How I left Wall Street and launched a start-up

Wall Street Bull

Former trader Sam Polk talks about how he successfully broke up with Wall Street and launched a start up - and that epic job interview with Michael Milken.

Sam Polk is a recovering Wall Streeter. He grew up in Los Angeles, always dreaming about being rich. He attended Columbia University but wasn't what you'd call a model student - he got caught up in drinking and drugs, was arrested a few times and at one point, was even suspended from school. But he persevered. He caught a lucky break with a summer internship at Credit Suisse First Boston and that began his love affair with Wall Street - and money. He was at Bank of America for five years and then went to work for a hedge fund. Sam soon learned that despite all the money and power, he still felt empty. He achieved what many traders dream of - he broke up with Wall Street. Now, he lives with his wife and baby girl in Los Angeles and runs a start-up called Groceryships - essentially scholarships for groceries. In this Q&A, Sam talks about life on Wall Street, how he successfully broke his addiction to Wall Street and wealth - and that epic job interview with Michael Milken.

What made you want to work on Wall Street in the first place?

My dad was always talking about making it big, what life would be like when we were rich, so from a young age that was my dream - to be rich - too. When I read Michael Lewis's "Liar's Poker," about the platters of onion cheeseburgers being delivered onto the trading floor at 10am and about traders screaming into their phones and then smashing them on the desk, I thought - this sounds pretty great. And then, when I read at the end of that book that he made $220,000 just two years out of college, I knew that Wall Street was where I wanted to go.

But the moment when I really understood that I wanted to become a trader was when I first walked onto the trading floor at CSFB. I was 19, and I stepped into this enormous room with row after row of trading stations and flat-screen TVs on every wall. The traders were like nothing I'd ever seen. You could tell just by looking at them - the clothes they wore, the slicked back hair, the loafers with no socks - that they were wealthy, in a different way than I'd ever been exposed to before. And all they'd done to get so wealthy, it seemed to me, was play a game, like a videogame. To a 19-year old, that seemed pretty awesome.

How did you get your first break on Wall Street?

My first years of college had been an epic disaster. I'd arrived at Columbia and immediately gone into full-blown party mode - drinking and drugs. So much so that by halfway through my sophomore year I'd been kicked off the wrestling team, arrested twice (once for drinking, once for fistfighting), and then suspended from college for burglarizing the room of another student. My grades were abysmal.

After my suspension, I returned to Columbia determined to pull it together. So I cut way back on partying, started studying hard, and pulled my grades up. But a year later, when I started applying for Wall Street internships, my GPA was still sub 3.0, which meant I had almost no chance.

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But I did have a pretty interesting resume. In the year and a half I'd spent away from Columbia, I'd worked at two Internet companies - at the last one, I'd been the lead business development guy for an up-and-coming, pre-IPO, company with like 200 employees. There weren't that many college kids with stuff like that on their resume.

What I left off of my resume, though, was that I'd been fired from that job for getting in a fistfight on company property, when a guy who I owed money to came to collect at my office.

Only two banks offered me an interview for a summer internship - Goldman and CSFB. In my Goldman interview, they asked me pointed questions about my grades and then ended the interview early. But the CSFB interview went well enough that they invited me back to Super Day, which was this intense day of 5 back-to-back interviews.

It was all going pretty poorly until my fourth interview, which was with a director named Tom Mercein, who is still there today. He took a look at my resume, and said he was really impressed with my work experience, and that I'd been a wrestler. He obviously didn't know that I'd been fired, or kicked off the wrestling team, and I was terrified he'd ask me a question and I'd let something slip. As we ended the interview he said, I like you...I'm going to get you this job. And that's how I made it on to Wall Street.

Were you happy? What made you want to leave Wall Street?

At first, I wasn't so much happy as I was certain that I was in the perfect place in the world. I loved everything about Wall Street, the intellectual challenge of analyzing bonds and companies, the fact that you had to read the news and understand world events, because they impacted your trades. I loved it...I loved trading, traveling for business, talking about the markets. And more than anything, I wanted to be the guys I saw every day that had really made it, the guys that ran trading desks, or ran fixed income departments. Not only did they have these awesome positions of authority, but you could tell just by listening to them talk that they made more money than anyone I'd ever known before.

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In the same month I'd first started on Wall Street, I started talking to a spiritual counselor. I sought her ought because I was trying to get over a breakup, but I'd continued talking to her week in and week out, for years.

