only one country in the world — Bhutan — that measures its success according to a Gross Domestic Happiness index. The same applies to the realm of private enterprise and the marketplace for jobs. People who make the most money are tied to production and consumption.
For example, bankers like me when I was twenty-two years old. The funny thing is that during my one-year career in banking — in which I got paid more than any year since — I didn’t actually create anything. I’m not saying this is the case of all bankers. Some bankers are bonafide creators. I’m just saying this was the case for me.
I sat on a bond-trading desk in which ridiculously large numbers, preceded by dollar signs, were electronically traded back and forth between massive companies. In theory, there was something concrete attached to those numbers. In practice, they were just numbers. I sincerely believe that I, personally, created nothing of value that year.
Working Within a Broken System
The year I created nothing, I got paid well. Later, when I created something of real value for many people, the compensation disappeared.
The 1,600 acres of forest that we protect provides oxygen, freshwater, and rainfall to more people than we can accurately calculate. It absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere by the ton. It serves as habitat to more species, per acre, than any National Park in the United States — and many of these species are threatened with extinction. We’ve planted tens of thousands of trees. We also provide jobs for people in the community next to the forest. Not as many as we’d like, but these are real jobs that support real families.
The problem is that NGOs like ours usually don’t “sell” our services — we just do them. Not surprisingly, this has serious budgetary implications. As a result, the people who run these organizations are paid very poorly, if at all. There is sometimes even an expectation that the managers of NGOs should work for free. Maybe a system like this would work if none of us had personal lives or bills to pay. But we do.
There’s a famous TED talk called “The way we think about charity is dead wrong,” by Dan Pallotta. Pretty much everyone in the nonprofit sector has seen it, along with nearly five million other people. Here’s one of the examples he gave:
The median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38, is $400,000. Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a hunger charity was $84,000. Now, there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity. Some people say, “Well, that’s just because those MBA types are greedy.” Not necessarily. They might be smart. It’s cheaper for that person to donate $100,000 every year to the hunger charity, and save $50,000 on their taxes — so still be roughly $270,000 ahead of the game. And now they’ll be called a philanthropist because they donated $100,000 to charity, probably sit on the board of the hunger charity, indeed probably supervise the poor SOB who decided to become the CEO of the hunger charity, and have a lifetime of this kind of power and influence and popular praise still ahead of them.
It’s something I think about often. If I had stuck with the banking game this whole time, right now I would probably be earning more than Third Millennium Alliance’s entire annual revenue. Some of the people I used to work with are earning exponentially more than that. If that was me, think of all the forest I could have protected and the trees I could have planted. Not personally, but I could have hired people to do that. Should I have done that?
If I were to look at this question solely through the lens of overall social and environmental impact, perhaps the answer would be yes. That was Dan Pallotta’s point and he was right. But it would have been wrong in the context of how I want to live my life. I’m not only referring to the bigger picture, in terms of grand themes and ideals. I’m also simply referring to the day-in/day-out activities of the life I’ve chosen. As in, the stuff I do every day.
Becoming a Capitalist Again
As an industry, banking is indirectly responsible for many of the best and worst aspects of modern-day civilization. It has played a role in the creation of many of the products and services that make human life easier than it was when we were limited to caves and obsidian tools. It has also played a role in the creation of wars, weapons, social and racial inequality, and environmental degradation on a massive scale. I think most people in the banking industry would agree with this.
But that’s not my point. I’m not trying to criticize any particular industry, let alone the people who work within it. We’re all playing different roles in a highly complex system that is obviously laden with flaws and contradictions. Nobody is an unqualified saint nor an unredeemable sinner. We’re all somewhere in between those two extremes. Our lives reflect the strange and incongruous world we live in.
So you try your best. You point yourself in a direction that feels right and start walking. Then you stop for a moment and re-assess, course-correct, and resume walking. Repeatedly over the course of your entire life.
By the time I had firmly dug myself into a personal financial hole, on account of my conservation habit, I turned to capitalism. I did it with equal parts optimism and desperation.
I co-founded a dark chocolate company with an extremely unorthodox business model and a strong conservation component, called To’ak Chocolate. It provides good jobs for a modest number of people, and it also provides pleasure to the many people who eat our chocolate. But it turns out that running a socially-minded small business is still not as lucrative as banking. Financially, it’s pretty similar to working for a nonprofit. Doh!
The business has just turned eight years old, so we’re doing something right. And the nonprofit is fourteen years old. Now I help manage both projects. They’re both based in Ecuador, which is convenient. They’re both growing slowly and, at times, painfully. They’re also pretty fun. And stressful and occasionally very frustrating.
Compared to the people I graduated with, I am “economically disadvantaged” by any quantifiable metric. This year when I applied for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, I was initially told that I may qualify for Medicaid. In the end, it looks like I just missed the income cut-off.
In any event, I have enough food to eat and I sleep with a roof over my head. Sure, the roof sometimes leaks, but that’s mostly because of an architectural flaw. Compared to people who are forced to sleep on the street or go hungry on a daily basis, I am extremely fortunate. Everything is relative.
The Game of Life
I still don’t regret my decision to quit banking. I consider it to be among the two or three best decisions I’ve made in my entire life. I get to spend a good chunk of my time living in a tropical forest preserve. On any given day there, both my mind and my body are put to hard work doing things I generally enjoy. And at the end of these days, I get to bathe in a secluded little waterfall surrounded by lush wilderness as far as the eye can see. The water is so pristine that you can drink it fresh from the stream while simultaneously swimming naked in it. It is quite a privilege.
This is not to say that it’s all roses. Some days, the job involves negotiating, while sweating in the middle of the forest, with illegal loggers armed with rifles. Or formatting PowerPoint presentations, and asking people for money. The same applies when running a chocolate company. On some afternoons my primary responsibility is to combine different editions of chocolate with different drams of whisky and describe their flavor interactions. Other days are spent mired in spreadsheets and Slack messages until midnight.
There is no way to objectively measure the quality of the life that I or anyone else has chosen to live. It’s totally subjective. But one thing I’ve learned is that life is not about income. I often need to remind myself of this fact — I still forget. Sometimes it just takes a little swim to remember.