Why Quitting My Job on Wall Street to Start an NGO Was a Financially Horrendous Decision

Jerry Toth
Jul 7 · 12 min read
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With co-founder Isabel Dávila at the entrance to our rainforest preserve, 2008. Photo by Bryan Criswell
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Walking through the cloud forest of the Jama-Coaque Reserve.
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This is what the skyline of lower Manhattan looked like that year. We studied for the Series 7 test in the World Trade Center. Our office was on Greenwich Ave.

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?”

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The Jama-Coaque Reserve in coastal Ecuador. A global biodiversity hotspot and a vast carbon sink. Created by three dreamers.

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.

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The view inside the Jama-Coaque Reserve. One of the last surviving remnants of the Chocó rainforest.

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.

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This isn’t the exact office, but it was the same exact set-up.

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.

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The beloved Bamboo House of the Jama-Coaque Reserve. Photo by Carl Schweizer

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.

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At To’ak’s headquarters with Carl Schweizer.
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Piedra de Plata, Ecuador during the founding year of To’ak Chocolate

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.

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The stream below the house. Wonderful place for skinny-dipping.

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Jerry Toth

Written by

Cacao farmer, rainforest conservationist, chocolate entrepreneur, and metaphysical explorer based in Ecuador.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +682K people. Follow to join our community.

Jerry Toth

Written by

Cacao farmer, rainforest conservationist, chocolate entrepreneur, and metaphysical explorer based in Ecuador.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +682K people. Follow to join our community.

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