Over the years, as I moved up and starting making big money myself, I started to notice that I still felt the same envy of the people ahead of me, and that I felt pretty empty inside. That awareness, I believe, were thanks to my spiritual counselor. She'd helped me realize that my deep desire to be rich was really about my dad. Not only taking on his desires-being rich was all he ever wanted-but also because the truth was my dad only took an interest in me when I was doing something impressive. I'd learned from a young age that in order to have value you had to succeed. But she helped me see how messed up that was. She used to always say, "When you hold a baby, they have value without doing anything, right? We are all valuable, from the moment we are born." Just because my dad didn't believe that, didn't make it not true.

As I started to regain a sense of my own value, I had this shocking realization that Wall Street was only about making money. And the reason I wanted a lot of money was so that I could prove to the world that I was valuable, important. Once I began to understand that I was valuable without money-then I started to see how crazy it was to fritter away this brief gift of life on years and years of 12 hour days, and working on the weekends, just to grow the number in my Fidelity account.

So I started to think about leaving. That was not an easy process - it took years.

A lot of guys say they want to leave but never do. How did you do it? What was the catalyst and how did you pull it off - successfully leaving Wall Street?

Yeah, it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I saw this stream of multimillion-dollar bonuses as far into the future as the eye could see, and I kept thinking, am I crazy for thinking about walking away from what so many people in the world desperately want. But another part of me knew that there had to be something more to life than this endless accumulation of money, and this constant jockeying for position and power.

The catalyst for my leaving was that the voice inside me calling for a more meaningful life finally became louder than the voice that was afraid of leaving, and desperate for more money. I don't mean to suggest it was an easy, clean process - it wasn't. I was upset, angry, resentful. I sort of manufactured a resentment at my bosses, and used that anger to get me over the hump of leaving.

What is the biggest problem with wealth addiction?

We live in the richest country in the world, and millions of kids don't know where their next meal is coming from. And the thing is, it's not just those kids who are suffering.

When I was on Wall Street I felt empty, and I tried to fill that hole inside me with money and power and prestige. But that hole doesn't get filled by money - it gets filled by connection, and empathy, and love.

I think there are a lot of people atop the economic spectrum who are depressed and unhappy, and I think I understand why. Our greatest desire as humans, I believe, is to feel connected, and there is something terribly disconnected about having millions in the bank, a loft apartment in Manhattan, and a house in the Hamptons, and still going to work with the sole purpose of accumulating more. I'm not judging it - that's what I did for almost a decade.

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I'm just saying that I think we all need to realize that there's something spiritually broken in our culture, something that can't be fixed by higher GDP or better regulations or even a higher minimum wage (though I'm for that). We need to look at the root causes of all of this, to ask ourselves what we are doing wrong to create a world where nearly every industry makes decisions that benefit themselves financially at the expense of other people. It's not just Wall Street - it's also Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, and the Ivy League, and everything in our culture that says some people are more valuable than others.

How did your Wall Street friends react when you decide to leave? Do you still stay in touch with any of them?

In the first days after I left I got dozens of phone calls. Most people congratulated me for having the courage to do what they wanted to do. A lot of them asked questions about how I'd done it - the interaction with my bosses - and what I was going to do after. But after about a week, the calls dried up, and I had this horrifying realization that Wall Street was going on without me, as if I'd never existed at all.

Why did you decide to relocate to Los Angeles?

You know how when someone gets sober, they are advised to stay away from "people, places, and things" that remind them of their own life? That's how I felt about New York - being around all that money and ambition was too much for me. Too easy to get jealous, to get swept up in that current of money and power and image that I'd spent years trying to get out of. So I moved to LA, which is in some sense similar, but instead of investment bankers there are writers, and it's also where I'm from.

If you had it to all over again (working on Wall Street), would you?

I've gotten letters from dozens, maybe even hundreds, of college kids. Most of them just want me to help them get on to Wall Street (now I know how Michael Lewis feels!), but some of them are really grappling with this inner conflict, where a part of them wants to do something good for the world, but the other part of them is yearning for the security that comes with money and prestige. I admire those kids, because they are way farther along than I was, then.

I'm grateful to Wall Street. Not only has it brought into my life some of my closest friends, it's also brought into my life a mentor who is like a father to me. In some sense, I discovered who I was on Wall Street. And that, of course, is incredibly lucky - while I was going through this spiritual quest, I was also making money, so now I have a cushion that allows me to write and work for no salary at a nonprofit - and that is a blessing.

Do you have any regrets from your time on Wall Street? What was your biggest mistake?

More than anything, I regret not speaking up about how women are treated and talked about on Wall Street. I can't tell you how many times I stood in a circle of traders, listening to them talk about this or that waitress's a--, or what they wanted to do to some girl on the trading floor, and even though I knew that I should say something, I kept quiet.

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I'd started to see that spiritual counselor when I was 19 because I'd been dumped by this girl, and the truth was she dumped me because I treated her terribly. Over the years I'd come to understand that I had this undercurrent of misogyny inside me, that I'd picked up from my Dad, from all the sports teams I'd played on growing up, from the media, from our culture.

As I started to address that misogyny inside myself, I started to see how prevalent that was on Wall Street ...not just the strip clubs and prostitutes, but just how women are talked about in every day conversation. There is a profound disrespect for women on Wall Street. They are talked about as a collection of body parts, instead of whole human beings. The lecherous looks and comments that young women receive in bars from drunk, lecherous managing directors, most of whom are married, are ugly and scary.

For most of my time on Wall Street I didn't participate in that, but I also didn't do anything to stop it. You can make huge changes just by using your voice - but I was too scared, and desperate to fit in, to do that.

My other regret is that I spent eight years on Wall Street. In an alternate universe, where I didn't have this deep hole inside me, where I wasn't battling the belief systems of my father, where I was in touch with the purpose that I have come to find today, what could I have accomplished? Eight years is a long time - I became an expert in derivatives, I learned about the bankruptcy process and how to trade distressed bonds. That took a ton of energy. What if I'd spent that trying to create or build something that could really have made a difference in the world? I believe we all have these unique gifts inside us, and we are here so that we can pass those on to others. I used my gifts to make a lot of money for my billionaire bosses, and for myself. What if I'd used my time in another way?

Tell us about your business now - how did you come up with the idea?

It's a non-profit called Groceryships, (scholarships for groceries), which is a program to help low-income families struggling with obesity and diabetes by providing nutrition education, financial assistance, cooking classes, and emotional support groups. I came to the idea after watching the documentary, "A Place At The Table," which is about hunger in America - how, in the richest country in the world, millions of kids don't know where their next meal is coming from, and how there is this deep correlation between hunger and obesity (kids don't have dinner one night; the next night, they eat McDonalds). Watching that movie, I realized how much of my life had been spent trying to make it to the top-to be important, to matter-and how the consequence of all that striving is that many people are left behind. I wanted to do something of value for the people who'd been left behind.

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I was profoundly influenced by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who started the gang rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries. In Father Greg's mind (or, rather, his heart), he saw gang members as equally valuable as anyone in society, and so instead of spending his life clawing his way to the top, he'd spent his reaching down below him, gathering people up, and reminding them of their own value. I'd read his book, "Tattoos on the Heart," and I realized that I wanted more to be like him, than I wanted to be like Jamie Dimon.

Also, I've had my own experience with food issues - both my parents were overweight growing up, and I was a super heavy kid who was teased and bullied quite a bit. So I have a place in my heart for kids who are struggling that way, and also a deep understanding of how the consequences of obesity are not just financial and health-related, but also emotional and spiritual.

Was Groceryships the first thing you did after Wall Street or was there some other career move (s) inbetween?

About six months after I left Wall Street and moved to Los Angeles, I got a call from the former head of Citibank's credit trading, who I'd come to know when we worked together on some cool trades involving CDS auctions. He'd moved out to LA to work for Michael Milken, and manage Mr. Milken's vast personal fortune, and he wanted me to come work for them.

Michael Milken was a hero of mine. During the time I read "Liar's Poker" in college, I'd also read "Den of Thieves" and "Predator's Ball" about how Michael Milken had single-handedly created the high-yield bond market. I'd read about him reading 10-K's on dark pre-dawn busses to work using a miner's headlamp. I'd read about how he moved the Drexel trading desk from the East Coast to Beverly HIlls over a single weekend. And I'd especially remembered the story where he sat down with a salesman to give him his annual bonus and said, "Your bonus is $10 million" which was far higher than the guy expected. And then Mr. Milken said, "What else can I do to make you happy?" In a lot of ways, Michael Milken was my hero (I'd sort of ignored all the illegal stuff!). And getting the opportunity to work directly for him felt, to me, like that moment in the Godfather-"Just when I'm out, they pull me back in!"

But I was deeply conflicted. I knew I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life, but at the same time, this was Michael Milken. So I made an internal compromise. A few weeks later, I went in for a big interview with Michael Milken. I was led into this enormous office with floor to ceiling books, and Michael Milken sat down across from me on a couch, and started asking me questions about investing.

After he was done, he asked me if I had questions. And I told him that, if he hired me, I'd want to take half the money I earned and put it into a social business fund that would start businesses and non-profits in lower income L.A. neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles, Inglewood, Compton, Boyle Heights, and I'd want his full support on that. He gave me this weird look, but then said he thought that was a great idea. Then he walked over to his desk, pulled out these three big binders, and brought them over to me. One was about Demographics in Asia, another was about the U.S. health-care system, and the other one was about financial regulations. He said, I want to see how you think, so study these, and I'll call you in three days.

I spent the next three days immersed in those binders, studying them 10 hours a day. Mr. Milken had mentioned that he'd enjoyed the animated movie "Up," so I watched that, too, in case it came up in conversation. Within a very brief time, I'd gone from being done with Wall Street, to being desperate for this job.

On the third day, I woke up at 4:30am (I'd read that Mr. Milken gets up unusually early), brewed a pot of coffee, and waited. The morning passed. Then the afternoon. Then the evening. At 9pm, I finally admitted to myself that he wasn't going to call. I called Michael Meyer, my mentor, who assured me that billioniares are busy, and he'd call tomorrow. But he didn't, or the next day, or the next.

I was devastated. Looking back, I see how easy it is for me to fall into this place of wanting to impress powerful men. When I told my counselor how depressed I was, she was like, what? I thought you were leaving Wall Street! She said that I needed to stop "giving my power away to powerful men" and that instead of trying to "get" from the world, I might see what I could "give."

So I started writing and doing volunteer work, which I did for the next 3 years. That writing turned into the memoir that will be published in 2015 by Scribner. And that volunteer work, which included teaching writing to foster kids, and speaking in jails and juvenile halls about getting sober, became the most fulfilling part of my life, which then led to Groceryships.

I think now that Michael Milken probably wisely saw that my inner conflict was deep enough to not make me a great employee. I will say, though, that I think he owes me three days back, and a phone call.

How is your life is different now vs. when you were on Wall Street?

Logistically, it's very different. I don't wake up with an alarm (except now I have a 3-month-old daughter, so I sort of do). I work from home - I run Groceryships from an office in my house. I no longer get invited to dinner at Nobu or Masa or Per Se, or whatever the L.A. equivalent is. I have to pay for my own Lakers or Dodgers tickets. I don't have that comfort of knowing I'm going to make seven figures come January.

But the real difference is that my life is my own. I don't have a boss. I don't feel like I have to change who I am to fit into a culture that I don't like. I've actually created my own culture. My life is filled with people who care about the same things I do - spiritual growth and helping people - and it's fantastic.

More than anything, the difference is that I feel like for the first time in my life I'm fulfilling my potential as a human being. I'm using all aspects of myself - my brain, my heart, my experience, my spirit - to do work that I think is really valuable and important. I'm finally becoming the man I always had the potential to be.

I don't mean to paint a rosy picture where everything is perfect. Sometimes I'm afraid. Sometimes I'm jealous of other people. I'm coming to understand that this part of me that wants to impress people and be important is always going to be with me, and that my job is to not let it take over my life. Because when it does, I forget about what's truly important - my wife, my daughter, my brothers and sister. My mom. My friends. The Groceryships families. The people in my life who I love and am responsible for. Our culture tells us that what is valuable is money, power, and fame, but the truth is, the only thing that really matters is our relationships, the people in our lives we love and who love us.

But sometimes I miss Nobu...

What's next?

Raising a family, building Groceryships into a movement, a book tour, and a speaking career, I think. More than anything, I want to find the right words, to express what I feel in my heart in a way that touches people. I want to give voice to what I've come to understand, which is that the problems in our world - the inequality, global warming, mass incarceration, rampant poverty - are symptoms of a massive spiritual disconnection on a cultural level, and that's something that can't be fixed with new laws or regulations or tax rates. There is no legislative answer to a spiritual problem. Rather, we need to reconnect with the wholeness, and empathy, and love, and desire to include and embrace, that we were all born with, but that got lost along the way.

Commentary by Sam Polk, a former Wall Street trader and founder of Groceryships. Follow him on Twitter @SamPolk.

 

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